There are two distinct tea plants from which most tea is harvested. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis comes originally from China and is the plant from which the Chinese made the first tea nearly 5,000 years ago. This variety produces small leaves and thrives in cool climates at high altitudes, and the resulting teas tend to be more refined with a floral character. Camellia sinensis var sinensis produces most green teas and many black teas. The other species cultivated for commercial tea is the plant Camellia sinensis var. assamica, primarily grown in India and Sri Lanka. With its larger leaves and higher yield, the Assam tea plant produces a drink that is generally less complex but shows earthier, more robust and malty flavors. Teas produced from the assamicaplant include Assam and some Ceylon.
Regardless of type of tea plant, the highest quality teas generally come from the leaf buds and young leaves of the plant, although some styles of tea require the more mature leaves for their specific flavor profile. Once harvested, the leaves must be dried and/or oxidized before they can be brewed. The different styles of harvesting and processing have lead to the development of the dozens of types of tea that we see as consumers. For more information on different styles of tea, visit our blog.
This tea comes from leaves that are picked while the buds are still in their infant stage, unopened and covered with fine white hairs. The leaves are dried very slowly to maintain the delicate flavor structure of the plant, and the resulting tea is very light with some sense of grassiness, fruit, and a touch of sweetness.
The leaves are first steamed for less than a minute in large vats in order to kill any enzymes that might cause oxidation, a chemical change that would cause the green polyphenols to break down and turn the leaves a darker color. The leaves are then kneaded by hand, stacked in small piles, and dried for approximately ten hours. Finally, the tea is rolled according to the desired grade and sorted. Thus we can find many different styles of green tea according to the age and size of the leaves, and the style of rolling. In fact, there are about 12,500 different types of green tea.
Oolong (Wu-Long) Tea
After the tea leaves are picked; they are wilted in direct sunlight and then shaken in bamboo baskets in order to bruise the edges. The leaves are then rolled to allow for a slow oxidation, which will in turn lead to the development of a darker color and deeper complexity. Because the leaves are not immediately dried, they have a chance to undergo the beginning stages of oxidation. This semi-oxidation is the characteristic that most distinguishes an Oolong tea from a Green tea (no oxidation) or a Black tea (complete oxidation).
These tea leaves are first wilted and then rolled to promote oxidation by agitating the leaves’ chemical compounds. The rolled leaves are spread out to oxidize, which causes the color to change from green to a deep red. Once fully oxidized, the leaves are fired to arrest oxidation and the leaves now have their hallmark black color and smoky fragrance.