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Anatomy of a Leaf

Getting to know the world's great teas.

 

Story by Rivers Janssen

Photos by Stuart Mullenberg

 

A sense of place. It’s an elegant phrase, a term at once indefinite and palpable. It implies that you may not see a given place, but you can somehow recognize it, feel it, maybe even taste it. It’s also the impression many connoisseurs get when drinking a good full-leaf tea, a sense that there’s something more to the beverage than what’s in the cup. The nuanced flavors and marvelously exotic names of the world’s great teas—Darjeeling, Gunpowder, Dragonwell, Ti Kuan Yin, Pouchong, Genmai Cha—all remind us that tea has an intimate connection to the place where it’s grown, that where a tea comes from matters.

 

The Concept
All tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), be it the large-leaved Assam variety or the small-leaved Chinese variety. This means that tea doesn’t owe its diversity of flavor to genetics so much as environmental and human factors.

The concept of terroir—which was adopted by French vintners to describe the external influences that can affect a wine’s flavor, such as soil type, climate, altitude, sun exposure, precipitation levels and even cultural factors—more abstractly suggests that a plant’s location imparts a unique quality to the beverage that can’t easily be replicated in other regions. Terroir is what gives a Burgundy Pinot Noir its distinctiveness as compared to, say, an Oregon or California Pinot.

In the tea world, terroir generally describes the rather broad tea-growing regions, such as China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, but it also encapsulates the more specific microclimates and soil differences within each country. Those distinctions can create a wide disparity in flavor. Chris Cason, co-founder and tea sommelier at Tavalon Tea in New York City, counts humidity, altitude, mineral content of the soil, proximity to water sources, and even nearby crops as important influences on a tea’s flavor. “My favorite example is a tea that we call watermelon seed, because it actually looks like watermelon seeds,” he says. “It grows on the side of a mountain that faces the ocean, and you can actually taste hints of saltwater on the tea itself.”

 

The Process
While terroir generally refers to factors that are outside of the growers’ hands, growers have a much more influence on the processing of tea. This is what determines the final character of a tea, and it will have a dramatic effect on the flavor, appearance and aroma. Although processing methods vary for each of the major tea types—black, green, oolong and white—it mostly boils down to how much oxygen the tea leaves absorb after harvest.

Black tea
Black tea, which accounts for most of the tea Americans drink (it’s the foundation for popular favorites like Earl Grey and English Breakfast), is the flavor heavyweight of the tea world, with a hearty taste and a rich amber color. All black teas undergo a full oxidation process (also known as fermentation), during which workers first spread the leaves out to remove moisture (a step known as withering), then roll them to release the natural chemicals and oils responsible for a tea’s flavor and aroma. Fermentation is where the real drama occurs, however. In this stage, workers again spread the leaves out in a cool, damp environment, but this time the purpose is to encourage a series of enzymatic reactions within the leaves by exposing them to oxygen. As the leaves transform, so too does the tea’s character, creating a host of full-bodied malty, smoky, sweet, fruity or even astringent flavors, depending on the growing conditions. Once fermentation is complete, the workers dry the tea to finish the process.

 

3 to try:
Darjeeling (India): Muscatel, with light, floral overtones
Lapsang Souchong (China): Rich and smoky
Nuwara Eliya (Sri Lanka): Smooth and bright

 

Brew it: Start with a ratio of 1 teaspoon of leaves per 8 ounces of filtered water. Bring water to a boil (212 degrees F) and steep for up to 5 minutes.

 

Green tea
Green tea, by contrast, also typically undergoes a withering stage, but is steam-fired or pan-fried before rolling to prevent fermentation. The firing process prevents the enzymatic transformation in the leaves that defines black tea, giving green tea a much more delicate flavor and a light golden color. Green teas also retain many of the antioxidants and polyphenols that are otherwise lost during oxidation, which may lead to the health benefits claimed by many green tea fans. Flavors again vary widely depending on the tea’s terroir, but most lean toward the bright, grassy side, with some sweetness and occasional smokiness. Because green tea isn’t fermented, it also offers less caffeine than either black or oolong tea, although the specific amount can vary widely.

 

3 to try:
Gunpowder (China): Full-bodied with a hint of smokiness
Genmai Cha (Japan): Nutty, toasty and sweet
Dragonwell (China): Lightly sweet and balanced

 

Brew it: Lighter teas sometimes taste better with a higher tea-to-water ratio. Start with the recommended 1 teaspoon of leaves per 8 ounces of water, but experiment with higher amounts of tea to suit your tastes. Bring water to a moderate temperature (180 degrees F) and steep for up to 3 minutes.

 

Oolong tea
A cross between green tea and black tea, oolongs are fermented, but not to the extent of black tea. This fermentation can span from very mild—teas with 10 percent or less oxidation are typically referred to as Pouchong, which means “the wrapped kind” in Chinese after a largely discontinued drying process—to fairly intense. The full process includes wilting the leaves in sunlight, shaking them in baskets to softly bruise the edges, and drying. Oolongs often impart a fruity, floral taste, with hues that range from reddish to pale yellow. Their large leaves are typically unbroken, making them ideal for fans of full-leaf teas.

 

3 to try:
Fancy Formosa Oolong (Taiwan): Peachy and delicate
Ti Kuan Yin (China): Full-bodied and sweet
Pouchong (Taiwan and China): Sweet and floral

 

Brew it: The brewing instructions for oolong teas vary widely depending on the oxidation level of the tea. A general guideline is that dark oolongs with high oxidation levels require hotter water (close to 212 degrees F) and longer brewing times (7 minutes or so), while light oolongs do better with moderate water temperatures (180 degrees F) and shorter brewing times (less than 3 minutes). A good rule of thumb is to start with a tea-to-water ratio of roughly 1 teaspoon of tea to 8 ounces of water, and experiment from there.

 

White tea
A rare tea produced in small quantities in China and India, white tea, like green, isn’t fermented. The difference is that workers generally harvest white tea when the buds are still unopened and immature, and then rapidly fire the leaves to prevent fermentation. Green tea, by contrast, is normally picked just as the buds start to open. White teas tend to have a mild, sweet, sometimes grassy flavor and a light color.

 

3 to try:
White Peony (China): Sweet and delicate
Silver Needle (China): Clean, sweet and smooth
Song Yang (China): Sweet, mild and rewarding

 

Brew it: White teas typically require moderate water temperatures (180 degrees F) and steeping times (3 to 6 minutes). Again, the specifics are open to interpretation depending on your taste.

The Place
Tea is cultivated in more than 40 countries around the world, although much of it is for domestic consumption only. Of the countries that do export a commercially significant amount, five of them particularly excite the palates of full-leaf tea drinkers: China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. Growers in these countries tend to put more care into the harvesting and processing of their teas, perhaps because most of them have a long cultural attachment to the beverage. The “sense of place” of Asian tea often includes growing conditions and flavors as well as the customs and heritage of the people who grow it.

China
Although China is no longer the world’s largest tea producer, having lost that status to India several years ago, the country still holds a special place in the hearts of tea drinkers. It’s not only the birthplace of tea, with some accounts saying the beverage traces back more than four millennia, but it also produces a wide range of intricate full-leaf varieties, including black, oolong and white teas, in addition to its staple green tea. According to Cason, one of the biggest influences on the flavor of classic Chinese green teas is the pan-drying method, which gives the leaves a slightly tannic flavor. However, China is a vast country with a rich tea tradition—tea is grown in 18 of China’s 24 provinces—and a novice tea drinker could easily educate his or her palate with a tour of China alone.

Befitting a beverage with 4,000 years of local history, China is awash in tea traditions, including two of the world’s most treasured brewing methods: gaiwan and gongfu. Tea drinkers typically use the popular gaiwan—which translates as “lidded cup”—to steep teas with delicate flavors and aromas, such as many green, oolong and white teas. The gongfu ceremony (also referred to as kungfu) is somewhat more involved, with an elaborate procedure that rewards patience, skill and attention to detail. Gongfu tea means “tea brewed with great skill” and is prepared in delicate clay teapots from Yixing in the Jiangsu province.

Among the notable tea provinces in China are Zhejiang, a mountainous region with a subtropical monsoon climate that counts the smoky, full-bodied Gunpowder and the smooth Dragonwell as two of its signature teas; the cool, misty hillsides of Fujian, home of the exquisite Ti Kuan Yin oolong (the name translates as “iron goddess of mercy”) and the smoky, robust Lapsang Souchong; and Yunnan, a cloud-veiled, highland area that produces a number of special teas, including a peppery Yunnan black.

 

India
India produces roughly a third of the world’s teas, with three regions—Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri—drawing most of the attention. As a one-time British colony, the country also played a large role in developing Western tea tastes, with many of its black teas finding their way to English and American ports. Of the classic Indian teas, Darjeeling often garners the most acclaim among connoisseurs, especially during its first harvest of the year in mid March (known as first flush). “It’s one of the first teas of the season,” says Cason. “A lot like Beaujolais Nouveau in the wine trade, it’s the gauge that tells you whether it’s going to be a good year for tea in general, and Darjeelings in particular.” Darjeeling teas generally produce light, floral, muscatel (sweet grape) overtones, owing largely to the high elevation (5,000-plus feet), high-quality soil and cloudy weather patterns of the region’s tea estates.

Whereas Darjeeling cultivates only 47,000 acres of tea, Assam’s lower elevation and rolling plains make it a much more popular region for mass cultivation. The region’s 500,000 acres of tea production occurs mostly between 500 and 1,000 feet, in an area with rich alluvial soil and moderate to heavy rainfall, including a drenching monsoon season in the fall that significantly boosts yields. The best Assam teas have a full-bodied, hearty flavor, although much of the region’s production—particularly the monsoon-affected “Rains” teas—is reserved for lower-grade tea, making it popular among teabag manufacturers for its intense color and strong flavor.

The third member of India’s tea triumvirate, Nilgiri teas, are grown in southern India in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala districts, at elevations that range from 100 to 6,000 feet. The best Nilgiri teas are hand-plucked and sorted, earning esteem on the international market for their natural sweetness and smooth flavor. However, the region also produces a number of lower-cost, lower-quality teas.

 

Japan
Like China, Japan offers a long and distinguished tea history dating back at least to the 9th century. The relationship is embodied by the Japanese Tea Ceremony, an enduring tradition that integrates elements of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy into an elegant tea service that often lasts for several hours. The traditional tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony is matcha, a powdered green tea, but it’s certainly not the only popular green tea in Japan. Other favorites include Genmai Cha, Gyokuro and Sencha, which tend to offer slightly grassy, vegetal flavors because of the country’s preferred steam-drying processing method. Some of the country’s most treasured teas come from the Shizuoka Prefecture southwest of Tokyo, where tea grows on hillsides in the mineral-rich soil and mild climate near Mt. Fuji. Tea pros claim that one of Shizuoka’s most important terroir characteristics is the dense coastal fog that surrounds the region, which filters sunlight and slows down the overall growth rate. This, in turn, creates more concentrated flavors and aromas within the leaves. The Shizuoka Prefecture is responsible for roughly half of Japan’s green tea production, including most of the premium teas.

 

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka may not have the history of other popular tea origins, having started cultivating tea around 130 years ago, but the South Asian island nation—commonly called Ceylon, its original colonial name—boasts an ideal climate and terrain for tea production, with a number of gardens sitting on hillsides at elevations between 1,000 and 8,000 feet. Sri Lankan teas are generally classified by altitude; the higher the plot, the better-tasting the tea (altitude, like fog, tends to slow down growth and concentrate the flavors). Teas grown above 4,000 feet offer particularly bright, refreshing flavors, while teas grown between 2,000 and 4,000 feet tend to be full-bodied and strong. Other factors that contribute to the tea’s terroir include cool winds that sometimes blow across the plantations and a pair of monsoon seasons that affect different sides of the island. “Flavor-wise, Ceylon is traditionally a little bit brighter than a traditional black tea,” says Cason. “I like to pair a Ceylon with an Assam [in a blend], as it gives you a nice contrast between bright and slightly bitter flavors.” Although tea is produced throughout Sri Lanka, its best-known growing regions are Nuwara Eliya, which is situated at roughly 6,000 feet and produces tea with lively, refreshing flavors; Uva, with gardens that start at 2,800 feet and produce sweet, sometimes malty teas; and Dimbula, which produces refreshingly mellow teas at 3,500 feet and above.

 

Taiwan
Tea drinkers with a special affinity for oolongs will find Taiwan a perfect destination for a tea journey. Often called Formosa (“beautiful island”), Taiwan’s finest teas are typically grown in the island’s central mountains, which offer fertile soil, just the right amount of moisture and a subtropical climate that’s cool yet humid. The surrounding environment and processing method often tease out fruity and floral flavors and aromas, with hints of orchids, apricots, peaches and other crops, some of which may be grown in nearby gardens. In addition, the island’s oolongs are usually hand-picked and processed to protect the leaves from damage, giving them an extra level of refinement—one reason Formosa oolongs have earned the nickname “the champagne of teas.” A good Formosa oolong can exhibit either black or green tea characteristics, depending on its oxidation level, along with a variety of arrestingly subtle and elegant flavors. The island also produces a specific tea called a Formosa oolong, which at its best “leaves a taste like the scent of orchids,” Cason says. Among the premier tea-growing regions are Nantou County, where the light, distinctive Dong Ding tea is grown; Alishan, which produces teas with purple-green leaves and a sweet, mellow flavor; and Pinglin Township (near Taipei), which grows the light, floral Pouchong.

 

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