All loose leaf teas (with the exception of herbal teas and tisanes) are derived from the dried and sometimes processed leaves and buds of the Camellia sinesis plant, which is native to Asia.
The Camellia sinesis plant is dark green, with thick leaves and delicate white blossoms. The finest teas are made from the top two leaves and bud of each of the plant’s shoots.
Different harvesting and processing methods determine the type and quality of the tea, for example:
- White tea is made only from the buds of the plant. It is the lightest in colour and contains the most anti-oxidants. Its limited processing produces a light, delicate colour and soft, sometimes mildly sweet flavor.
- Green tea leaves are withered and steamed, resulting in a fresh flavour that is closest to its natural state.
- Oolong tea is only partially oxidized, exhibits a golden-brown colour, and possesses smoky and floral flavors.
- Black tea requires significant processing and oxidation, creating its hearty aroma, rich colour and robust taste.
- Pu’er tea is the only tea that is aged, which enhances its value over time. It is a popular after dinner tonic, with its dark, earthy aroma and flavour.
- Tisanes or herbal teas are brews of such plants as mint, chamomile, chrysanthemum and rooibos. These teas are caffeine-free.
About the Tea Plant:
While the tea bush thrives in hot, humid climates, the best tea is grown in mountain regions where the leaves grow slowly, creating more flavourful blends. Teas are affected by soil, climate, weather and time of picking, just as grapes are when creating wine. Although the Camellia sinesis plant can grow to great heights, it is usually pruned to less than three feet for more convenient harvesting and to produce thicker foliage of dark green leaves.
Harvesting leaves and buds for fine tea grades is still done by hand. According to The New Tea Book by Sara Perry, an experienced tea leaf picker (usually a woman) can pick enough shoots in one day to produce nine pounds of finished tea, which in turn can produce up to 1,800 cups.