A cup of hot tea has always been something of a rallying cry in my family – over the summer, iced tea prevails, generally garnished with fresh slices of orange. In winter time, however, hot tea reigns supreme, usually accompanied by a piece of shortbread, a ginger cookie or a slice of fruit cake.
This past summer, I deviated from my usual stove-top iced tea routine and invested in a dedicated iced tea maker. Determined to find my optimal brew, I purchased small quantities of different loose teas we have here at Formaggio Kitchen. It was difficult to choose a favorite but, in the end, Everglad from Dammann Frères‘s became my go-to tea – a green tea with notes of grapefruit, imparted by dried bits of grapefruit rind. It is amazingly refreshing when iced and, given the tendency to drink more during the hot months, it was nice that it wasn’t as caffeinated as black tea.
Now, however, in this cold weather and with a similar eye to experimentation, I decided to take a closer look at tea itself. I wanted to try to understand some of the finer distinctions of this complex and storied beverage that has been drunk for so long and by so many people (for a great overview of the history of tea, check out the Education section on the Formaggio Kitchen web site). After a bit of research, I discovered some interesting facts that will help with my tea selection this winter…
Tea technically refers only to blends that come from the Camellia sinensis plant (genus: Camellia species: sinensis). Be they black, green or white tea, they are all from the same plant. The differences in teas come from variations in terroir, harvesting times and in different methods of processing. Anything that is brewed from other plants is technically considered a tisane. Popular tisanes include: yerba maté (yer-bah ma-tay), rooibos (roy-bus), verveine (aka lemon verbena), tilleul (aka linden or basswood) and chamomile. None of these are made from the Camellia sinensis plant and, as a result, will have very different flavors and caffeine contents.
Caffeine is a key consideration for me when purchasing tea. In the morning, I like something that will perk me up. However, as evening approaches or, if I feel like a post-dinner cuppa, I don’t want something that will keep me up all night. Generally caffeine has a half-life of six hours – six hours after consuming a cup of tea, your body will have half the caffeine that it did when you initially ingested the tea. Interestingly, on a per pound basis, tea actually contains more caffeine than coffee. That said, because one uses proportionately less tea (by weight) than coffee when brewing a cup, a cup of brewed tea contains less caffeine than a cup of brewed coffee.
Although all tea comes from the same species of plant, the different cultivation and processing methods and the timing of harvest can affect caffeine content. The amount of tea you use will also affect the amount of caffeine that will end up in your final cup. That said, there are some general rules of thumb that can serve as guidelines. White tea is generally the least caffeinated variety of tea. It is made from the buds and leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, plucked in early spring. Some teas exclusively use the buds of the plant while others might also include the top two leaves of the tea plant. High-quality white teas are very labor intensive and timing is absolutely essential – this is why white tea tends to be among the more expensive varieties on the market. Immediately after the young buds and leaves are picked, they are withered. This is followed by some form of heat treatment: baking, drying or steaming.
After white, green tea is the least caffeinated tea. Made solely from the leaves of the tea plant, it gets its coloring and flavor from the way that it is processed. Freshly harvested leaves are immediately heated – methods of heating vary and can include roasting, steaming and sun-drying. This heat prevents the leaves from oxidizing and allows them to retain their green color.
Oolong tea is more caffeinated than green tea. Oolongs are partially oxidized but the degree of oxidization can vary widely, affecting the ultimate flavor of the tea. The more oxidized the Oolong, the darker the flavor tends to be. The oxidization process is halted by the application of heat – again, the method of heating can vary.
Black tea is the most caffeinated of all teas. As a rough guide, a cup of brewed black tea contains about half of the caffeine of an equivalent cup of brewed coffee. Black tea is made by fully oxidizing tea leaves and then heating them. Pu-erh (pu-air) tea is a variation of black tea that, in addition to being fully oxidized, is aged or fermented. It has a distinctly different flavor profile from other black teas – generally more woody and vegetal.
Aside from researching caffeine levels in the various types of tea, I also spent some time simply researching terms used in the tea industry – there are many abbreviations and acronyms that are not always obvious and can sometimes be confusing. Here are a few of the ones that I found most useful to understand:
O.P. – short for Orange Pekoe. Orange Pekoe is not actually a type of tea in and of itself and it has nothing to do with oranges. In fact, it gets its name from the Dutch royal house of Orange-Nassau. Orange Pekoe as a term actually refers to a grade of black tea. Orange Pekoe tea leaves are 8-15mm in length and are rolled lengthwise. They are from a later harvest than the G.F.O.P. and the buds on the tea plant have already turned into leaves.
F.O.P. – an acronym for Flowery Orange Pekoe. This grade of tea is 5-8mm in size and is rolled lengthwise. It is harvested before O.P. and includes both the bud of the tea plant and its first two leaves.
F.P. – Flowery Pekoe refers to black tea leaves that are rolled into a ball shape.
B.O.P. – Broken Orange Pekoe is comprised of leaves that are torn during the making of F.O.P. or O.P., either accidentally or on purpose.
G.B.O.P. – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe is B.O.P. that also includes Golden Tips.
Fannings – Flat, black tea leaves that are only 1-1.5 mm in length.
G.F.O.P. – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe refers to tea (F.O.P.) that is black with the exception of a golden coloring on the tip of the tea leaf (see: Golden Tips).
Golden Tips – Refers to the golden-colored tips of high quality black tea leaves.
Chai – This is the Indian word for tea but it generally refers to black tea mixed with milk and a blend of spices.
Cupping – The process of tasting tea (or coffee) to evaluate its color, aroma and flavor.
Bergamot – Used to make Earl Grey teas, bergamot is an oil extracted from the bergamot orange.
C.T.C. – Stands for Crush, Tear and Curl, a tea making process. Tea leaves are machine crushed to accelerate the oxidization process. The teas made using this process are often contrasted with whole-leaf teas as representing opposite ends of the quality spectrum. The CTC process is often used for pre-bagged teas.
Matcha – A high grade, Japanese green tea, matcha is used in tea ceremonies. True matcha tea leaves are shaded for 3 weeks prior to harvest. Young leaves are then harvested and heat is applied to prevent oxidization. Stems and veins are subsequently removed from the leaves, after which the leaf bits are ground into a fine powder. In terms of preparation, matcha is traditionally whisked until it froths.
Sencha – The most common type of green tea in Japan. Grown in full sun (unlike Matcha), this type of tea can range quite dramatically in terms of quality. Sencha is not ground.
This brief survey of tea-related issues and terminology only touches the surface of the information that is out there. My initial foray into the world of tea has certainly made me appreciate how much more there is to learn! It will, however, be a very happy process – what is better than sitting down to read a good book, accompanied by a piping hot cup of tea and something sweet on the side? Speaking of which, I am going to potter off and put the kettle on! I feel like a cup of Earl Grey today…
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea by Travis Andorfer and Kristine Hansen