A Brief Guide to Tea
For lovers of a beverage both millennial and majestic.
“Tea… is a religion of the art of life,” Kakuzō Okakura wrote in The Book of Tea, an essay on the role the beverage plays in the aesthetic and spiritual life of Japan. The fact remains that the simple act of preparing tea has an implicit poetic, one rarely fully perceived, and least of all in the West. (And this is not even to mention tea’s delirious range of varieties). In the same text, Okakura wrote also of one of tea’s and tea culture’s most charming characteristics: simplicity – and all the possible physical and metaphysical lessons implied therein. To this list might be added some other of tea’s great virtues: an elegance and, undoubtedly, a dignity.
Tea speaks in an exotic, distant language, though one which is nevertheless familiar. Tea’s aromas and tastes are part of our lives even when we don’t consume it. And this is in spite of the fact that on occasions we don’t even know their origins, how they’re prepared, or any of the intimate details of their production. In our own era, many of the medicinal properties of tea are known (as are their impressive antioxidant capabilities), but the characteristics of the plant from which they’re extracted, and the procedures for processing tea, and for achieving each of its varieties, are all but unknown.
All types of tea come from a shrub called Camellia sinensis, which originates in southern China and some regions of Southeast Asia. Its leaves are grown to make tea and its characters and effects on the body are each unique and vary according to the type of tea.
Here are a few brief descriptions of the main varieties of the elixir whose character Okakura rather accurately described as a drink which “has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”
Like the cocoa of the pre-colonial Americas, black tea was used as a currency for centuries. To produce it, the leaves of the plant are left to wither, and in the absence of water, they absorb more oxygen from the air. Most black teas are completely oxidized, which explains their dark appearance. Black teas also contain more caffeine than other varieties and can be stored for years with neither a loss in flavor nor in effect. There are many ways to consume black tea and to prepare it, too. Here are some recommendations from the English, the most accomplished of black tea drinkers.
To produce green tea, the leaves of the Camellia sinesis wither only briefly. The oxidation process of this variety is stopped by heating the leaves. Green teas keep subtle flavors and secret tones and provide delight to any tea lover. Green tea should not be left more than a few minutes in hot water, as it will turn bitter. Its positive effects on health are widely known and have been documented in treatises of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
For its healing and antioxidant properties and for majesty, white tea was known in China, as the “tea of the emperors.” Because of its rarity, it was reserved for the wealthy and the upper classes. Subtle, complex and slightly sweet, white tea is produced using only the most tender buds of the tea plant just before they open, and these are then dried in the sun.
A rare and expensive variety of tea whose main characteristic is its sweetness, yellow tea is processed similarly to green tea, except that the leaves of the yellow tea are treated with steam, which causes less oxidation and gives the leaves their characteristic yellow tone.
The name means “black dragon tea,” and it’s one of the best known and most widely consumed of Chinese teas. The leaves wilt and are allowed to dry under a very intense sun. These are then allowed to oxidize before the leaves are twisted or bent for packing. Many varieties of oolong result in a wide range of flavors, from sweet and fruity tea to those more woody and corpulent.
Pu-erh (or Red Tea)
For hundreds of years, Red Tea was consumed exclusively by the Chinese nobility. Fermented in bamboo barrels, the process (as is the case with wine) can take anywhere from 2 to 60 years, and the leaves with which the tea is prepared come from very old trees. Pu-erh tea is transported and marketed in compact balls which fall apart just prior to the tea’s preparation.
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