Monday, July 23, 2007

Varieties of Tea

There are six main types of tea derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, as well as many sub-varieties within those classifications. They are distinguished by the section of the tea plant which is used, and by the way in which they are processed, which generally refers to the amount of oxidation the leaves undergo.

Oxidation occurs when the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down and releases tannins. This is controlled in tea processing by drying or compressing the tea, and maintaining certain levels of moisture and temperature.

Black tea, often called red tea in Asia, is the most common kind of tea in Western culture. It is made with the top 5-7 inches of the tea plant, and is fully oxidized. In general, black tea should be steeped for 4-6 minutes for the first cup, and always in water that has just been brought to boiling. Black tea naturally contains caffeine, about 60 milligrams for every five liquid ounces of tea. Black tea is the most common base for flavored teas.

Green tea is becoming more popular in the United States for its health benefits. Green tea is made with the top 1-2 inches of the tea plant and undergoes minimal oxidation, which means that it has lower tannin and caffeine levels, as well as a much more subtle and delicate flavor than black tea. Green tea should ideally be steeped for 3-5 minutes in water which has been brought to a rapid boil, but has cooled for about five minutes. Green tea is the most commonly rolled tea, sometimes being shaped into stars or cranes in and origami-like fashion by day laborers. Gunpowder tea is green tea rolled into small pellets which unfurl during steeping. Powdered tea is usually made from green tea, and it ground into so fine a powder that it dissolves completely when brewed. Yellow tea is a high-quality green tea, with a separate name because it was the tea served at the Chinese Imperial Court.

Oolong is not as well-known as either green or black tea, but it's processing places it between the two in terms of oxidation levels and the length of the tea plant harvested. It should be steeped and brewed similarly to black tea, but may provide a more complex flavor and a richer color.

White tea is made with just the bud and the first two leaves of the tea plant. It is often grown in shade to reduce chlorophyll levels, and is not oxidized at all. White tea has the lowest tannin levels and no caffeine, and the most fragile flavor, meaning it should not be mixed with additives like milk or sugar. White tea should be steeped for 2-3 minutes in water which has been brought to a rapid boil, but has cooled for about five minutes. Because white tea is made with more select parts of the tea plant, it can be more expensive than green or black tea, but there are many affordable varieties.

Pu-ehr is tea which has been fermented by being oxidized a second time. It is characterized by a deep earthy flavor which becomes less intense and more complex with age. Pu-ehr is usually aged 5-10 years, and, like wine, can be more expensive as it gets older, or in certain "vintages." Pu-ehr is stored in a large block, with pieces broken off to steep a cup. More recently it has been processed into balls the size of hard candies which are enough to make one cup. While pu-ehr is a more adventurous tea, it is worth try. The single-serving balls cost between 30 and 50 cents each. Pu-ehr is known to aid in digestion.

Kukicha is made from the twigs of the tea plant, which are harvested in winter. They are roasted or smoked and brewed for a very different tea experience. The twigs should be steeped for up to ten or fifteen minutes in near-boiling water.

Tea today is generally regarded as a beverage derived from the infusing of plant material into hot water. People buy and drink tea made from just about any kind of plant material. If this did not cover the tea you generally drink it is likely because you drink herbal tea, the name for any tea which does not contain Camellia sinensis.

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