The Subtleties of Tea

Today, I’m going to give a little tea primer.  If you know this stuff already than you know way more than most of the earth’s population, including me until very recently.  It’s amazing how you can drink something your whole life and really know almost next to nothing about it.  This reminds me of a little story about a student my mom had.  She asked him, “Where does milk come from?”  Rather puzzled by what seemed like such an easy question he said, “the store”.  “Yes, but where does the store get it from?” she replied.  He wasn’t expecting such a deep line of questioning and he wrinkled his forehead trying to think of where the store would get it from, “another store?”

I’m sure you all know tea grows, and some of you know it grows on a bush, but what about all the different kinds of tea: black, green and white.  Well as it turns out, they all come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensisThe different colors coming from how the tea is fermented and otherwise prepared.  As for herbal tea, it isn’t really tea at all, but rather a tisane. This goes for red tea too, which is really just a pretty word to substitute for the rather scary sounding rooibos.  Despite the inaccuracy, I’ll be calling all of these things tea from here on out.

There’s a lifetime’s worth of things one could learn about tea , but I’m going to stick to what really impacts the home tea maker.  Most people don’t realize that tea is serious business and the growing of it is much like the growing of grapes for wine.  The country, local location,  growing methods, amount of sun, all these things and countless others affect the quality of the final tea. Even the quality of tea from a given plant varies. I’d like to focus on this last point, since it affects the home tea maker so much and really gives him his reason for existing. 

Although there is a dizzying array of names and labels (much like with wine) there are four basic quality levels you get with a given tea.  From best to worst you have: whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust.  Why does this matter, because most of the tea people buy comes in tea bags, which conveniently hide their contents.  Yup, most people are drinking fannings and dust without even realizing it.  Tragic, but easily fixed.  As a home tea maker you have the pleasure of looking at the tea you buy.  You can try deciphering the cryptic labels if you like, but just looking to see that your buying whole leaves or big leaf piece can make all the difference.   

That’s enough for today, tomorrow we’ll get into more detail on the different types of teas that are going to be the foundation for our own blends.  Till then, stay away from tea bags.

Looks like it needs a trim.

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