25 February 2010

The Art of Tea

According to Chinese legend, the emperor of China and inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine was drinking a bowl of boiled water in 2737 BC when a few leaves from a nearby tree were blow into his bowl of water changing the color. He took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by it's flavor. Another Chinese legend is that the God of Agriculture would chew the leaves, stems and roots of plants to discover medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to offset the poison. After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world.

A tea's type is determined by processing. Tea leaves will begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried quickly after picking. This process, known as enzymatic oxidation, is called fermentation in the tea industry although it's not true fermentation. Leaves turn darker as their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. Oxidation is stopped at a predetermined stage by heating which deactivated the enzymes.

Moisture and temperature control during manufacturing and packing is critical so the tea will not grow fungi which causes real fermentation that will contaminate the tea with toxins and sometimes carcinogenic substances that make the tea unfit for consumption.

All teas are made from the same bushes but are processed differently and in the case of white tea grown differently. Tea is classified based on the techniques of production and processing:
*white tea: wilted and unoxidized
*yellow tea: unwilted and unoxidized, but allowed to yellow
*green tea: unwilted and unoxidized
*oolong: wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized
*black tea: wilted, sometimes crushed, and fully oxidized

Tea plants require at least 50" of rain each year and prefer acidic soil at higher elevations. Only the top 1-2" of the mature plant are picked. A tea plant will grow into a tree if left undisturbed. Cultivated plants are pruned to waist high for ease of picking.