There is a tome for sale that covers so many tea terms, but it’s rather expensive. So, I, your lovable, humble, and a bit sassy teapot, want to give you some terms here for FREE to get you started out right with tea or even to expand your tea knowledge (for you humans who’ve been drinking tea for some time). TOOOT!
Sections in This Guide
|Words for Tea||Oxidation
Words for Tea
Tea is known by many words and loved in many ways. I went scouring around the Internet and found various lists, forums, discussion boards, etc., with words from all corners of the globe. A bunch of them are presented here.
The four root words:
- te – from the Amoy tê of Fujian Province and Taiwan. It reached the West from the port of Xiamen (Amoy), once a major point of contact with Western European traders such as the Dutch, who spread it to Western Europe.
- ta – a modification of te.
- cha – from the Cantonese chàh of Guangzhou (Canton) and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau, also major points of contact, especially with the Portuguese, who spread it to India in the 16th century. The Korean and Japanese words cha come not from Cantonese but from the Mandarin chá.
- chay – Persian and root word for chai, from Mandarin chá, which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix –yi before passing on to Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, etc.
There are a few exceptions such as “herbata” from Poland and “lahpet” from Burma.
Of those four root words, there are variations in spellings and pronunciations. Plus, we are dealing with different styles of characters and alphabets, such as Hebrew and Malayalam. What also popped up online is people saying that in just about any country they could order “tea” and be clearly understood. It seems, therefore, that there is a universal character to the word “tea” that goes beyond the beverage itself, which is said to be the second most consumed beverage on Earth after water.
Let’s not forget that for many, especially in the UK, the word “tea” means more than the beverage. It usually refers to a time when you stop, have some kind of food and drink the beverage called “tea.” That can be a bit confusing for some of us. When we are asked if we want tea, we may be thinking only of the beverage. But quite often various foods are involved. These range from light fare such as cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwiches, fresh fruits, and raw veggies, to full meals that include a meat entrée such as steak and kidney pie (a personal favorite) or Shepherd’s Pie (another delight).
Table of Words for Tea
|Language||Name||Derivative of||Pronounced||Additional Info|
|chay||shy||Classical Arabic, not dialectical.|
|Belarusian||harbatu||From Latin herba thea, meaning “tea herb.” Misconception of tea plant, which is not an herb.|
|Burmese||lahpet||[ləpʰɛʔ]||Does not fall into either of 2 main groups, may have originated independently.|
|Canada (English-speaking)||tea||te||tee||In North America, many misuse chai to refer to a spiced tea such as traditional Indian masala chai.|
|second tone, the “a” in a rising tone||Mandarin|
|te||Archaic, literary expression; čaj used since beginning of 20th century.|
|čaj||chay||cha-i||Most often used now.|
|te||Both spellings are correct, latter is more usual, ‘h’ is silent.|
|Dutch||thee||te||Comes from Min Chinese dialect. May have borrowed word through trade with Fujian or Malay in Java. From 1610 on, Dutch had dominant role in early European tea trade, via Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use Dutch word for tea.|
|English||tea||te||tee||From 17th century.
From Dutch word (thee), which comes from Min Chinese dialect. From 1610 on, Dutch played dominant role in early European tea trade, via Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use Dutch word for tea.
Dutch first introduced tea to England in 1644. By 19th century, most British tea was purchased directly from merchants in Canton, whose population uses cha, though British people still used Dutch-derived Min Chinese word for tea.
(both pronounced /ˈtʃɑː/), from 16th century.Using “char” for “tea” arose from Cantonese Chinese pronunciation “cha” with its spelling affected by fact that ar is more common way of representing phoneme /ɑː/ in British English.
|chai||chay||From the 20th century.|
|Finnish||tee||te||Always used for green tea, word is a Swedish loan.|
|chay||Colloquial, especially in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki, cognate to Russian word chai. Always refers to black tea.|
|French||le thé||te||luh tay||From Dutch word (thee), which comes from Min Chinese dialect. Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade with Fujian or Malay in Java. From 1610 on, Dutch played dominant role in early European tea trade, via Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use the Dutch word for tea.|
|German||der Tee||te||From Dutch word (thee), which comes from Min Chinese dialect. Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade with Fujian or Malay in Java. From 1610 on, Dutch played dominant role in early European tea trade, via Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use Dutch word for tea.|
|te||Colloquial tsáï, from Slavic chai. Its formal equivalent, used in earlier centuries, is téïon, from tê.|
|Colloquial tsáï, from Slavic chai. Its formal equivalent, used in earlier centuries, is téïon, from tê.|
|Irish||tae||te||Irish Gaelic word derived from tay.
Cha sometimes used. Char was common slang term for tea throughout British Empire and Commonwealth military forces in 19th and 20th centuries, crossing over into civilian usage.
|cha||o- is prefix for “honorable”, cha means “tea”|
|te||From Latin herba thea.
Both derived from Latin herba thea, meaning “tea herb.” Misconception of tea plant, which is not an herb.
|Luxembourgish||Téi||All nouns are capitalized in Luxembourgish.|
|Moroccan||shay||Generic or black Middle Eastern tea.|
|tay||Refers particularly to Zhejiang or Fujian green tea with fresh mint leaves. Moroccans are said to have acquired taste for green tea to Mulay Hassan, who exchanged European hostages captured by Muslim Barbary pirates for a shipload of Chinese tea.|
|Norwegian||Te||te||Both Bokmål and Nynorsk.|
|chai in most areas||In Central Asia, Mandarin cha developed into Persian chay, spread with Persian trade, cultural influence.|
|Polish||czaj||cha||chai||czaj-nik = tea kettle
(derived directly from chai or from Russian word)
|herbata||From Latin herba thea, meaning “tea herb.” Misconception of tea plant, which is not an herb.|
|Portuguese||chá||cha||shah with a Brazilian accent||First Europeans to import in large amounts, word borrowed from Cantonese in 1550s via trading posts in south China, especially Macau.|
|chay||chay||Russia encountered tea in Central Asia.|
|Scots||tea||te||[tiː] ~ [teː]|
|Spanish||el té||te||tay||From Dutch word (thee), which comes from Min Chinese dialect. Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade with Fujian or Malay in Java. From 1610 on, Dutch played dominant role in early European tea trade, via Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use Dutch word for tea.|
tapioca pearl tea
|te||neer = water
theyilai = tea leaf
ilai = leaf
|te||neeru = water
theyaaku = tea leaf
aaku = leaf
|cha||chah yen = Thai iced tea|
|United States||tea||te||tee||In North America, many misuse chai to refer to spiced teas such as traditional Indian masala chai.|
|cha||cha or ja||Variant pronunciations of 茶; chè used mainly in northern Vietnam for a tea made with freshly picked leaves.|
Black Tea, Red Tea, Dark Tea
All tea, that is, leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant family.
While “brew” is most often used with things like beer, it is often used, especially in certain cultures, to mean making a beverage by boiling, steeping, or mixing various ingredients such as tea leaves. Some sites claim that the water and tea leaves have to be continually boiling (I think this is a bit of an error and that they really mean it has to be brought to a boil over a heat source and then have the heat turned down so everything can simmer). This is also known as “decoction” — placing plant matter in a non-aluminum pot with cool water, bringing the mixture to a boil, simmering the mixture until two-thirds of the water has evaporated, and then straining the mixture before consumption. This is NOT how tea is usually made.
For brewing beer, the grains are boiled and kept in high heat and then left sitting to ferment. Tea is usually not left sitting to ferment with the exception of fermented teas (primarily pu-erhs). Beer and other alcoholic beverages versus tea have their own individual material nature needing a different set of parameters to best bring out their taste and aroma. Tea can even be infused cold in the fridge. This is obviously not an accurate term to use for referring to preparing some tea.
Bubble Tea, Pearl Milk Tea
Chai Tea, Masala Chai
“Chai Tea” is a Western distortion of “Masala Chai” and is the result of people not knowing the correct term. Usually, this is due to tea vendors using the former instead of the latter.
When a term comes into common usage, even if it’s incorrect, it gets accepted and is hard to change. Such is the case with the term “chai tea.” Usually, “chai tea” or even simply “chai” is used by tea vendors to indicate a tea that has various spices added, most often things like cardamom, anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Thus, many tea drinkers have come to think of “chai” as meaning “spices” or “spiced.” However, if you order “chai” or “chai tea” at an Indian restaurant, the server may ask if you want it spiced and with milk and sugar (which is probably what you thought you had ordered in the first place).
It turns out that the correct term for spiced tea is “masala chai.” “Masala” is a spice mix, something we learned at the local Indian market. In fact, there are masalas for different foods, such as chicken, beef, and even vegetables like chickpeas (garbanzos) and murgh (spinach).
Ask for the “tea masala” the next time you want a cup of spiced tea.
See also: There’s No Such Thing as “Chai Tea”
Clonal (from “clone”) refers to the method of controlled breeding of plants to produce the best results, but it is fairly rare in the tea industry due to the expense. Clonal tea bushes are not grown from seeds but from hybrid clones. A lot of times, these clones are developed by research laboratories, much the same way many other plants that have a commercial use are developed. They are bred for specific qualities and are thus some of the most sought after teas, usually selling quickly despite generally higher prices.
Mostly, these clonals are bred to thrive in adverse tea growing locations. For example, Duncans Tea Gardens are in an area of Darjeeling that has dry weather conditions with high temperatures for about seven months of the a year. Land that was once fallow is now about 70% replanted with clonals and has a potential to produce over 4000 Kgs of clonal tea per hectare per year, more than double the national average.
In the Darjeeling and Assam tea growing regions in India, clonal teas often display a good selection of deep golden tips, which are becoming more in demand as tea aficionados come to regard “golden tippy” teas as more desirable than regular Darjeeling and Assam teas. Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has been turning to clonal teas for several decades; in fact, much of their clonal tea bushes are several decades old and the percentage of hectares planted in clonal versus regular tea bushes ranges from 46.6% (corporate production) to 87% (smaller tea producers).
The Arya Estate in Darjeeling and the Mangalam Estate in Assam are both well-known for their clonal teas. The former produces a green tea with a floral/fruity aroma and a classic black tea. The latter has black tea with a fragrance said to be like fresh-baked bread and a malty flavor.
The Nilgiri region of India also has estates, such as Quinshola, that produce clonals. In fact, the Quinshola Estate produces high quality Orthodox teas in demand not only from the locals but also from Russia to make Russian Orthodox tea (you don’t need a samovar to enjoy it).
There are also clonal teas from China, Kenya, and other tea growing regions. The Badgach clonal fields in China are selectively picked and hand-processed into an exquisite clonal tea with unbroken shoots and wiry silver tips; they reportedly produce a fully golden cup that has a sweet taste and lots of flavor. The Millima Estate Tea in Kenya has golden tippy, neatly twisted leaves which are claimed to produce a red-orange liquid that is flowery but robust without a tannin taste.
Different tea clonals have different caffeine levels. Younger, more tender leaves have a higher caffeine content versus older leaves, and the stalks have a lower content. How the leaves are plucked and seasonal fluctuation can also make quite a difference (often a variance of 24-30%) in caffeine levels.
Cultivar Tea Plants, Varietal Tea Plants
The world of tea is full of all kinds of terms, many that are bandied about willy-nilly and not used correctly. An attempt was made by a writer to clarify using “cultivar” versus “varietal” when talking about tea plants. But more information is needed.
What Is a Cultivar
There are many definitions online, and some go into great depth regarding every aspect of this term horticulturally speaking. Here’s a pretty simple and straightforward one:
cul·ti·var (kŭl′tə-vär′, -vâr′) n. A race or variety of a plant that has been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation. (From Thefreedictionary.com)
More facts about cultivars:
- The word “cultivar” [short for “cultivated variety”] was coined in 1923 by Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954). He stated, “I now propose…cultivar, for a botanical variety, or for a race subordinate to species, that has originated under cultivation; it is not necessarily, however, referable to a recognized botanical species. It is essentially the equivalent of the botanical variety except in respect to its origin.”
- Officially, a cultivar must be distinct, having characteristics that easily distinguish it from any other known cultivar, and under repeated propagation these characteristics must be retained.
- The origin of “cultivar” is based on a need to distinguish between wild plants and those with characteristics due to cultivation.
- Example of correct text presentation: Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ (the scientific Latin botanical name is in italics, and the cultivar name is in single quotes).
What Is a Variety
You probably noticed that the word “variety” is part of the term “cultivar.” Here is a good definition:
…a “variety” (sometimes abbreviated “var.”) arises naturally in the plant kingdom, and plants grown from its seeds will typically come out true to type. … When a variety is named, it appears differently than a cultivar name does. Rather than being presented in single quotes, it is italicized and in lower case — just like the species name, which it follows. (From Landscaping on About.com)
For the tea plant, we have Camellia sinensis (the main plant), Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China), Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam, India), Camellia sinensis var. parvifolia (Cambodia), and Camellia sinensis var. japonica (Japan). There may be others.
What Is a Varietal
Time for finding out what a “varietal” is. Here is a typical definition I found online:
adj. adjective – Of, indicating, or characterizing a variety, especially a biological variety. (From dictionary.search.yahoo.com)
Therefore, calling something the assamica varietal is correct usage. It’s simply short for saying Camellia sinensis var. assamica (where “var.” stands for “variety”). And calling something the Tieguanyin varietal is improper, since it is a cultivar.
A more proper term than Flavored Tea for a tea with “stuff” added to the tea leaves.
Consider the sense of smell here (closely aligned with the sense of taste). A good tea master can bring out all kinds of aromas from the leaves during processing. Sugars in the leaves, for example, can be heated enough to caramelize them. You will miss this if caramel is actually added to those leaves. Of course, you can start with a rather conventional black tea that has not been processed by a tea master and is therefore a tea where that the natural flavors have not been brought out, and then add in the caramel flavoring that is missing. Thus, the “enhanced” tea is one having a flavor added to it that should have been there naturally.
In other examples, the “stuff” added is meant to add flavors and aromas to the tea leaves’ flavors and aromas. This is more close to the concept of “enhancing” the tea, it seems. The cinnamon is added to work with the malty character of a tea produced from the Camellia sinensis assamica varietal, grown in a variety of locations in the world.
Some fragrances are so overpowering that you haven’t a chance of smelling the tea leaves. One of the best known is jasmine. I find it so strong that even a tea pouch that is supposed to be airtight will emit that floral fragrance through to my nose. Cinnamon is another that can really overpower, and so does oil of bergamot (used to make Earl Grey teas).
Of course, another option might be to call these “smothered” teas where the flavor of the tea gets drowned out by the cinnamon, oil of bergamot, cloves, nutmeg, dried apple bits, cornflower petals, and whatever else gets tossed into the mix.
The debate over whether black teas and oolongs are oxidized or fermented came up the other day. Time to address the term “fermentation” and see if it can shed some light on that debate or not.
Actually, fermentation is often mis-applied to oolong teas and other non-fermented teas. While there may be a minor amount of fermentation occurring, oxidation seems to be the primary process involved here. These terms are used too interchangeably. But let’s see how others defined these terms.
Part of the confusion is probably due to Westerners calling fully oxidized tea by the term “black tea” instead of what the Asians call it (“red tea”). What we call “fermented teas” are the true black teas.
The best known fermented teas, according to Wikipedia:
- Dark tea (Chinese: 黑茶; pinyin: hēi chá)
- Pu-erh tea (Chinese: 雲南普洱茶; pinyin: yúnnán pǔ’ěr chá)
- Liu’an tea (Chinese: 安徽六安籃茶; pinyin: ānhùi lìu’ān lán chá)
- Liubao tea (Chinese: 廣西六堡茶; pinyin: guǎnxī lìubǎo chá)
- Hunan dark tea (Chinese: 湖南黑茶; pinyin: húnán hēi chá)
- Laobian tea (Chinese: 湖北佬扁茶; pinyin: húběi lǎobiǎn chá)
- Kangzhuan tea (Chinese: 四川康砖茶; pinyin: sìchuān kangzhuan chá)
- Bian tea (Chinese: 四川邊茶; pinyin: sìchuān biān chá)
- Pha tea (Chinese: 发茶; pinyin: fā chá)
So, what is “fermentation”? Some input from a discussion on Facebook:
- “…fermentation had deeper meaning to the process which has not changed with the changed nomenclature…we never heard this percentage system and how was this calibrated… Fermentation also happens naturally as oxidation and tea processing is never oxidation alone…I can bet my life on it…”
- “… ‘oxidation’ is the natural breakdown of the leaf, whereas ‘fermentation’ requires external elements (microbes). However, someone recently pointed out that natural oxidation requires microbes, that a tea leaf would not degrade at all if it were in an entirely sterile environment.”
- “…Taiwan is also processing some tea with minimal oxidation and rolling but calling it “green tea” though technically oolong.” [This comment introduces the further issue of when do you cross that oxidation/fermentation threshold from green tea to oolong.]
Quotes from the internet of what others were saying, sorting the wheat from the chaff (a lot of both) as the saying goes, and ending up with these:
- “Fermentation is the process during which the Polyphenols in the tea leaf are oxidized in [the] presence of the enzymes and subsequently condensed to form Colored compounds contributing to the quality attributes of tea.”
- “…The term fermentation when applied to tea is something of a misnomer, as the term actually refers to how much a tea is allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation by allowing the freshly picked tea leaves to dry.”
- “Tea fermentation is the process in which tea leaves are allowed to dry and thereby undergo enzymatic oxidation.”
- “Fermented tea, often called kombucha tea, is common in countries like China, Russia, Korea and Germany where it is known for medicinal purposes.”
- “Oolong or wulong tea fermentation is a process of oxidation. Oxidation is a more appropriate term, since fermentation suggests a lack of oxygen. Black tea is fully oxidized. Green tea is un-oxidized. Fermenting oolong tea involves exposing tea leaves to oxygen and pan-roasting them.”
- “The green tea fermentation actually begins as soon as the Camellia sinensis leaves are plucked. This is because tea leaves start to brown, wilt and oxidize once they have been picked as its necessary chlorophyll diminishes and the tea leaves release their tannins. … The process of fermenting tea is actually called enzymatic oxidation, as it is an aerobic process, meaning that the leaves require air in order to ‘ferment.’”
- “Often incorrectly referred to as ‘Fermentation.’ Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs in the presence of an oxidizing agent such as the oxygen in our atmosphere. (Fermentation, on the other hand, is an anaerobic metabolic process which results in the production of ethanol. This process DOES NOT occur in the production of tea.)”
- “Black tea fermentation is essentially an oxidation process. After the plucked tea leaves are treated by series of processes called withering (removal of moisture by air flow), pre-conditioning and CTC (essentially maceration and cutting of leaves), the leaves are subjected to the process of fermentation by exposing them to air by laying the cut tea leaves on floor, trough or moving conveyor under controlled temperature, humidity and air-flow conditions.”
- “Fermentation of black tea is the series of chemical changes that happen under the assistance of enzyme during making process, mainly refers to the oxidization of polyphenols. Fermentation is the key process determining black tea’s quality. It promotes the oxidization of polyphenol in the tea leaf with the help of enzyme; meanwhile other chemical substance will change, too, making the green tea leaves into red color. The unique aroma and flavor of black tea will then be formed.”
- “Tea is often described as either fermented, semi-fermented or not-fermented. The term when applied to tea refers to oxidation, not conversion of sugar to alcohol as in wine. Wine and beer are fermented through the addition of bacteria or yeast to grapes or hops. Tea fermentation occurs when the leaves are exposed to air.”
- “Fermentation in teas is somewhat different than the typical fermentation process that is substances such as wine undergo. The tea fermentation process allows the leaves to transform through enzymatic oxidation while drying.”
Based on the above, it seems that “fermentation” is being used as an equivalent to “oxidation,” possibly due to decades or even centuries of processors using the former over the latter. It’s a lot like the word “liquor” which is misnomer since there is no alcohol in tea (and therefore no real tea “drunkenness”).
One site lists 5 factors involved in successful tea leaf “fermentation” (reworded here for brevity and clarity) that sounds more like “oxidation”:
- A good temperature for fermentation is 2 to 6°C above normal room temperature, with 30°C being ideal (meaning that the room temperature should be at about 25°C).
- High humidity (at or above 95%) is better for fermentation, assuring more complete and even darkening of the leaves.
- Ventilate the fermentation room to assure sufficient oxygen for the chemical changes and to remove the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. An exhaust fan on the wall of the fermentation room is one method, or you can open the doors and/or windows (you may not want to leave them open all the time but open and close periodically).
- Lay out the leaves in bamboo trays (8 to 10 centimeters thickness is typical), and set them in the fermentation room. If layered too thickly, the leaves will not get enough fresh air and will warm too quickly; if laid too thin, they will cool too easily.
- Time is critical since fermentation begins from rolling. How long it takes from there depends on the season – 3 to 5 hours in Spring or when the outside temperature is lower and 2 to 3 hours in summer and autumn or when the outside temperature is hotter.
We have to conclude that the term “fermentation,” other than when applied to processing pu-erhs, kombucha (a non-tea), and the few others listed above, is being used where “oxidation” is meant. In fermentation of tea leaves, they are exposed to microflora, humidity, and oxygen in the air which may also produce some reactivated oxidative enzymes in the leaves. This process alters the aroma and flavor of the tea, mellowing it and turning them from being astringent or bitter into ones with pleasant mouthfeels and aftertastes.
Tea with “stuff” added such as fruits, flowers, spices, oils, etc. The term seems to imply that the tea has no flavor on its own, which is far from the truth, at least for the better teas. See Enhanced Tea.
See Enhanced Tea and Blended Tea on this page.
Grand Cru Tea
Every so often the term grand cru (pronounced “grahn croo”) pops up in relation to a particularly fine tea. The term comes from the wine industry and means basically the same thing, whether applied to wine or tea. It is composed of two terms: grand and cru.
Cru comes from croitre (KWA-truh), which means “to grow” (related to plants) and so it means generally “growth.” In addition, it tends to encompass the idea of the soil in which wine grapes (or tea leaves) are grown (the terroir) imparting a particular flavor and character to the crop. This, then, leads to the term referring to specific vineyards or tea gardens where the terroir has been shown to impart those qualities to the grapes or tea leaves.
Grand indicates a high or great level of cru, so the term grand cru has a meaning generally of “great growth.” There is also premier cru which refers to “first growth” and is usually not considered as good. Confused yet? There’s more.
Whenever we see the term used for tea, the vendor seems to be trying to indicate an exceptionally fine quality, especially with regard to oolongs. However, for you, the buyer, this term can mean very little, at least until standards are established for its usage. Just consider it a claim that their tea is better than other versions of the same tea.
Teas so hearty with one predominant flavor characteristic that they can be enjoyed even when gulped.
A smooth, strong, non-bitter yet hearty taste is needed here. Even when you’re gulping, the tea stimulates your tastebuds and will set off alarms on your tongue if bitterness hits them. For those of you who like your black tea with milk, you can go with a more astringent tea and the milk will surround those bitter molecules, keeping them from attacking and causing the dreaded “bitter tea face.” The rest of you who aren’t into milk in your tea, keep the sweetener handy. You may be missing some of the bitterness by gulping, but the aftertaste (like an earthquake aftershock) will hit you.
Generally, such teas are suited to cooler weather, since they are most often served hot. However, people have been known to use these teas to make chilled (iced) teas and gulp them.
Try a few of these:
- Assams, especially the lower grade CTC (cut, tear, crush) kind, with a fresh malty flavor that comes through the milk and goes down smooth yet is quite memorable.
- Breakfast teas, usually based on Assam, often blended with other black teas such as Ceylon, Kenyan, Nilgiri, and Keemun, and having a hearty caffeine content.
- Chais (spiced teas) with plenty of milk and sweetener.
- Gunpowder, a very basic green tea that can give you a good jolt of caffeine (about 20-30mg in an 8-ounce cup, depending on whose site you read) but not as shocking as black tea (about 45mg in an 8-ounce cup according to one source).
- Any of the Longjing green teas, in fact, go with lower grades since you’re going to gulp it between bites of toast and making sure the kids aren’t late for the school bus.
Of course, you don’t have to gulp these teas. Take a mouthful, savor it, and then swallow. Part of gulping is taking a large amount in at once, not just a small sip.
To infuse is generally defined (where tea is concerned) as to soak leaves, bark, roots, etc., in a liquid so as to extract the soluble properties or ingredients. One person commented: “An infusion is a very concentrated brew made with one ounce of the herb and allowed to steep for several hours. To get an idea, 1 oz dry herb in 1-2 cups.” This makes it seem as if this term is more appropriate for herbals instead of teas (as in “herbal infusions”). However, it is often used for tea, too. Another person claims that infusing means “pouring hot water over plant matter (such as dried leaves or berries), waiting for a period of time and then removing the plant matter before consumption.” And yet another definition is: “soak (tea, herbs, etc.) in liquid to extract the flavour or healing properties”.
Tea is not brewed, but infused, according to one Chinese tea site. They point out that to infuse a tea means to let the substances within the tea leaves come out to merge with the liquid (usually water) surrounding the leaves and that “infusion” is more accurate than any Chinese word for the process. It gives a better picture of the relationship between the process and the tea.
Japanese Tea Terms
The texture of a substance as it is perceived in the mouth. This aspect of eating and drinking is usually overlooked by those imbibing. For tea, it can be more important than the overall flavor and aroma of the tea.
It is part of food rheology (the study of the consistency and flow of food under tightly specified conditions). The evaluation starts at the initial perception on the palate, then the first bite or sip, then the mastication of food or swishing of liquid, and finally swallowing and aftertaste. Mouthfeel for liquids is very different than for solids where how they feel during chewing and qualities released are paramount. Liquids don’t have these things, so other factors prevail.
Mouthfeel is often described for teas (most often oolongs and pu-erhs) in various ways, such as these:
- Terms like “round,” “smooth,” “buttery,” “creamy,” “soft,” “silky,” and “full” get bandied about.
- For a Hai Lang Hao “Star of Bu Lang” Raw tea cake — “bitter taste that gradually changes into a thick plump feeling in the mouth and throat. It brings a mouthwatering feeling to the tongue and mouth and strong thick aftertaste.”
- For a Mengku “1974” Premium Raw Pu-eh tea cake — “a mouth-watering thick/full feeling”
An infusion of lemongrass was described as having a buttery quality. The real description is more akin to the liquid feeling a bit thick and also more full, like whole milk but not milky in taste. Compare it to taking a mouthful of water to see the real difference.
See Taste Descriptors further down this page.
A common grading of teas that has several finer gradings (each indicated by an additional letter added to the left of the others).
Here is one description of these gradings:
|P||Pekoe||not a quality designation, just means a whole leaf tea mostly from India and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon)|
|OP||Orange Pekoe||a slightly larger and possibly thinner tea leaf, but the “orange” doesn’t mean the color (legend says it’s the Dutch royal Family Orange Nassau)|
|FOP||Flowery Orange Pekoe||the minimum grade for hand-plucked tea, the “flower” is the unopened bud of a tea leaf|
|GFOP||Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||means that certain leaves in the mix have a golden tip, which indicates higher quality|
|TGFOP||Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||most experts say this should be used when all tips are golden, unfortunately not always the case|
|FTGFOP||Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||designates a super-premium specialty tea|
|SFTGFOP||Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe||another step up the grade scale|
You will also see numbers after some of the above (example: SFTGFOP-1) or even further grading terms (example: SFTGFOP-Extra Fancy or SFTGFOP-Extra Special). There are also broken leaf grades, since this tea is usually a black tea and is often chopped into smaller pieces. Take the above grade designations and add a “B” (example: GFBOP for Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe).
Another definition (paraphrased):
A 7-tier grading system for black tea that relates to the size and physical condition of the leaf rather than a particular kind of tea, flavor, or quality. Often, Orange Pekoe teas are blends, with “orange pekoe” indicating that the tea is the second highest grade in the system. “Pekoe” is from the Chinese word meaning “white” as in the 2-leaves-and-a-bud combo plucked from the branch tip. When applied to Indian and Ceylonian teas, it indicates whole leaves that are uniform in size, even those from lower on the branch of the tea bush (Camellia sinensis). “Orange” could either mean the Dutch House of Orange Nassau or the Chinese practice from ages past of adding orange blossoms to the tea leaves for flavor.
There are other definitions being bandied back and forth, but the main thing is these grades are a general guide. The more letters, the higher grade the tea is supposed to be. Of course, it’s not an exact system. While I have confidence in the honesty of tea growers to take care to label their teas accurately, the process involves some subjectivity on their part. In short, buyer beware. And have a bit of understanding. The people labeling these teas are working with large batches of tea leaves. Your pouch or tin is a small part of that batch and is not necessarily representative of the overall quality, so don’t downgrade the rest if you happen to get a bit that is “off.”
See also: Our Definitive Guide to Assam Teas
Tea terms are a bit of a mystery for many new to tea. This one tends to cause quite a bit of puzzlement: oxidation.
First, let’s clarify that oxidation is not the same as fermentation (which will be covered in a later article), even though they are often used as being the same when writing about tea.
Next, be careful what your source for information on this and other tea terms is. There are lots of “forums” online now where people with no scientific background are posting answers to questions like this one: What exactly does “oxidation” mean in the process of making tea? (The “best answer” to the question that was chosen was by someone who says in her bio “I am a writer, blogger, app reviewer, voracious reader, aspiring photographer, cupcake eater, and movie lover.” Nothing wrong with that, but hardly the same as getting a true scientific answer.)
So, to give you a scientific answer, here is what I found on About.com, a pay-per-click site so the information has to be cross-checked and verified. I condensed several paragraphs into one here to save space:
Definition: Oxidation is the loss of electrons during a reaction by a molecule, atom or ion. Oxidation occurs when the oxidation state of a molecule, atom or ion is increased. An older meaning of oxidation was when oxygen was added to a compound. Example: Iron combines with oxygen to form iron oxide or rust. The iron is said to have oxidized into rust. (Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., Chemistry Guide) Source
How this relates to tea leaves: the leaves take in oxygen, which causes a chemical reaction in them which converts tea catechins into theaflavins and thearubigins. These change the leaf color from green to shades of brown, depending on the amount of oxidation.
Controlling the amount of oxidation is said to be the most important step in processing tea leaves. White and green teas are not allowed to oxidize at all (well, actually, tea leaves begin oxidizing as soon as they are picked, but they are rushed to the processor who halts that oxidation). Yellow teas are oxidized slightly. Oolongs are oxidized to varying percents. Black teas are oxidized fully.
Click on each photo for details:
A questionable tea term. Resulted from people using the term “fermentation” instead of “oxidation” for the stage of tea leaf processing where the leaves are rolled and then allowed to absorb oxygen, turning the leaves dark.
The term “post-fermented” is supposed to indicate a tea that undergoes further processing after the normal steps are done: withering, oxidizing (which some call “fermenting” out of a sense of tradition instead of clarity), fixing, shaping, sorting, drying. Some sites, including Wikipedia, have switched already from using “post-fermented” to using “fermented” and sticking with “oxidized” for the processing step after withering. Oxidation is not fermentation. And these teas are not undergoing additional processing after the true fermentation process. So “post-“ is not needed.
Rinsing vs. Washing
A process where the leaves are exposed to hot water for a short time and get a chance to absorb some water and be ready for a full infusion.
Most tea leaves are withered, removing a lot of their moisture, and later dried in ovens, pan-fried in large woks, etc. Most of their moisture, comprising about 90% of their total mass, is removed. They are ready to get some of that moisture back.
Heat a little more water than you need for infusing. Put the tea leaves into the teapot, gaiwan, etc. Add in enough hot water to get the leaves thoroughly wet (for some of the more delicate teas, you will want to pour the water down a side and not directly on the leaves). Let sit a few seconds (10-30 seconds, depending on the tea). Pour out the water. Now, infuse as usual.
This step is not required but is fairly traditional and has been done for centuries as a way to get better flavor from the leaves. Think of a sponge. When it is totally dry it doesn’t absorb liquid quite as well as when it is slightly damp. You are getting those leaves slightly damp and therefore ready to soak up more moisture which, in turn, releases dry particulates in the leaves into the surrounding water in your teapot, gaiwan, or other infusing vessel.
You may want to try a tea both with and without doing this rinse/wash. Then you can decide which way works best for you.
Teas that have such delicate and often complex taste and aroma that they are enjoyed most fully when sipped and letting them envelope your tastebuds.
Let the tea travel around your tongue for a bit before swallowing. It will stimulate as many of the taste sensors as possible. It will also give time to let the tea’s fragrance rise to your nose, completing the experience before you let the liquid glide down your throat.
Basically, the more delicate and complex the tea, the more you get out of it by sipping.
Pu-erh is definitely a “sipper” tea. Taking in a small amount and then letting it flow over your tongue will reveal the characteristics of its complex flavor. Maybe this should be called “patience tea” instead of “pu-erh.” You can do multiple infusions, too, with each infusion changing in character and taste.
Darjeeling is another great “sipper” tea. It has complexity of flavor combining fruity, floral, and often nutty taste notes in each drop of tea liquid. If you sip small amounts of the tea, hold them in your mouth a few seconds, and then swallow, you will taste first one flavor, then another, then another. Some call this “depth.”
Many Oolongs can be infused multiple times, assuming you are using teas comprised of full leaves or big leaf pieces from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). Each infusion will be subtly different in taste and deserve the sip treatment. Take in a little, let it travel around your tongue, and then swallow.
Try a Longjing tea from the Dragonwell area of China sometime. Be sure to sip. Enjoy each infusion at a leisurely pace, making your tea moment stretch out to a half hour, maybe more.
Even herbals can stand up to the sip treatment. Lemongrass, with its buttery texture, is definitely a good choice. You won’t truly appreciate the feel in your mouth if you gulp this tasty beverage.
To steep is usually defined as to soak or be soaked in a liquid in order to soften or cleanse. That’s it. Pretty simple. This doesn’t seem to relate to tea. The purpose of putting the leaves in hot water isn’t ultimately to soften or cleanse them, but to infuse them, that is, to pull out of them their various essences.
Teas that you consume by gulping, chugging, and swilling. This would include iced tea but also that bottled stuff that people stock up on and consume in massive quantities, especially during hot weather.
These beverages are quite popular because they refresh. They are usually readily available year round and are by some accounts the most popular form of tea drunk in the U.S.
Tea in bottles is often said not to have the antioxidants and other health benefits usually associated with freshly steeped teas:
Research presented at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society revealed that health-savvy consumers of bottled tea may not be getting their antioxidant bang for their buck. The healthy antioxidants–called polyphenols–that are responsible for tea’s ability to protect our cells from free radical damage are barely present in most bottled teas.
While this is not meant as medical advice, it is something to consider if you are the kind of tea drinker who wants certain benefits from swigging tea.
Taste descriptors are just terms commonly used to describe flavors. There are ones that are very specific to tea. The list here is not complete but a good representation.
Basic taste descriptors and their meanings:
These terms cover both aroma and taste. Both are intertwined. Just ask anyone who’s ever had a head cold. In my experience, though, a tea can smell good and taste bad or vice versa. That is, a good aroma does not guarantee a good taste nor does a good taste insure a good aroma.
Click on each photo for details:
There are four taste sensations: bitter, salty, sweet, and sour. Your tongue is ringed by sensors (called “tastebuds”) that detect these. Some sensors detect sweet, others salty, and so on. “Umami” is claimed to be a fifth taste sensations, but the word translates from Japanese simply as “tastes good.”
A feeling some claim to get when drinking large quantities of teas, especially more premium teas. Some say it is a woozy feeling. Others describe it as being dizzy or tired.
There is no alcohol in tea. So there is no true drunkenness here.
A description by one tea vendor:
If you drink too much strong tea, it can have repercussions on your body similar to drinking too much alcohol, for example you may be troubled by tinnitus (a persistent ringing in the ears), or experience dizziness and fatigue. If you overindulge in strong black teas, your stomach will also feel bloated and overfull, even if you haven’t eaten and will cause nausea especially if you drink a lot of strong tea on an empty stomach. Serious cases of drinking too much strong tea at once can even cause dry heaving. … much higher levels of caffeine, active alkaloids and other aromatic substances…can stimulate the central nervous system and stomach, which can cause one to feel inebriated.
Not very precise. How much is too much? What constitutes overindulgence? As for feeling bloated and overfull, just about any liquid will do that, even broth. As for nausea, milk may prevent any upset you would normally experience where others who don’t use milk might get that effect.
But how does the vendor’s explanation compare to the clinical definition of being drunk?
Here are some options:
- From com: “Intoxicated with alcoholic liquor to the point of impairment of physical and mental faculties.”
- From org: “someone has consumed enough alcohol to cause the functions of the body to slow down. This can result in a variety of physical experiences including: Not being able to walk or see straight; Reduced speed of thought; The lowering of inhibitions.”
- From good ole Merriam-Webster: “1 a: having the faculties impaired by alcohol; b: having a level of alcohol in the blood that exceeds a maximum prescribed by law; 2: dominated by an intense feeling; 3:relating to, caused by, or characterized by intoxication”
- This article suggests that drunkenness may be a trick of the mind where just thinking that you’re drinking alcohol makes you experience the effects.
The common factor in all of the above: alcohol. Which tea doesn’t have. Alcohol affects the brain where the tea “drunkenness” seems to be a matter of how other areas are affected.
The whole “tea drunk” things seems a misnomer possibly intended to attract younger and/or more “lively” crowds.
Tea Garden, Plantation, Estate
A quick look around the internet will show you that when it comes to the word used to describe land where tea is grown, there is no consensus. You’ll see tea gardens, tea plantations, tea estates, tea plots, and so on. A very official source for defining them is long-time dictionary compiler/publisher Merriam-Webster.
Official Definition – Garden
- a : a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated; b : a rich well-cultivated region; c : a container (as a window box) planted with usually a variety of small plants. 2. a : a public recreation area or park usually ornamented with plants and trees <a botanical garden>; b : an open-air eating or drinking place; c : a large hall for public entertainment.
Official Definition – Plantation
- a usually large group of plants and especially trees under cultivation. 2. a settlement in a new country or region <Plymouth Plantation>. 3. a : a place that is planted or under cultivation; b : an agricultural estate usually worked by resident labor.
Official Definition – Estate
- state, condition. 2. social standing or rank especially of a high order. 3. a social or political class; specifically : one of the great classes (as the nobility, the clergy, and the commons) formerly vested with distinct political powers. 4. a : the degree, quality, nature, and extent of one’s interest in land or other property; b (1) : possessions, property; especially : a person’s property in land and tenements <a man of small estate> (2) : the assets and liabilities left by a person at death; c : a landed property usually with a large house on it; d British : project. 5. British : station wagon. 6. farm, plantation; also : vineyard
The three terms seem to be pretty synonymous.
Who’s Using What
There is a tea “plantation” in South Carolina and tea “gardens” in Hawaii, for example. In other countries such as India, they use “garden” and “estate” mainly. Nilgiri has many small tea “estates” that are 100 to 200 hectares and often run as family operations or small businesses. Assam has Mornai, Pertabghur, Hattigor, and a host of other tea “estates.” Darjeeling has numerous tea “estates” such as Soom, Mim, Arya, and Goomtee. The term “estate” is used in other tea producing countries such as Kenya and Uganda. Japan tends to use the term “garden” for theirs. The folks promoting tea tourism seem to make no differentiation between the three terms, using them interchangeably and according to what they think will appeal to potential visitors. Any rhyme or reason here seems to be a figment of the imagination.
The term “plantation tea” or Taidi Cha (台地茶) is basic quality, commonly produced tea, with the tea plants arranged in narrow rows and shaped to make them easier to harvest. And “tea garden” is used as often for the name of a restaurant as for an actual tea garden.
Whether you call it a tea garden, a tea plantation, or a tea estate, it’s the tea grown there that counts.
Tea Liquid vs. Tea Liquor
In the world of tea, ‘liquor’ refers to the tea liquid. There is no alcohol, so “tea liquid” is more accurate.
Neither term refers to things like tea infused beer, tea/vodka combination beverages, or wine-like beverages that include tea in their list of ingredients, nor to the stuff that was served in teacups during Prohibition Era “tea parties.” Nor a combination of tea and an alcoholic beverage mixed together as a cocktail.
Characteristics usually attributed to the tea liquid:
- Color – bright, jewel-like is often desired.
- Physical Appearance – shiny, slightly oily, bright; it’s fine to have a little fragments floating around the bottom of the cup.
- Bright – denotes a lively fresh tea with good keeping quality.
- Empty – lacking fullness, no substance.
- Full – a good combination of strength and color.
- Metallic – a sharp coppery taste.
- Thick – good color and strength.
Tea Room vs. Tea House vs. Tea Shop
“Tea Room,” “Tea House,” or “Tea Shop” – they are used interchangeably, and often the name “Tea Room” is attached to establishments that get no closer to tea than that dust-in-a-bag stuff.
A room where tea is served. Sounds pretty obvious. But these days a tea room can be a house where several rooms are set up to serve tea and various foods laid out in delicate fashion. Sometimes, a tea room is a corner of a hotel’s regular restaurant and is only used when they are serving that event called “Afternoon Tea” or the misnomer “High Tea.” Sadly, “tea room” is also often applied to places that are merely cafés.
A house dedicated to serving and enjoying tea. These are more common in some Asian countries, especially Japan where tea is so vital to their lives that it’s part of their emergency supplies (a practice which I personally find quite sensible). The chashitsu is all about tea – no distractions. If you want food, go to a restaurant. But these days “tea house” and “tea room” have become synonymous.
A place where you shop for tea. And teawares. And books about tea. These days, they also serve tea and are often called by what “the young crowd” relates to more: a tea “bar.” (Side note: anything hinting at the consumption of alcohol seems to appeal here, so we get terms like being “tea drunk” and drinking the “tea liquor.”)
See also: The Overuse of “Tea Room”
There appears to be two different kinds. One is from the tea itself and the other is from the milk that many of us add to our black teas to have that British experience.
Scum Caused by the Tea
At one time, the scum on the surface of a cup of tea was said to come from a thin layer of some waxy substance coating the tea leaves that melted off in the hot water. In 1994, though, an important discovery was made by chemists from Imperial College during their careful research into a matter that plagues tea drinkers everywhere. Samplings of the scum from various cups of black tea were put through a detailed chemical analysis, discovering that it was 15% calcium carbonate and the rest was various other chemicals. Thus, hard water that has a lot of calcium in it is a culprit here, but the tea contributes chemicals, too, that add to that scummy build-up. Less than one milligram of scum is formed in a cup of tea and is not thought to be a health risk, just an annoyance.
You can filter out the calcium (bicarbonate ions) or add acids to convert it to CO2 (carbon dioxide). You can also switch to bottled water. Steeping the tea up very strong is another solution since the acidic tea polyphenols will partly neutralize those bicarbonate ions. Or you can add lemon, which has now been officially declared to be a solution by Michael Spiro and Deogratius Jaganyl, two British chemists at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London.
Tea stains inside teacups and teapots are sometimes referred to as tea scum but are not. Black tea is usually the one where the concern over these stains arises, especially on the inside of teapots and teacups where they are difficult to remove using normal dish detergents. It is said to be caused by pigments, formed during the fermentation of the tea leaves, that are left behind when the tea liquid evaporates. A damp rag, vigorous scrubbing, and a little baking soda have proven effective.
Scum Caused by the Milk
Some say the scum is made of fat globules that coagulate on the surface when their surrounding film of proteins is broken due to heat. Thus, skim milk, where all the fat has been removed, will not form this scum.
Others say that the scum is coagulated proteins that form due to heat and then rise to the surface to form that scummy skin. Constant stirring is supposed to help prevent this.
Using a cup warmer is another issue, where the lower the level of liquid in the cup, the higher the likelihood of scum forming on the remaining tea (with milk in it, that is).
The term pops up online regularly, usually when someone has suffered what he/she perceives to be a slight from someone else. It tends to be a sign of hurt feelings.
One “victim” of “tea snobbery” posted in an online forum about their latest tea purchases, getting responses they found sarcastic or worse. Another example was a person offended by comments from people who were trying to point out, albeit not too nicely, which teas steeped best in a particular type of teapot. This seems to be a case of taking people’s rudely worded comments too seriously and not taking into account that it’s online. People hit the send/post button before they think comments through. Plus, they feel a sort of “safe distance” by being online versus saying things to you when you’re both standing face-to-face.
The situations above have more to do with the following:
- Naïvité — Not understanding this: online forums are brutal. (Think hornets’ nest.) People see them as impersonal and usually don’t even think about how others there will react to them. And being about tea doesn’t tend to make them any nicer overall. Unsuspecting users wander into these places not knowing their true nature.
- Communication breakdown — Most people don’t know that what they write online is stripped of their special personality that turns a phrase meant to be helpful (“No, that’s the wrong tea for that style of teapot”) into an assault. One expert said that about 55% of our communication is body language. Verbal cues help, too. That is gone when you are online. You therefore need more words, yet the trend is toward fewer.
It seems to be a bit of all of the following:
- Option 1: A person who got conned into paying hundreds of dollars for a course.
- Option 2: A person who has labeled him/herself a “tea sommelier” thinking it sounded cool. (Yes, there are some of them around, sad to say.)
- Option 3: A career, requiring much study and knowledge of tea, for someone who is seeking something a bit more unusual but not too weird.
- Option 4: A way for someone who has a great interest in tea to add to that knowledge and formalize it with a title (and a certificate).
Taking tea knowledge to the professional level is done around the world. Canada, the U.S., India, China, Japan, and France are but a few countries boasting people who take tea this seriously and follow through to be recognized as true tea experts. Courses are being offered in quite a few places. In fact, universities are getting into the act, recognizing tea as a legitimate area of deep study and offering courses. Not all tea sommelier courses are sufficiently in-depth, so choose carefully.
The Specialty Tea Institute offers a very strict course of instruction on how to be a tea sommelier. The number of graduates is rather low. And no official definition was given, just a general description of the courses. Other courses are offered by the Tea Association of Canada and some universities. One disappointment is their focus on tea with lots of “stuff” added (fruits, flowers, spices, etc.) instead of on tea itself. Appreciating tea and all its natural and varied flavors would seem to be the key here. It is not. One recipient of a Dutch tea sommelier award won by concocting some beverage containing mint, lime sorbet, apple juice, and a bit of Darjeeling tea thrown in (one has to ask “Why bother adding in tea?”). It sort of makes the areas of knowledge studied seem superfluous.
Some Areas of Knowledge
Courses to become tea sommeliers usually address these areas of tea knowledge (not meant to be comprehensive):
- types and classifications of tea and how to differentiate them (a bit iffy since an exact number is a matter of serious debate among tea experts)
- the essential components of teas
- principal tea-growing regions of the world and how teas are grown
- advanced cultivation and processing practices used in the production of tea
- understanding of modern tea garden management practices currently used in various regions of world production
- basic characteristics of different teas
- processing tea using orthodox versus CTC methods
- importance and impact of various processing decisions on the finished product
- blending, flavoring, and scenting (the one I tend to find a bit troubling)
- grading standards and naming teas by country of origin
- steeping methods and proper cupping techniques
- sensory evaluation of teas
- history of tea, including tea evolution and influence on culture and world events
- tea terminology
- the science of taste, including the tea taster’s vocabulary, how we taste, what we rely on and what errors we should be aware of
- planning and development of tea beverage menus for a variety of food service and retail settings, including bed & breakfast operations, tea rooms, hotels, restaurants, and retail tea shops
- generating revenue through effective menus with appropriate food pairings
- traditional and contemporary styles of tea service for a variety of food service settings
- study and selection of tea wares and equipment for tea and other tea-related beverages
- effective communication and culturally appropriate etiquette as they relate to tea and its service
- operating a hygienic, safe, and secure environment in accordance with Provincial and Federal Government regulations
The term has come about based on an issue of translation.
The term “tea soup” shows up a lot on Chinese tea sites where they are native speakers of Chinese who are translating into English. Using “soup” instead of “liquid” was a typical mistranslation.
It seems that other tea sites have picked up this term and are now using it, but inconsistently. They are basically referring to the liquid that is steeped from the tea leaves. Some call it “liquor,” some call it “liquid,” others call it “soup.” And some sites use all three in the same paragraph for the same tea.
The various terms being used interchangeably is not a big issue here. Using “soup” instead of “liquor” or “liquid” will not lead to confusion for potential buyers. They’re all liquids and so no miscommunication is caused.
The only issue is one of connotative meanings. When you hear the word “soup,” do you think of chicken soup, etc., something that is eaten with a spoon, not sipped from a cup? As for “liquor,” it implies alcoholic content, which is not the case with straight teas (as opposed to tea mixed with beer, vodka, wine, etc.).
Basically, tea made from leaves from a wild tea plant/tree.
That seems straightforward, in fact, childishly so. But things are actually a bit more complicated than that.
Some claim that, to be considered wild, a tea plant/tree had to be at least 100 years old and basically uncultivated, that is, unpruned, unirrigated, or otherwise unaided in its growth by the hand of man.
An online search for “wild tea” kept popping up hits to articles about non-teas — tisanes made from things like strawberry leaves, dandelions, etc., the sort of stuff you pluck out of your flowerbeds and nuisance weeds. Also, hits popped up on vodka wild tea. Plus, “wild tea party” kept showing up.
One site defined “wild tea” as a specific type of plant, described as follows:
Wild Tea is a plant 2-5 m tall. Branches are slender, 3-angled when young. Leaf blade is grayish green, 1.2-6 × 0.6-2 cm, leathery, sometimes wrinkled on both surfaces. Leaf tip is pointed, cusped or rounded. … Flowers are about 4 mm in diameter, with 3 petals, yellow or green, sometimes flushed brown, about 1.5 mm long. … Fruit is round or pear-shaped, 4.5-10 mm in diameter, orange to red when ripe, drying pale blackish. Flowering: April-June.
It doesn’t seem that this is what tea vendors mean by labeling their teas as “wild tea” nor what others claim. The vendor’s site said they were talking about tea plants that had grown without a gardener’s tender, loving care — Camellia sinensis that is uncultivated. The plants had been abandoned for a decade or so but were now once again being cultivated properly. Still, they were considered “wild.” Either way, the wild teas do not seem to be especially better than regular teas.
In processing tea leaves, withering reduces the amount of moisture in the leaves and makes them easier to handle and shape during the stages of processing that come next (which varies according to the kind of tea being made).
Withering is the first step in processing tea leaves, followed by rolling, oxidation (for oolongs, blacks, and some pu-erhs), and drying/firing (there is also a special process called yellowing used only for yellow teas, and curing used for teas like pu-erhs, Liu’an, or Liubao). The exact order and method can vary somewhat based again on the tea being produced. Dragonwell undergoes certain steps that result in the flat green dry leaves. Tie Guan Yin oolong undergoes other steps that results in more tightly wound up leaves that are more nugget shaped.
Regardless of the final desired outcome, the withering is usually pretty basic. The goal is getting extra moisture out of the tea leaves, preserving the tea leaves and making them more bendable (pliable) for the rolling as well as preparing them for proper oxidizing.
Several withering methods used by different tea processors:
- “The leaves are spread out in the open air (preferably in the shade) to remove some moisture until they wither and become limp, so that they can be rolled without breaking.”
- “The fresh tea leaves are placed in withering troughs set on wire mesh. Large fans blow air through the leaves to reduce the moisture content. The leaves must be evenly spread so that uniform withering occurs. The leaves must be spread by hand and all lumps or piles removed so that maximum air flow reaches all the leaves and no heat is generated in the tea. … If the leaf is wet, the air is heated slightly for a short time to help remove excess moisture.”
- “The Camellia Sinensis leaves are spread on racks to dry in order to reduce their moisture content.”
- “… the leaves are spread out and are allowed to dry in a warm climate, sometimes with the help of forced hot air.”
- “After being harvested and weighed, the tealeaves are spread out on long metal troughs in a shaded area to wither. … This can take about 14-20 hours depending on humidity and other conditions. The trained senses of the tea producer know precisely when the leaves are ready for rolling.”
- Oolong — “…the leaves loose moisture and the aroma within the leaves becomes enhanced. The duration is influenced by temperature and humidity and the experienced hand of a master is critical.”
- Black — “Fresh leaves wither (wilt) for up to 10 hours to reduce moisture before the rolling process.”
- “Freshly harvested tea leaves are spread out onto tables or trays and left to air dry, or “wither.” This preserves the leaf by removing most of the moisture. As moisture evaporates from the leaf, it becomes soft and limp in preparation for the next step, rolling.”
- “When freshly picked, tea leaves contain about 80% moisture and this must be reduced by 30% to 70% before they proceed to the next stage. The tea leaves are placed on wire mesh troughs or trays. Circulating air (either fan-forced or natural) removes the moisture over a period of up to 17 hours. The method and amount of withering varies by region and type of tea.”
- “…depending on the weather, they could be withered in direct sunlight, under shade, on the hot tarmac of the roadside, or indoors. The farmer will know how withering the tea will compliment the early or late picking and just how this will affect the rest of the processing as well as final outcome of an individual batch of tea.”
Sounds pretty straightforward: just let most of the moisture evaporate out of the tea leaves. The trick, as shown above, is when enough has been evaporated out. As with many things, the simple is really complex. A tea master studies years as an apprentice (before becoming a tea master) to know when that time is right. So a tea from one processor will taste very different from the same type of tea from another processor.
As you get into the complexities of tea, you will find yourself looking not only at where the tea leaves were grown and harvested, but when they were harvested, and who the tea master was in charge of their processing.
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