Tea 201: What Makes a Tea Unique?
Have you ever wondered how one plant (Camellia sinensis) can be crafted into a near infinite number of varieties of tea? Or have you found yourself curious about tea culture prior to the English teapot and beyond today’s ubiquitous tea bags?
We hope you enjoy this first chapter of our current work-in-progress: an educational series exploring and demystifying Chinese teas, as well as the rich culture behind them. This post will begin with an introduction to the plant, examining its cultivation as well as how terroir influences the final product. Future posts will examine harvesting, processing, and eventually take us on a complete journey through the subtle differences between each type of tea and their known benefits.
The Tea Plant: Camellia sinensis
At the most basic level, tea is a product made from a combination of the buds, leaves and stems of the plant Camellia sinensis. Many varieties of this plant exist, but only two are used for tea production: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which originated in China and is generally used to produce Chinese teas, and comparatively larger-leaved Camellia sinensis var. Assamica, which was first identified in the Assam region of northern India by the British and later propagated throughout India and to other old colonial states such as Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Currently, functioning tea plantations have been documented in over 62 countries. Aside from the aforementioned China and India, more well known countries on the list include Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia; but there are also more obscure sources such as Argentina, Turkey, Iran and Nepal.
The assamica variety also grows in China, where it is known as the “大葉”(literally: “big-leaved”) cultivar and is used for Pu-er production. Likewise the sinensis variety grows in India and is used for the production of Darjeeling.
You might be wondering, just how are two varieties of a single plant transformed into thousands of tea products? Well…
Farming Methods & Cultivars
Before the age of globalization and industrialized production, it was common to rely on wild tea plants and natural methods of plant reproduction, but as demand for both quantity and consistency has increased, producers have come to employ a mixture of seed-based and cutting-based reproduction methods.
Cutting takes advantage of vegetative reproduction, which refers to the ability some plants have to reproduce assexually from parts of themselves. This method is used to plant crops of one particularly successful variety of plant. The downside of this method is that it bypasses the process of natural selection and prohibits genetic diversity. For this reason seed reproduction remains agriculturally desirable.
Human cultivation of the tea plant has since resulted in the development of thousands of unique cultivars (short for ‘cultivated variety’), in fact 2,700 have been catalogued in China alone.
Interestingly, while certain cultivars share their names with types of tea, cultivars and tea types are only incidentally related. Currently many different cultivars may be used to produce the same type of tea, and vice-versa, it is possible for a single cultivar to be processed into multiple types, green and oolong for example. (Guide to green and oolong teas [coming soon!])
Tea culture is constantly evolving, as are the definitions of tea types. The term Tieguanyin, which you may have seen used to label a tea in our shop or elsewhere, originally referred to a particular cultivar of tea found in the Anxi region of China and the tea it produced. It now has evolved to refer to any tea processed in the same way as the original cultivar. Likewise while the Tieguanyin cultivar was traditionally only produced in Anxi, China, the 1800s saw it transplanted to Taiwan’s Muzha region, which now produces its own version of the tea.
On the other hand, let’s consider the tea known as Japanese Sencha. Sencha is produced from upwards of 30 different cultivars, each of which results in slight variations in aroma and flavor. In this sense, cultivar diversity contributes to the plurality and depth present within each type of tea.
If we were to take the same cultivar and raise two different crops in regions with disparate soil characteristics and climate, like is currently being done with the original Tieguanyin cultivar, each region’s crop would undoubtedly possess a unique flavor sharing little in common with its sibling. And indeed, by comparison, the Chinese Anxi Tieguanyin has a sweeter, lighter flavor more reminiscent of green tea, while the Taiwanese Muzha Tieguanyin brings a nuttier flavor to the palate.
This is because, just like the flowers in your garden, tea plants are subject to influence from their surrounding environment. Climate, soil quality, altitude and other environmental factors–even as inclusive as cohabitating plants, (collectively referred to as ‘terroir’) can greatly affect the way a tea will taste. For this reason we see teas often labelled as high mountain or advertising a particularly well-known growing region. The superior terroir grants value to the tea.
Many teas such as Dragon Well and Pu’er maintain their prestige in part because, by definition, they must come from a specific mountainous region that is particularly well suited for growing tea. The challenging environments of these higher elevations combined with increased rainfall and humidity, as well as gentle sunlight tend to result in leaves that produce sweeter teas.
While authentic Dragon Well tea is defined with varying degrees of strictness, it should at least come from the Zhijiang province in China. The influence of terroir is so great that inauthentic Dragon Wells–those not grown in the defined area–can be differentiated by taste. In the case of Pu’er, in 2008 the Chinese government designated Pu’er Tea as a “product with geographical indications”, thus restricting the tea that could bear the name Pu’er to specific regions within the Yunnan province.
However, this is not to say that only certain well-known or branded regions have the capacity to produce excellent tea. While tea legacies are important, the recent increase in tea production in China, Taiwan and around the world, has introduced outstanding new teas from lesser-known regions to the market.
Ultimately, cultivar and terroir have the potential to greatly contribute to variations in aroma and flavor that make each tea unique. In our next blog, we will cover harvesting and processing, and investigate the archetypes of tea: green, oolong, black or in the case of Pu’er, post-fermented.
by Julian Furtak