Tea refers to the agricultural product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of Camellia sinensis, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from such cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water and the colloquial name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself.
Tea is the most widely-consumed beverage after water. It has a cooling, slightly bitter, astringent flavor.
The four types of tea most commonly found on the market are Black Tea, Oolong Tea, Green Tea and White Tea, all of which can be made from the same bushes, processed differently, and in the case of fine white tea, grown differently. Pu-Erh Tea, a double-fermented tea, is also often classified as among the most popular types of tea.
The term “herbal tea” usually refers to an infusion or tisane of fruit or herbs that contains no Camellia sinensis. The term “red tea” either refers to an infusion made from the South African Rooibos plant, also containing no Camellia sinensis, or, in Chinese and other East Asian languages, is a term for black tea.
In many cultures, tea is often had at high class social events, such as afternoon tea and the tea party. It may be consumed early in the day to heighten alertness; it contains theophylline and bound caffeine (sometimes called “theine“), although there are also decaffeinated teas. In many cultures such as Arab culture tea is a focal point for social gatherings. Moreover, the history of tea in Iran – in the Persian culture- is another to explore. One source cites: “the first thing you will be offered when a guest at an Iranian household is tea”.
There are tea ceremonies which have arisen in different cultures, Japan‘s complex, formal and serene one being one of the most well known. Other examples are the Chinese tea ceremony which uses some traditional ways of brewing tea. One form of Chinese tea ceremony is the Gongfu tea ceremony, which typically uses small Yixing clay teapots and oolong tea.
The American poet Wallace Stevens, a tea-fancier, is credited by Eleanor Cook with a “delicately implicit trope of drinking tea as a metaphor for reading (ingesting a drink from leaves).” See for instance his “Tea”.
- For a more detailed treatment of tea preparation and serving habits, particularly in non-Western countries, see Tea culture.
The traditional method of making a cup of tea is to place loose tea leaves, either directly, or in a tea infuser, into a tea pot or teacup and pour hot water over the leaves. After a couple of minutes the leaves are usually removed again, either by removing the infuser, or by straining the tea while serving.
Most green teas should be allowed to steep for about three minutes, although some types of tea require as much as ten. The strength of the tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea to be used per amount of water differs from tea to tea but one basic recipe may be one slightly heaped teaspoon of tea (about 5 ml) for each teacup of water (200 ml) (8 oz) prepared as above. Stronger teas, such as Assam, to be drunk with milk are often prepared with more leaves, and more delicate high grown teas such as a Darjeeling are prepared with a little less (as the stronger mid-flavors can overwhelm the champagne notes).
The best temperature for brewing tea depends on its type. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, such as a green or white tea, are best brewed at lower temperatures between 60 °C and 85 °C (140-185 °F), while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temperatures around 100 °C (212 °F). The higher temperatures are required to extract the large, complex, flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea, although boiling the water reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.
Some tea sorts are often brewed several times using the same tea leaves. Historically, in China, tea is divided into a number of infusions. The first infusion is immediately poured out to wash the tea, and then the second and further infusions are drunk. The third through fifth are nearly always considered the best infusions of tea, although different teas open up differently and may require more infusions of hot water to bring them to life.
One way to taste a tea, throughout its entire process, is to add hot water to a cup containing the leaves and after about 30 seconds to taste the tea. As the tea leaves unfold (known as “The Agony of the Leaves”) they give up various parts of themselves to the water and thus the taste evolves. Continuing this from the very first flavours to the time beyond which the tea is quite stewed will allow an appreciation of the tea throughout its entire length.
The water for black teas should be added at boiling point (100 °C or 212 °F). Many of the active substances in black tea do not develop at temperatures lower than 90 °C. For some more delicate teas lower temperatures are recommended. The temperature will have as large an effect on the final flavor as the type of tea used. The most common fault when making black tea is to use water at too low a temperature. Since boiling point drops with increasing altitude, this makes it difficult to brew black tea properly in mountainous areas. It is also recommended that the teapot be warmed before preparing tea, easily done by adding a small amount of boiling water to the pot, swirling briefly, before discarding. Black teas are usually brewed for about 4 minutes and should not be allowed to steep for less than 30 seconds or more than about five minutes (a process known as brewing or mashing in the UK, specifically in Yorkshire). Longer steeping times make the tea bitter (at this point it is referred to as being stewed in the UK). When the tea has brewed long enough to suit the tastes of the drinker, it should be strained while serving. The popular varieties of black tea include the Assam tea, the Darjeeling Tea and the black Ceylon tea.
Water for green tea, according to most accounts, should be around 80 °C to 85 °C (176 °F to 185 °F); the higher the quality of the leaves, the lower the temperature. Hotter water will burn green-tea leaves, producing a bitter taste. Preferably, the container in which the tea is steeped, the mug, or teapot should also be warmed beforehand so that the tea does not immediately cool down. High-quality green and white teas can have new water added as many as five or more times, depending on variety, at increasingly high temperatures. Recently, green tea (as well as some black teas) have been shown to significantly increase interferon levels in tea consumers, which lends credence to the theory that some teas help boost the immune system.
Tieguanyin, also known as red tea Guanyin, or the Iron Goddess of Mercy – Yongzhengnianjian in Anxi. Xiping Yang Yao discovered Tie Guan Yin and was the first to promote it.Tieguanyin belongs to the oolong category and is one of China’s top 10 best-known tea representatives.
Oolong tea (or Wulong)
Oolong teas should be brewed around 90 °C to 100 °C (194 °F to 212 °F), and again the brewing vessel should be warmed before pouring in the water. Yixing purple clay teapots are the traditional brewing vessel for oolong tea. For best results use spring water, as the minerals in spring water tend to bring out more flavor in the tea. High quality oolong can be brewed multiple times from the same leaves, and unlike green tea it improves with reuse. It is common to brew the same leaves three to five times, the third steeping usually being the best.
Premium or delicate tea
Some teas, especially green teas and delicate Oolong teas, are steeped for shorter periods, sometimes less than 30 seconds. Using a tea strainer separates the leaves from the water at the end of the brewing time if a tea bag is not being used. However black Darjeeling tea, the premium Indian tea, needs a longer than average steeping time. Elevation and time of harvest offer varying taste profiles, proper storage and water quality also have a large impact on taste.
Pu-erh tea (or Pu’er)
Pu-erh teas require boiling water for infusion. Some prefer to quickly rinse pu-erh for several seconds with boiling water to remove tea dust which accumulates from the aging process. Infuse pu-erh at the boiling point (100 °C or 212 °F), and allow to steep for 30 seconds or up to five minutes.
In order to preserve the pre-tannin tea without requiring it all to be poured into cups, a second teapot may be employed. The steeping pot is best unglazed earthenware; Yixing pots are the best known of these, famed for the high quality clay from which they are made. The serving pot is generally porcelain, which retains the heat better. Larger teapots are a post-19th century invention, as tea before this time was very rare and very expensive. Experienced tea-drinkers often insist that the tea should not be stirred around while it is steeping (sometimes called winding in the UK). This, they say, will do little to strengthen the tea, but is likely to bring the tannins out in the same way that brewing too long will do. For the same reason one should not squeeze the last drops out of a teabag; if stronger tea is desired, more tea leaves should be used.
Adding milk to tea
The addition of milk to tea was first mentioned in 1680 by the epistolist Madame de Sévigné. Many teas are traditionally drunk with milk. These include Indian masala chai, and British tea blends. These teas tend to be very hearty varieties which can be tasted through the milk, such as Assams, or the East Friesian blend. Milk is thought to neutralize remaining tannins and reduce acidity. The Chinese do not usually drink milk with tea (or indeed use milk at all) but the Manchurians do, and the elite of the Manchu Dynasty continued to do so. Hong Kong-style milk tea is based on British colonial habits.
The order in which to make a cup of tea is a much-debated area. Some say that it is preferable to add the milk before the tea, as the high temperature of freshly brewed tea can denature the proteins found in fresh milk, similar to the change in taste of UHT milk, resulting in an inferior tasting beverage. Others insist that it is better to add the milk after brewing the tea, as most teas need to be brewed as close to boiling as possible. The addition of milk chills the beverage during the crucial brewing phase, meaning that the delicate flavor of a good tea cannot be fully appreciated. By adding the milk afterwards, it is easier to dissolve sugar in the tea and also to ensure that the desired amount of milk is added, as the color of the tea can be observed.
A 2007 study published in the European Heart Journal found that certain beneficial effects of tea may be lost through the addition of milk.
Many flavourings are added to varieties of tea during processing. Among the best known are Chinese Jasmine tea, with jasmine oil or flowers, the spices in Indian Masala chai and Earl Grey tea, which contains oil of bergamot. A great range of modern flavours have been added to these traditional ones.
Other popular additives to tea by the tea-brewer or drinker include sugar, honey, lemon (traditional in Russia), fruit jams, and mint. In China sweetening tea was traditionally regarded as a feminine practice. In colder regions such as Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal, butter is added to provide necessary calories. Tibetan butter tea contains rock salt and dre (yak) butter, which is then churned vigorously in a cylindrical vessel closely resembling a butter churn. The same may be said for salt tea, which is consumed in some cultures in the Hindu Kush region of northern Pakistan.
Tea can also be fortified by the addition of alcohol, such as whisky or brandy.
The flavor of the tea can also be altered by pouring it from different heights, resulting in varying degrees of oxidization. The art of high-altitude pouring is used principally by people in Northern Africa (e.g. Morocco), but also in West Africa (e.g. Guinea, Mali, Senegal) and can positively alter the flavor of the tea, but it is more likely a technique to cool the beverage destined to be consumed immediately. In certain cultures the tea is given different names depending on the height it is poured form. In Mali, gunpowder tea is served in series of three, starting with the highest oxidization or strongest, unsweetened tea (cooked from fresh leaves), locally referred to as “bitter as death”. Follows a second serving, where the same tea leaves are boiled again with some sugar added (“pleasant as life”), and a third one, where the same tea leaves are boiled for the third time with yet more sugar added (“sweet as love”). Green tea is the central ingredient of a distinctly Malian custom, the “Grin”, informal social gathering that cuts across social and economic lines, starting in front of family compound gates in the afternoons, extending late in the night, and widely popular in Bamako and other large urban areas.
In Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, the practice of pouring tea from a height has been refined further using black tea to which condensed milk is added, poured from a height from one cup to another several times in alternating fashion and in quick succession, to create a tea with entrapped air bubbles creating a frothy “head” in the cup. This beverage, teh tarik, literally, “pulled tea”, has a creamier taste than flat milk tea and is extremely popular in the region. Tea pouring in Malaysia has been further developed into an art form in which a dance is done by people pouring tea from one container to another, which in any case takes skill and precision. The participants, each holding two containers, one full of tea, pour it from one to another. They stand in lines and squares and pour the tea into each others’ pots. The dance must be choreographed to allow anyone who has both pots full to empty them and refill whoever has no tea at any one point.