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The Basics of Tea

There is nothing as enjoyable to me as sharing a great tea with my family and friends. I find that the ritual of sharing tea with others encompasses more than just a beverage but also an opportunity to slow down and reflect. So when I hear from someone that they don’t like tea, I feel confident that it is because they have never had really good tea. I am not talking about Lipton or anything in a bag — although that was my first introduction as well. Through this blog, I want to share what I have found through the years and many pots of experience.

Start with Good Tea

What is most critical is the tea itself. This is much more important than what pot you use or temperature and steeping time. There are many categories of tea. They all come from one plant — Camellia Sinensis. Whether they are white, green, oolong, black or pu-erh is dependent on the processing — more on that in a later blog.

Chemistry of Tea.

Almost all of the tea produced in the world is machine harvested and machine processed as CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl). Quick chemistry lesson — the greater the surface area, the quicker a product oxidizes or gets stale. Think about spices in your cupboard, when you use ground powder instead of leaves or freshly ground pepper or seeds, they quickly lose their flavor. The same goes for tea leaves. The CTC machine produces tiny chopped up leaves called fannings and what is left in the machine after processing is called dust. These two grades of tea are what make up most commercial tea bags. As a result, these teas will steep quickly but will soon lose nuances and flavors. However, tannins that produce bitterness are also more easily extracted during steeping due to the smaller size and greater surface area.

What we do.

At Zerama Tea, we sell orthodox tea (that is the full leaf — frequently, the unopened flower bud and two leaves). When you brew our teas, you will usually be able to unroll the steeped tea to reveal an actual leaf. Although many are handpicked, orthodox teas do not need to be handpicked. Japanese-grown teas are almost always harvested with the use of machines. Because of this, these teas — even though they are high quality — will frequently leave a dusty residue in your cup. Because of this, you will usually use lower temperatures and shorter steeping times with these teas to avoid bitterness.

So let’s talk about flavors.

For centuries, tea masters have scented teas with fruits and flowers. I admit that I love a cup of Jasmine Pearls. Unfortunately, all too often the flavorings added to teas are used to disguise an inferior quality of tea.

Many teas are described as having honey or buttery flavors. These characteristics can be produced naturally as a result of the variety of the cultivar and the area and method in which it is grown. In certain regions, the plants are developed to mimic certain fruit and floral flavors and aromas. The Phoenix or Dan Cong oolongs are a great example of this. The harvesting time also plays a factor in the flavor. The natural sugars within the plants that are harvested in early spring produce a rich buttery or creamy quality. And honey-like flavors are actually produced by enzymes that the plants produce as a defense mechanism to pests such as aphids or jassids.

So as you can see, there are so many factors that contribute to the flavor profiles of teas. There are teas that are naturally fruity, floral, and herbaceous. The styles are so diverse that to make a blanket statement against all teas demonstrates the limited exposure one has had to good quality products. Through this series of blogs, I hope to demystify teas and encourage you to try something new. Whether it is a tea variety or a brewing style that you may not have been aware of, there is always something new to learn and to taste!

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