I am a lover of tea. In the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, tea is me. A cup of the earthy-flavored, hot water colored by brewed leaves is in my hands a significant part of my day. It wakens me in the morning, provides a calming, subtle pick-me-up later on, and brings me back down by dusk’s entrance.
My mom is mostly responsible for my adoration of tea. She has a cup in the morning and evening, this being a ritual of her own for all of my life and prior to my coming into this world. Growing up, she would try to get my brother, sister, and I to have a cup of tea with her. It was not a Victorian past time she was looking for. She simply wanted us to have a cup of tea with her. Repetition, maturing taste buds, and an newly-found adventurous outlook towards food led to my gradual liking of tea, much to my mom’s satisfaction.
In my college years, I discovered there was a vast world of tea outside of the bagged version sold in the red and yellow boxes with the captain on the topside. I learned of blacks and greens with distinct tastes influenced by the lands in which they are grown. I bought loose tea and infusers in search of a truer understanding of why so many people around the world brew and drink tea all day long. It was, in many ways, both a guided study and spiritual embarkment.
While there are many teas, there is one plant. Camellia sinensis sprouts a few leaves at its crown. These leaves go through seperate “manufacturing” processes that transforms the camellia into all black, green, and oolong teas we drink today. The ability of one plant to produce an array of teas is often compared to wine. Almost all wine drank around the world today comes from one species, Vitis vinifera.
Indigenous to modern-day China, Tibet, and northern India, the plant is now culivated in a belt running around the globe between the equator and 42 degrees north latitude. Tea enthusiasts consider teas grown in China, the Formosa region of Taiwan, Japan, India, and the Ceylon region of Sri Lanka to be the best.
Black, green, and oolong teas each go through a preparation process from field to market. Black tea leaves are withered to remove moisture, then rolled (the best by hand), fermented to bring out the flavors, and finally fired to stop the fermentation, giving the leaves their dark color.
Green tea is plucked, panfired or steamed, rolled and fired. Oolong, meaning “black dragon” in Chinese, is picked and withered for four to five hours in direct sunlight before being gathered for firing.
When buying tea, there are varities to choose from. For black teas, the most common are Assam, Ceylon, and Darjeeling, all named for the regions where they are grown in India, Sri Lanka, and India respectively. Assam is found often in Irish and English breakfast blends. The tea is dark in color and heavy in flavor. Ceylon is much lighter in color and milder in flavor than Assam, and Darjeeling is fine tea with a full-bodied flavor, despite its lighter color.
Keemun (China) is another lesser known black tea. A favorite of mine, it has a flowery overtone while remaining deep and full in flavor. Some say Keemun can have hints of smokiness and even chocolate. An interesing note of this tea is that its flavor improves with age, the direct opposite of almost all teas.
Lapsang Souchong (China) goes perfect with a rainy cold day. It is a distinctive smokey-flavored tea, the result of being dried over pine fires. Lapsang is oftened used in Russian Caravan, a black tea blend rich with its own historical context.
Earl Grey is another black blend. Usually China black or Darjeeling tea is flavored with oil of bergmot, a small citrus fruit grown in the Mediterrenean. This is an English creation.
There are other black teas and black tea blends out there. I have included only these because I am familiar with them.
(written 21 March 2004)