Tea is a caffeinated beverage that is most often served hot. Tea leaves, which come from the tea bush, are steeped in hot water, which allows the flavor, and caffeine that is in the leaves to infuse with the hot water making it a beverage.
Before the tea leaves can be steeped in hot water they must be processed. There are several different ways to process tea leaves, and each method of processing the leaves results in a different type of tea.
Different Kinds of Tea Leaves
There are four main types of teas. Tea leaves all come from the same tea plant, the Camellia sinensis. The leaves become distinct from each other through the different methods of processing them. In high-quality teas, only the young leaves are plucked from the bushes, but this method requires about 2,000 to 3,000 leaves to produce 1 lb. of finished tea. When dried leaves are soaked in hot water, they infuse the water with their distinct flavor. Raw tea leaves are processed by oxidation and drying.
Leaves intended for green tea are either steamed or pan-fired to stop any oxidation. Because they are heated immediately after being picked, they remain green in color. In China, green tea leaves are steamed, but in Japan they are fired. In both methods, the leaf becomes soft. The next step in the process is to roll the leaves. Tea makers roll leaves in different styles, including a long roll, a ball, twisting or even flat. Where the leaf is grown typically determines the rolling style. Heating or firing the rolled tea leaves dries them out so they are ready for use. The green color in the leaves gives green tea special health benefits through its antioxidants. This tea only takes a day or two to process. To brew green tea you usually just drop the processed leaves directly into a pot of hot water. The leaves will unfold to reveal their full shape. You can then use a filter to strain the leaves out of the hot water, or you can drink the tea with the leaves in the water. Some people enjoy eating the tea leaves after they brew green tea. Although you can buy green tea that has been packaged in tea bags, green tea is best when it is brewed from the whole leaf.
Black teas contain the most processed leaves. First the leaves are laid out on racks and withered for 14 to 24 hours. Next, the leaves are rolled and twisted to release the natural enzymes and to prepare them for oxidation. They still retain a green color at this point. After rolling the leaves, they are ready for oxidation. They sit in a cool, humid area and begin to ferment as polyphenols and pectin combine with oxygen and enzymes. Oxidation gives black tea its color and flavor. The length of fermentation time depends on the style and maker of the tea. Finally, the leaves are dried or fired to stop oxidation and seal in the desired flavor.
Black tea has been completely oxidized and is very dark or sometimes red. The tea beverage that is made from black tea is often red, but the dry leaves are black.
Oolong teas are somewhere between green and black tea in regards to processing. The leaves are withered and partially oxidized after picking and before drying. The first step is withering. The leaves are left to wither for several hours, but less than a day. Once the leaves are wilted, they are shaken to cause small tears in the leaves so the oxidation process can begin. As the leaves are exposed to air, they become darker. The amount of time leaves are oxidized depends on the style of oolong. Some are only 10-percent oxidized, while others are up to 70-percent oxidized. The tea leaves are heated or fired to stop the oxidation and dry them out.
Oolong tea has been oxidized more than green tea so it is usually a darker tea. It only takes a few days to process oolong teas. Both green and oolong teas tend to be of higher quality.
White tea leaves are the least processed of all types of tea. The leaves are plucked young, then steam dried or air dried. In contrast, other teas have four to five processing steps. Because the leaves are steamed immediately after picking, they retain their green color. It is a very rare tea that is made from the youngest leaves of the tea bush and they are not oxidized at all. White tea is often expensive because it is so rare.
How Much to Buy
If stored properly, tea will last up to six months. Flavored teas last about half that time.
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