Earlier this week, I completed a tea course through George Brown College. Hubby and I have become tea drinkers, brewing up several cups a night. Over the last few months, our tea collection has grown extensively with one of our favourites being the oolong. I also enjoy the chai blends and rooibos blends; however, those are two types of ‘tea’ that hubby could do without.
The reason I signed up for this intro course was simply because I wanted to understand how these delicate, dried leaves ended up in my cup. Did you know that all tea starts off green? Oolong, black, pu’erh, white, and green tea come from the same plant species – Camellia sinensis. Although the popularity of tisanes and herbal teas are on the rise, these (beverages made from botanical ingredients that can include flowers, bark, fruit, leaves, etc.) are not actually teas. Rooibos is not by definition a tea.
There are 2 species of Camellia that exist:
- Camellia sinensis var. sinensis – the Chinese tea plant, originally from Yunnan (China). It can grow in moderate to cool climate and its steeped liquor is often delicate yet complex.
- Camellia sinensis var. assamica – the Assam plant that can grow much taller than the sinensis in the wild, but has a much shorter lifespan than that of the sinensis variety. It can tolerate hot humid conditions and considerable rainfall. Its leaf produces a darker, fuller-flavoured tea.
As much as I love to garden, I would not be able to successfully grow a tea bush for tea here in Canada. The climate is not right and more importantly, I do not have the facilities or equipment to process the harvested leaves. To simplify, there are around 9 steps to tea production:
- Plucking: leaves are hand or mechanically plucked
- Cleaning and sorting
- Withering: depending on the variety, the leaf can contain up to 80% water. By having a controlled period of time to let the leaf wilt, they will lose 50-60% of their moisture.
- Rolling: the withering process allows the leaf to soften so they an be rolled whole without damaging the leaves. The more they are rolled, the faster oxidation takes place. This step is quite an art form.
- Oxidizing: Process during which enzymes in the leaves react with oxygen to produce chemical changes that are partially responsible for the briskness, strength, flavour, aroma and colour of the tea.
- Firing: heat treatment to stop of the oxidation process
- Quality Control
The steeping process of tea is also an art form. Before the class, I knew nothing of cupping. I can see why people would enjoy doing this as it provides a real sense of calm. My instructor played a video for us in the last class that explained the importance of tea and cupping. Watching it was relaxing and made me want a cup of tea! You can purchase the Renaissance of Tea dvd, but here is an excerpt of the video.
The cupping technique we learned in class involved using a gaiwan as shown at the start of the video. I found this video that also demonstrates cupping; however, his cup set is rather interesting. They look easier to use. In class, we made a bit of mess when pouring the steeped liquor into our cups. The trick to using the gaiwan is that you must commit to the pour. If you falter or hesitate even for a second, the table is going to get soaked.
Another important factor in steeping tea is temperature and time. The information below is from Tea Source.
Black tea generally should be made with water at a full, rolling boil, 212 degrees. Steep 4-6 minutes. Darjeelings are the exception, they should be steeped 2-3 minutes.
Oolong tea (also known as wulong tea) should be made with water a little bit below boiling, between 190 and 203 degrees. The water should be steaming rapidly and there should many bubbles rising in the kettle, but not really breaking the surface. Oolongs vary dramatically and you need to experiment or follow the suggested steeping instructions on the bag. Many oolongs (wulongs) are perfect at 3-4 minutes, some need 6-8 minutes.
Green teas should be made with slightly cooler water, between 160 and 180 degrees. The steam should be wafting or gently swirling out of the kettle. Green tea is typically be steeped for much less time, 2-3 minutes.
White teas should be made with even cooler water, anywhere from 150 to 160 degrees, when you see the very first hint of steam. White teas are typically steeped around 2 minutes, although some can be steeped much longer with good results.
Puerh teas are very different, I have had them made with cooler water, similar to a green tea. But my favorite method is to make them with boiling water and steep them a long time.
Herbal teas should typically be made with boiling water. Typically should be steeped a minimum of 4-6 minutes, some for up to 10 minutes.
There is so much more information about the history of tea, the cultivation, the processing, the various types of tea in the market, the health benefits, cupping and more. A great book that I am reading right now on the topic is called The Tea Drinker’s Handbook, which I purchased from Amazon. Another book that my teacher had recommended was The Story of Tea.
George Brown does offer additional tea courses, and for those that are interested in a career in tea, it offers a tea sommelier certificate program. Now, I think I’m going to make myself a cup of banana oolong.