An expert's guide to the tea plant, types of tea, and how tea is made.
The Tea Plant
The tea plant’s scientific name is Camellia sinensis. All teas originate from one of two important subspecies, either the Assam type (Camelia sinensis assamica) or China type (Camelia sinensis sinensis). Grown in India, Sri Lanka, and in other parts of the world, the Assam type tea produces large, strong tasting leaves. The China tea type, cultivated in China, Taiwan, Japan, and parts of Darjeeling, yields a more delicate tea with smaller leaves.
Climate and geographic location, including altitude and soil, all play a role in determining the quality of tea leaves. The plant flourishes in tropical and subtropical climates with abundant rainfall, rich soil, and prefers altitudes between 2000 and 6500 feet. The finest quality tea plants typically grow at higher elevations where the cool climate slows growth, allowing more concentrated flavors to develop in the tea leaves. However, many good teas also grow at low elevations near sea level. The tea industry uses generations of vegetative propagation and leaf cuttings from the best plants to clone productive bushes that yield superior tasting tea.
Cultivated tea plants or bushes are usually kept to around three to five feet tall. However, if left uncultivated, the tea plant can exceed heights of 30 feet! The 3-5 foot height range allows for convenient plucking of tender tea leaves. Pruning also stimulates the growth of new young leaves, which are considered more desirable when producing great tasting tea. If properly cultivated, tea bushes can have a productive life span exceeding 100 years.
Harvesting Tea Leaves
To ensure the highest quality teas, the newest “two leaves and a bud” of tea plants are plucked by hand. This repeated picking of the young tea leaves and buds promotes new growth throughout the year. Depending upon the origin, bushes are plucked anywhere from three to twelve times a year. Plucking is often referred to as a “flush.“
It takes around two to three thousand tea leaves to produce one pound of finished tea product.
All tea is graded consistently according to leaf size. Most people are familiar with the term “Orange Pekoe” and assume this refers to a kind of tea. But, in fact, this term is used by the tea industry to denote a particular size of black tea leaf. One purpose of grading and sorting is to ensure the uniformity of the leaf size; the other is to prevent smaller particles from detracting flavor away from tea brewed with large leaves.
Drinking whole leaf tea allows one to experience a wider range of complex and nuanced flavor profiles. This does not imply that smaller, broken leaf tea is of poorer quality, just that a tea’s taste and body will vary depending upon leaf size. So, grading is not related to quality – the climate, location and the type of processing all contribute to determining a tea’s quality. However, the shape and size of the leaf does play a role in influencing the essence of a cup. For example, breakfast tea’s like English Breakfast are commonly made with smaller broken leaves to ensure that a pungent and robust bodied cup of morning tea results.
To grade tea, tea growers employ mechanical sorters that use sieves to separate out leaves into whole leaf, broken leaf and fanning grades.
Green and oolong tea leaves are generally not graded like most black teas.
Whole Leaf Whole leaf teas boast a range of complex and subtle flavors. Below are grades for black tea leaves.
|Flowery Orange Pekoe - Refers to high quality whole leaf tea made from the first two leaves and bud of the shoot. India produces large amounts of this grade.
|Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - The golden refers to the colorful tips at the end of the top bud.
|Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - FOP with larger amount of tips
|Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - An even higher quality with more tips than FOP
|Orange Pekoe: Refers to a high quality thin, wiry leaf rolled more tightly than F.O.P. Picked later in the year than F.O.P.
|Souchong - A twisted leaf picked from the bottom of the tea bush. China produces this grade used in their smokey teas.
Broken Leaf teas produce a darker cup and infuse faster than whole leaf teas.
|Pekoe - A wiry, large broken leaf usually without golden tips. Sri Lanka produces large amounts of Pekoe.
|Broken Orange Pekoe - A small, flat broken leaf with medium body.
Other broken leaf grades exist including F.B.O.P (flowery broken orange pekoe), G.B.O.P ( golden broken orange pekoe) and F.G.B.O.P (flowery golden broken orange pekoe).
Fanning & Dust
Leaf particles too small to be classified as broken leaf falls into two categories, fanning and dust. Many grades exist for each.
|Fannings - Crushed leaf particles smaller than B.O.P. Infuses liquor quickly
|Dust - Smallest grade used for mass-marketed tea bags.
Teas By Region
Flavors of the World
China is the oldest exporter of tea and monopolized the international tea market until Western powers started competing for trade in the 16th century. Today, China is one of the top tea producing countries in the world, with eight major tea growing areas: Guangdon, Hunan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui and Yunnan.
Ideal growing conditions exist throughout the tea producing regions including abundant rainfall, humidity and high, misty mountain elevations. Black, green, oolong and white teas are cultivated in China. The diversity of style and flavor profiles represented in the country compare to no other. A variety of China black, green, oolong and white teas appear in our Mighty Leaf tea selections.
Japan, a country with an ancient tea tradition, only produces green tea, much of which is consumed internally. Japanese green tea boasts a distinctive fresh green character and appearance.
Green tea is processed differently than the Chinese green teas -- after plucked, it is steamed to neutralize oxidation versus pan-fired.
As the largest grower and consumer of tea in the world, India boasts three well-known tea growing regions: Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri. Around 99% of Indian tea produced is black. Darjeeling teas grown in the high altitude Himalayan foothills are often referred to as the “champagne of teas” due to their extraordinary flavor and quality. In India, these teas are picked during specific seasons or “flushes”—tea connoisseurs anxiously await the first flush each year in spring followed later by a second flush in summer. Assam, located in northeastern India, cultivates hearty, robust teas that stand up to milk and sugar. In the south, Nilgiri grows tea not widely known in the West. They are often used in blends and iced-tea.
Sri Lanka (Teas sold as “Ceylon”)
Ceylon Teas come from the island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, just south of the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka produced coffee until the 1860s when a coffee fungus hit, effectively destroying the island's coffee industry. To diversify, plantations, owned and managed by the British, started growing tea. Most Ceylon Teas are grown in the mountain regions of the island at elevations between 3,000 and 8,000 feet on the southeastern part of the island - teas grown from the high-test elevations are known as the champagne of Ceylon teas.
The finest Ceylon teas are harvested in the late summer in the eastern parts of the island, and in late spring in the western regions. Renowned as some of the worlds finest black teas, Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka are part of a family of other teas grown in India including Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri.
Afrikaans for "red bush," Rooibos is a naturally caffeine-free plant drunk like tea indigenous to South Africa. It grows in a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms and attempts to grow it outside this area have failed. A popular beverage in South Africa for generations, but has spread around the world since the 1930s.