The world in six cups
Tea picking in West Bengal state, India. (AP Photo)
If you don’t count the necessity of drinking water, tea is the most consumed drink in the world.
Tea is made by brewing the leaves, buds and/or flowers of the Camellia sinensis plant, commonly called the tea plant. It plays a central role in both religious rituals and secular ceremonies. It has proven health benefits. It can promote either community and camaraderie or solitude and introspection. It can be calming or invigorating. Tea is arguably the most versatile beverage on Earth.
A cup of history
Historians trace the first use of tea to around 600 BC. According to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, tea was likely first consumed in the eastern Himalayas by Buddhist monks in India and Taoist monks in China to help facilitate meditation.
Europe did not encounter tea until 1610, Standage explains, when Portuguese traders in Macao sent a Dutch ship home with a batch and it eventually made its way to England in the 1650s. As the British Empire expanded, colonizing many parts of the world, so did its stronghold on the tea industry. The British East India Company counted on China as its sole supplier of tea until 1834, when it realized that tea grew naturally in a region in one of its own colonies: Assam, India. To this day, Assam is the biggest tea producing region in the world, and India is the biggest tea producing country in the world.
Tea preparation today
Masala chai (spiced tea), black tea prepared with milk, sugar, and spices like cardamom, cinnamon sticks, ginger and cloves, is now the hallmark of Indian tea culture. In the northwestern region of Kashmir, locals drink kahwa (green chai), which can be prepared almonds and sugar, as well as local spices such as saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
In China, green tea is the most ubiquitous class of tea, while white, yellow, pu-erh and oolong teas are cherished delicacies. Tea ceremonies, tea appreciation and tasting services led by skilful tea masters, may feature any of the above. In Japan, the tea ceremony is often held in temples, led by Buddhist priests trained in the art of chado, “the way of tea”, and involves the use of matcha, a powdered green tea. In the predominantly Buddhist country of Tibet, tea is traditionally prepared in monasteries with the addition of butter made from yak’s milk.
In Russia, tea is prepared in tea rooms using a samovar, an urn of hot water. A teapot filled with dark, concentrated black tea is diluted with water from the samovar and served. England is world-famous for its afternoon tea, in which the beverage is served with finger sandwiches, scones and petit fours.
While in cold climates, tea is used to warm up, hot tea can also be used to cool down, such as Moroccan mint tea, a brew of green tea leaves mixed with mint leaves.
Types of tea
The very best teas come from small tea farms where teas are carefully crafted using traditional techniques.
There are more than 3,000 varieties of green tea, according to The Story of Tea, written by experts Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss. Green tea is not oxidized, which allows it to retain more chlorophyll and remain green in colour. Tea leaves are plucked, sorted, cleaned, dried, fired or heated, rolled, and then dried again before being sorted and packaged. Chinese green teas are sun-dried, charcoal-fired, pan-fired, oven-dried or tumbled, while Japanese teas are steamed. This is often called de-enzyming, and it prevents oxidation.
What it tastes like: From mellow and floral Dragonwell to strong and smoky Gunpowder to vegetal and astringent Sencha, there is a green tea for nearly every taste.
What to pair it with: The book Culinary Tea, by Cynthia Gold and Lise Stern, recommends pairing astringent varieties of green tea with buttery cheeses like Brie or Camembert. Milder green teas pair nicely with seafood, cooked vegetable and rice dishes.
To try: Matcha Superior is a soothing, subtle green tea, the kind used in Japanese tea ceremonies. It is shipped directly from the Hibiki-an tea farm in Kyoto’s Uji region, often called the tea capital of Japan.
Yellow tea is produced in exactly the same way as green tea except after the first drying, yellow tea leaves are gently steamed and then covered with a cloth. This re-infuses the leaves with their own aromatics, according to The Story of Tea. During this process, the leaves begin to slightly oxidize, removing some of their green colouring.
What it tastes like: The extra step produces a lighter, sweeter, more floral taste than green tea.
What to pair it with: Yellow tea goes well with mild foods like toast, butter or shortbread cookies and sweet sticky rice.
To try: Meng Ding Huang Ya, from the company Seven Cups, is a rare yellow tea from China’s Sichuan Province with a mellow, slightly sweet flavour.
Traditional white teas consist solely of buds, while “new-style” white teas also contain leaves. The young buds, historically from China’s Fujian Province, are covered with a thin white fuzz that gives this tea its name. It is initially dried in the shade to keep out the green colour imparted by the sun, The Story of Tea explains.
What it tastes like: Light-coloured when brewed (at a recommended 190°F) and meant to be steeped lightly. It is an extremely delicate tea, subtle in flavour, while new-style varieties have a stronger, less nuanced taste.
What to pair it with: Gold and Stern recommend drinking white tea on its own, since its flavours may be overpowered by food. Yet, some tea masters take the opposite approach, pairing white teas with deep-fried foods.
To try: Yinzhen Silver Needle from The Phoenix Collection, a collection of rare and artisan varieties sold by world-renowned tea authority David Lee Hoffman, is a very rare, sweet, nutty tea with a bit of creaminess, made in the original fashion in the Fujian Province.
Black tea is the most popular tea outside Asia, according to the Heisses’ book. It is completely oxidized, falling at the opposite end of the spectrum from green tea. The tea leaves are withered physically and chemically, rolled, oxidized in a special chamber filled with humidified air, dried, and then cooled before being sorted and packaged. Most of the world’s black tea comes from India, with different varieties named for their regions, like popular options Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri. Another common black tea is Ceylon, the former name of Sri Lanka.
What it tastes like: A stronger, more robust tea, but with a wide spectrum from fruity to earthy to bold to dainty to biting to energizing to soothing. Darjeeling varieties are wonderfully flavourful, some with deeper fruit notes, some more herbaceous. Assam teas tend to be good morning varieties, strong and full-bodied -- coffee lovers tend to like these.
What to pair it with: Darjeelings go well with fresh fruits, soft cheeses and custards, according to Gold and Stern, while Assams complement mushrooms, sharp cheeses, dark chocolates, chillies and spicy dishes.
To try: Assam Mangalam Estate, from the purveyor In Pursuit of Tea, is a robust, malty black tea.
Oolong tea is considered the most difficult type to process. Although production varies from region to region, this semi-oxidized tea is generally withered twice, rattled or shaken by hand (which induces oxidation), bruised or tumbled (which halts oxidation), specially rolled and then fired. During the rolling stage, oolong leaves are artfully crafted into balls or semi-balls, a technique requiring a great deal of talent.
What it tastes like: Oolongs have complex flavour profiles, many with hints of honey, fruits, flowers or herbs, and most have lovely, strong aromas.
What to pair it with: Gold and Stern suggest smoky and spicy foods.
To try: Ben Shan Oolong from The Phoenix Collection is a high-grade oolong, roasted with floral notes.
Pu-erh, which can be made from either unoxidized or oxidized tea leaves, undergoes microbial fermentation and is usually aged. Unoxidized leaves, called “raw” pu-erh, are sun-dried, fired, fermented, pressed into cakes and then aged in caves or underground rooms. During the aging process, which can up to 30 years, post-fermentation, the second round of microbial activity, takes place. Oxidized varieties, called “cooked” pu-erh, undergo a sped-up aging process by which the finished tea leaves are wetted, covered and then heated. This quickens the bacterial activity of the post-fermentation.
What it tastes like: Some taste more like green teas, some taste more like black teas. They can be very strong or very mellow, but most have rich, nuanced flavours. Many tea drinkers say that pu-erhs taste like the earth they come from, exhibiting their terroir more distinctly than other teas.
What to pair it with: Pu-erh teas are often paired with the greasy foods served for dim sum since they aid digestion. In addition, say Gold and Stern, wild mushrooms taste great with the tea’s highly nuanced flavour.
To try: Jia Cang Black Pu-erh from Seven Cups is an inexpensive, accessible pu-erh for tea newbies -- this “cooked” variety is rich and deep in flavour.
Hot brewed drinks made from plants other than Camellia sinensis are also colloquially called tea. These non-tea “teas” encompass herbal teas, consumed all over the world for their medicinal properties and their delicious taste. Examples include Echinacea tea, an herbal beverage consumed both in the east and the west to boost the immune system; rooibos tea, a drink made from a legume called “red bush” and valued in South Africa for its antioxidants; and yerba mate, a caffeinated rainforest plant brewed in a small gourd and sipped from a filter straw in South American countries like Argentina.
Blended and scented teas are also popular worldwide, such as Earl Grey, a black tea scented with oil of bergamot, a citrus fruit. (The Earl Grey from the fair trade brand Equal Exchange is a fragrant, refreshing, fortifying option for a lovely morning tea.)