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The colors of tea-part 1

Terroir, cultivar, harvests. Plus geographic denomination and production processes passed down for generations. Wine? No, tea.

Gabriella Lombardi
Gabriella Lombardi
tè e teiera

Terroir, cultivar, harvests. Plus geographic denomination and production processes passed down for generations. Wine? No, tea: a unique and ancient plant, the Camellia Sinensis, that creates a beverage with infinite flavors and six colors. Tea is, in fact, classified into six macro-categories which are comparable to the western distinctions between red, white, and rosé wines.

Each tea has unique characteristics, determined by cultivation methods, the specific botanical varietals used, and the unique features of each individual production area (conditioned by climate, precipitation, soil quality, and ground composition).

Consequently, every cup of tea is an invitation to discover a little “world” of unique sensory experiences.

THE COLOR CLASSIFICATION OF TEA

Tea is a beverage prepared by infusing the dried leaves of Camellia Sinensis. The only exception is Japanese Matcha green tea which is prepared by dissolving a very fine powder made from ground tea leaves in hot water.

For a long time, due to an erroneous classification by Carl Linnaeus, in the West it was believed that two different species of tea plants existed. In fact, the Swedish botanist declared that there were two tea plants: one for green tea and one for black tea. But he was wrong!

After several centuries, it was finally clarified that there is just one species: an evergreen shrub named Camellia Sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze

The two varieties of the plant used for producing tea are: Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis (China) and Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica (India). A third and lesser known variety is the Camellia Sinensis var. Cambodiensis

This plant, originally from Southeast Asia, prefers a subtropical climate. The environment that surrounds the young tea plants has a profound influence on the quality of the tea. The flavor of tea varies if even just one of the fundamental elements (soil, availability of water, climate, and exposure to the sun) changes. Plants that grow in tropical and subtropical areas, with a mild climate and the right amount of moisture, rain, and sun, produce higher quality teas. The tea plant requires well-drained soil with an acidic composition and a moist climate with a fair amount of rain, clouds, fog, and mild sun. 

The highest quality teas are produced in the mountains, where plantations find the best conditions in which to develop. These teas are known for their freshness and for their fragrant and persistent aromatic notes which are capable of withstanding numerous infusions.

We usually think of the tea plant as a shrub. However, if it isn’t cultivated, it grows to become a tree that can reach 10-15 meters in height. In China, in Yunnan, centuries-old tea trees exist. The oldest are 2700-3200 years old.

According to historical documents, the leaves of the spontaneously growing tea plant were initially used for medicinal purposes, but, starting in the 4th century AD, the first cultivations and plantations began spreading throughout Yunnan and Sichuan. From that moment, the leaves were no longer simply gathered in nature. Instead the plant was “domesticated”, transforming from a tall tree to a shrub with a comfortable harvesting height and a greater number of available leaves.

THE SIX MACRO-CATEGORIES

Traditionally, teas in China are classified into six major families according to the color which the leaves and the infusion (the beverage that will be drunk) acquire after the various stages of processing. 

According to this chromatic classification, teas are subdivided into six macro-categories:

  • green tea 
  • white tea
  • yellow tea 
  • Oolong tea (or blue-green tea)
  • red tea 
  • black tea

Technically, the leaves’ level of oxidation (an enzymatic process that occurs in the cut leaf when it comes into contact with oxygen) and the production process are the criteria which make it possible to assign a tea to a specific family, each of which includes a wide variety of products that are extremely different from one another, yet whose fresh leaves all undergo the same sequence of transformational stages during production.

GREEN TEA

Green teas are also known as unoxidized teas and are the only ones with this characteristic. The freshly picked leaves are left to dry for a very short time, then are cooked in a pan (Chinese method) or steamed (Japanese method) to remove their moisture, without which oxidation cannot take place. The color of the infusion varies from a light straw yellow to an intense green. Depending on the cooking method used to prevent oxidation, teas with very different flavors and aromas can be obtained: infusions with grassy, marine, and vegetal notes (typical of some Japanese teas) or with subtle hints of white flowers, peach, chestnut, and chocolate (present in some Chinese green teas).

The cooking stage is the most important step in the process for producing a high quality green tea.

The subsequent stages vary greatly depending on the product one wishes to obtain. The leaves can be rolled to give them different shapes: twisted into a spiral, simply folded, flattened, or rolled tightly into little pearls.

The processing concludes with the final drying phase, which further reduces the residual moisture contained in the leaves. The green tea is now ready to be packaged and distributed.

Green tea is the kind most frequently drunk in the East. China is the number one producer of green tea in the world and definitely offers the widest variety. 

My favorites are: Jasmine Pearl, Huang Shan Mao Feng, Gyokuro, Xi Hu Long Jing Doc

tè verde

WHITE TEA

White tea is produced primarily in the Chinese province of Fujian – it’s place of origin – but some very high quality ones come from Sri Lanka, the Indian region of Darjeeling, the forests of northwest Vietnam, and even some African countries like Kenya and Malawi. Historically, Chinese white tea was offered as a gift to high dignitaries and members of the royal court, a testament to its singularity and value.

It’s made up of leaves and tender buds covered in a white fluff, which gives them a silver color, similar to the petals of Edelweiss. The percentage of buds is an indication of its quality and higher quality white teas are made up of only shoots.  It’s the tea that is least processed in order to preserve the delicacy of the buds. In fact, its preparation does not include cooking or rolling stages, and withering and drying are the only techniques used. In the cup it’s a light golden color with a hint of pink. It’s velvety and delicate on the palate, with subtle notes of apricot, peach, flowers, and honey.

I recommend: Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Ivory Himalaya, and Silver Buds.

Now that we’ve begun to explore the chromatic classification of tea, I’ll be waiting for you in the next article to learn about the other categories!