Drink Magazine

What is Tea? A Quick Overview in Less Than 1,000 Words

By Dchew78 @peonyts

Distilled to its essence, tea as a beverage refers to drinks prepared by infusing processed leaves from the tea plant- known as Camellia Sinensis- in water for a certain period of time.

This means that a lot of the drinks we refer to as tea are technically not tea- such as Chinese herbal teas, Yerba Mate, Rooibos and other herbal infusions which are often referred to by its French name- tisanes.

It is commonly stated that tea is the second most consumed beverage around the world after water, although I’ll be surprised if we have authoritative unequivocal evidence either way.

Tea as a drink originated in China some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago and first spread to nearby countries such as Korea and Japan in the 9th century and the Western world in the 16th century.

You can read more about the story of the discovery of tea here and the history of tea in China in 3 installments here, here and here.

The Global Appeal of Tea

What is Tea? A Quick Overview in less than 1,000 words
Today, tea has is deeply ingrained in every corner of the world although tea means different things to different people.

A simple cup of tea could contain 3 sip-full worth of tea, a covered cup or a glass of tea depending on which part of China you are in. This is to say nothing of the other nations of the world.

Tea to the British and British influenced cultures is a cup and saucer made in a huge china pot and served with scones, muffins and other snacks. In fact, tea refers to the event where the beverage tea is served in addition to the host of pastries.

Tea to some parts of the United States is an iced drink, black tea brewed strong and sweetened to make it palatable.

Tea to the Arabs- who surprisingly are apparently the biggest consumers of tea on a per capita basis- is often commercial grade tea, iced then sweetened and flavored with mint.

The Different Types of Tea

A very common saying often parroted in non-tea producing countries is ‘all teas come from the same plant’ which technically is true because all teas are from the Camellia Sinensis plant- either the CS Sinensis or Assamica breed.

However for all intent and purposes, this statement is as useful as saying all dogs are from the same animal- Canis lupus familiaris. Technically you could sit a Doberman on your lap or train a Chihuahua to guard your house but would you?

There are at least a hundred sub-breeds of tea in China, often referred to as cultivar or cultivated variety.  These plants would differ in numerous manners such as harvest time (early, mid, late), yields, resilience, taste and fragrance.

For example oolongs from Taiwan’s famous Alishan tea producing mountain typically are either made from the Qingxin cultivar or Jingxuan cultivar- the former would be more floral and the latter milky even though they can be grown pretty much side-by-side.

The Different Categories of Tea

What is Tea? A Quick Overview in less than 1,000 words
Tea in its basic form can be categorized into 6 basic categories namely, green, white, yellow, oolong, black and dark (also known as post-fermented or erroneously as Pu-er) tea.

You can read more on this subject here (and its sub-pages).

Then there are ‘modified teas’ which are teas that are- as its name suggests- modified from a basic tea category.

The most well-known- at least among Chinese tea drinkers- is jasmine tea which typically takes green tea leaves and scents them with jasmine flowers. The Camellia Sinensis leaves when processed are powerful absorbers of scents and the jasmine fragrance lingers on the teas brewed from these leaves.

Then there are flavored teas.

Flavored Teas

If we want to get into semantics, these should be known as artificially flavored teas since all teas are flavored by nature.

For example the famous Shifeng Longjing tea (or Dragon Well) is ‘flavored’ with the spring water of Shifeng while the Taihu Bi Luo Chun is flavored with the fruity from fruit trees grown on the shores of Lake Tai.

Now to ‘artificially flavored’ tea they are teas flavored through additives or adding non-tea substances into the mix such as dried mango flakes and the like/

For example one of the most famous teas is Earl Grey which is a type of blended black tea with bergamot oil added to it.

Tea Bags

What is Tea? A Quick Overview in less than 1,000 words
Historically, tea bags were CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) produced black tea (although in recent years oolong and green teas found their ways into the bag) and have gained popularity for their simplicity and ease of brewing.

Purists though abhor tea bags for its lower grade productions and inability to deliver the full spectrum of taste that whole leaves does but it is probably the most commonly known form of drinking tea globally and is the most convenient way of enjoy tea.

Tea Preparations- Vessels

From the tea leaves to the liquid, tea is prepared by adding hot water and infusing for a set amount of time.

Quantity of leaves, water temperature and infusion time differs for different types of tea which you can read about here.

You can use a specialized vessel such as a gaiwan or a pot to make tea. You can also make tea in your drinking vessel but use a tea ball or equivalent to hold the leaves. Or you could pour out and use a brew basket to hold the leaves.

There are pros and cons of each method but it warrants a post of its own.

Brewing Tea- Methods

What is Tea? A Quick Overview in less than 1,000 words
There are many methods but considering the Chinese tea focus of this site, we will highlight gongfu brewing. Gongfu brewing is misunderstood to be ceremonial when it was in its essence just a more concerted deliberate way of making tea.

It extracts the full flavor of the tea and allows the drinkers to enjoy the full nuances of tea there should be nothing ceremonial about that.

Tea is a lot more than all these but we hope your interest is piqued.

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