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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tea 101: An introduction

Bulk tea for sale at Siciliano's
In which the boss writes on the origin, production, and varieties of tea.

By Steve Siciliano

A Chinese legend relates how an emperor named Shennong was in his garden tending a small pot of boiling water when a few leaves from a nearby tree blew into the vessel. Because Shennong was innovative and inquisitive (he is credited with discovering medicinal plants, showing his subjects how to use a plow and teaching them the basics of agriculture), he scooped out a cup of the infused liquid and took a sip. He was, according to this most-likely apocryphal tale, the first person to experience the pleasures of the beverage we now know as tea.

If those leaves had indeed blown into the emperor’s pot they would have come from camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub indigenous to Southeast Asia. If allowed to grow unabated, tea plants can reach heights of more than fifty feet. When cultivated on tea plantations, however, they are pruned to waist-high levels and only the top tier of leaves called flushes are used in tea production.

After the flushes are harvested they are either left to dry in the sun or are placed in cool, breezy rooms where they quickly begin to wilt. After wilting the flushes may be shook in baskets or kneaded, rolled and crushed by machinery. This “bruising” breaks down the leaves’ cell structures allowing enzymes to begin the process of oxidation. As the leaves oxidize they turn progressively darker and different flavor components are produced. Heat is then applied at predetermined stages causing the enzymes to deactivate and oxidation to halt. How the leaves are processed and to what degree they are allowed to oxidize determines which variety of tea is produced.

White Tea is a rare variety made from leaves that are allowed to wither for a short period in sunlight which results in a small degree of natural oxidation. The leaves are, however, soon heated to prevent the oxidative enzymes from working. This process results in a delicately flavored tea that doesn’t have the grassy notes of green tea.

Green Tea is not wilted but is allowed to go through a slight amount of enzymatic oxidation. The flavors are often described as fresh, light, green or grassy.

Oolong Tea leaves are wilted, bruised and then oxidized to a degree somewhere between that of green and black teas. Depending at which point the oxidation is stopped, oolongs can be woody with sweet earthly undertones or flowery and a bit vegetal.

Black Tea leaves are withered, bruised and allowed to undergo the highest degree of oxidation. They are stronger in flavor and contain more caffeine than the less oxidized varieties. Black teas are often described as malty and robust are often flavored with fruits and flowers.

Yellow Tea is another rare variety that undergoes a process similar to green tea. It has a slower drying phase which allows the damp leaves to yellow rather than wilt. The taste of yellow tea is light and mild and the aroma is often describes as fresh and flowery. Because the process of making yellow tea is tedious and time consuming, it is the least produced and least known variety of tea.

While I rely on coffee to jump-start me in the morning, there are times during the day when I prefer a cup of tea. Lately I’m in the habit of sipping a mug of robust black tea and smoking a bowl of good Scottish tobacco while doing the pre-opening paperwork. It’s a good way to start the day. Sometimes after an afternoon nap at home in my recliner I’ll turn to a milder oolong to help disperse the cobwebs.

Throughout the centuries tea has been one of humanity’s most popular and beloved beverages. Whether we should credit its discovery to an ancient Chinese emperor, now that's still open to debate.

With the exception of the rare white and yellow varieties, Siciliano’s stocks a wide assortment of bulk teas. Tea is available in one-ounce increments, ranging in price from $0.59 - $1.89/oz.

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