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An introduction to Tea

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by Lianna Trimble (Resident tea expert at Chazzano Coffee Roasters)

Here at Chazzano Coffee Roasters, we make quite a to-do about coffee, and for good reason. The multitude of preparations available, the way each form of extraction changes the depth and consistency of a bean, even the history of the drink itself brings constant opportunity for rich conversation. What some of our customers may not know is we’re equally passionate about the loose-leaf teas we carry as well.

The world of tea is incredibly complex, and carries a great weight of historic importance and cultural impact. Discovered in China over 4,000 years ago, the preparation was known for its medicinal qualities, as well as the calm one could enjoy with each cup. Once travel between countries became easier, tea began to be exported worldwide. Each culture that welcomed tea into their identity created a ceremony to accompany it, an adaptation that reflected the values that each origin held dear. In Japan, tea is ground into a powder and whisked into a gorgeous green foam, with elaborate bamboo instruments. In Morocco, it is traditional for men to prepare a sweet pot of mint and green tea whenever guests are over. The Chinese have a tradition of three steeps for every cup, and designate particular kinds of vessels for different kinds of tea.

Just as there are multiple traditions behind tea, there is also quite an array of tea differentiation. Considering that entire books are dedicated to tea varietals, lets keep it simple with an introduction into what tea is, the different kinds available, and what makes them unique from one another.

True tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant. White, green, oolong, black, and pu’er tea are all derived from this flowering shrub. Preparations that only use herbs like chamomile or mint are technically known as infusions. Infusions are just as delicious and lovely as true tea, but they deserve their own writing space.

The variations found in tea come from the way it is oxidized, or cooked, as well as the region it is grown in, the elevation at which it grows, and the length at which it ferments. Once tea is picked, it immediately begins to wilt and oxidize. As the leaves oxidize, they get darker in color as tannins are released in the breakdown of cellular enzymes. The nature of tea can be changed by the way it is processed. Some are steamed, some pan-fried, others smoked over pine needles. Here are some of the basics that qualify each unique type of tea.

White tea– White tea is the lightest, most delicate level of tea. White tea, so called for its soft feathering of white or silver hairs on each leaf, is allowed to wither a bit in natural sunlight, then lightly dried to prevent further oxidation. Only the youngest camellia sinensis leaves make good white tea, so the harvest season is quite short compared to other teas. The gentle processing allows the leaves to hold on their precious health attributes. Tea leaves are rich in polyphenol antioxidants like catechin and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), both of which have shown marked benefits in cardiovascular function, as well as effective at helping to cleanse the body of free radicals that shoot around the bloodstream like evil little ping pong balls of destruction. White tea is light in flavor and color, with a somewhat floral taste. It requires water temperature around 150-180 F, with a steep time anywhere from 1-4 minutes.

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Green tea– Close in flavor to white tea, green tea is the wunderkind love child of health and beauty. Green tea is packed with EGCGs, and contains an amino acid called L-theanine that allows the body to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition, and boost mood in a symbiotic relationship with caffeine. Green tea can be processed in a variety of ways. For instance, a popular Chinese tea known as Dragon Well is characterized by flat, shiny leaves, which are achieved by pan-frying the tea in large woks. Steaming, roasting, and sun drying are also ways to process green tea. The resulting cup should be light yellow in color, with a vegetal but fresh flavor. A brewing temperature of around 140-160 F is ideal, with a steep between 1-3 minutes.

One should also recognize the distinction between Chinese and Japanese green tea. Tea grown in Japan will have a markedly different character than that of one from China. Japanese green tea, known as sencha, has very fine needle-like leaves and a much greener color. There is also a drink preparation known as matcha. Quality green tea leaves are ground into a very fine powder, then added to hot water and whisked quickly into a thick froth. This beverage is unique in that instead of steeping the leaves and drawing sustenance from the subsequent infusion, the leaves are actually completely ingested, and thus impart every speck of chemical do-goodery possible.

 Masala Chai

Oolong-Oolong is considered to be a connoisseur’s tea in Chinese lore. It spans the bridge between green and black tea, and thus has chameleon-like properties. Oolong is a semi-oxidized tea, meaning it is allowed to break down and ferment for various lengths of time before being processed and dried. The resulting preparation can be light, sweet, with a slight roasted edamame flavor (like Dong Ding), or dark, rich and deeply nutty (like Wuxi Yan Cha). Oolong leaves can be hand rolled into little balls or curls, which unfurl beautifully with each consecutive steep. Since oolong can either be on the greenish end of the spectrum or oxidized more like a black, the steep time can be anywhere from 2-5  minutes, and high quality leaves can be steeped up to 5 or 6 times.

Black– Black tea is the most common tea available in the West, thanks to the Brits and their peculiar penchant for nation conquering. Black tea is a fully oxidized tea, meaning it has been allowed to wither in controlled conditions until the tannins and amino acids have broken down completely, yielding a dark leaf that is then dried using a variety of methods. Lapsang Souchong, for example, is smoked over pine needles to impart an intense charred flavor. Baking is the more common method of processing. Although white, green, and oolong all contain small amounts of caffeine, black tea has about that of a third of a cup of coffee. However, due to that lovely little amino acid L-theanine, the body holds onto that caffeine all through out the day, so one cup of tea can deliver more energy for a longer lasting effect. Black tea should be a rich dusky red, full in flavor, with a soft lingering sweetness on the palate. Boiling water is acceptable to use with this tea, but the steeps should be from 2-4 minutes; too long will risk a bitter cup. A good black tea yields at least three steeps.

 Kung Fu Rooibos

Pu’er– Here is a tea that defies the rules. For most tea, the best cup is the freshest, as after a year or two tea loses its flavor and potency. Not so with pu’er. Pu’er is a tea that has been oxidized, fermented, and aged. First, leaves are picked and withered for a little bit, then pan-fried to halt the break down of the acids. This tea would technically be considered green tea. Then, the leaves are gently rolled and shaped into strands that are allowed to dry in the sun. This allows the small amount of enzymes left in the leaves to be released, which contributes to the unique flavor of pu’er. The resulting tea could then be pressed into cakes and sold as green pu’er, or maocha. Maocha can also be aged, given proper conditions.

The next level of pu’er requires some more work. Maocha is taken and steamed, then allowed to ferment and compost in small batches. Once this secondary chemical reaction takes place, the tea is then pressed into cakes and allowed to air dry for several weeks, then wrapped in cloth, ready for export. There are many steps involved in pu’er making, and the varying levels of quality deserve their own column. Some pu’er is actually pressed into the empty shells of oranges and aged in dark caves, which yields a unique character to the tea. Pu’er is well known for its many medicinal qualities. It’s a phenomenal digestive, due to its unique processing. It’s good for the cardiovascular system, and helps lower cholesterol. Pu’er is a tea that drinks like a good scotch, smooth and peaty with tones of hay and sweet cedar. A rich dark ruby in color, pu’er can be steeped in simmering water (185-205 F), 6-10 times.

Tea at Chazzano Coffee Roasters (Video of Tea at Chazzano Coffee Roasters)

This tea guide is merely the smallest tip of the vast iceberg swell that lies beneath the surface. Quality loose-leaf tea is an experience that can be cherished by anyone. Next time you go out to grab a cup of tea, think about the characteristics of each variety. Something green, grassy and floral for a clear head and fresh start? Or an oolong rich, sweet and malty like toasted rice? Just as every individual that walks the earth is unique, so too is every sip of tea. It’s time to meet your new favorite cup.