My tea passport by Comptoir Français du Thé®
General information about tea
a. The life cycle of tea
A little bit of botanical information…
The tea plant itself is “as old as the hills”. This evergreen plant has shiny, green, slightly serrated leaves and can grow to a height of up to 10 m in the wild.
Its generic name is Camellia sinensis L. and it belongs to the Camellia L. genus, a family of ternstromaceae with around 80 species.
A native of the Orient, the “original” tea plant comes either from China and is called Camellia sinensis, or from India – and, more specifically, the region of Assam in Bengal – in which case it is named Camellia assamica. A number of hybrids are grown by crossing these two “parent plants”.
Tea plants need soil that contains neither too much chalk nor too much clay. The plant’s central root goes very deep down into the soil. The soil may be alluvial, as is the case in Assam, on the Bengali plain criss-crossed by the Brahmapoutre river, or rocky, as is the case in Sri Lanka or Darjeeling.
The plant particularly likes acidic, permeable soils with a high nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash content.
It needs water on a daily basis. A relative humidity level of between 70 and 90% helps it to flourish. Regular, dry winds and a temperature of between 10 and 30°C suit it perfectly.
General knowledge about tea
Tea production today…
Today, the main tea-growing countries in terms of percentage of world production are India (31%), China (24%), Sri Lanka (10%), Kenya (10%), Indonesia (5%), Japan (4%), Bangladesh (3%), Turkey (3.5%), Argentina (1%), Iran (1%), Malawi (1%), Taiwan (1%), Vietnam (1%)… With some 15,000 cups drunk every second, tea has now become the most consumed beverage after water.
The word “tea”…
The Chinese character for tea converts to “ch’a”, which is pronounced two different ways depending on the dialect. The word for tea in practically every language of the world is derived from one or other of these two pronunciations.
The official pronunciation (also used in Cantonese and Mandarin), which probably spread from Canton and Hong Kong, is chá, and is derived from the word for to pick. A number of languages have taken this form, including Portuguese (chá), Russian (tchaï), Japanese (cha), Arabic (chaï), Turkish and Persian.
The other pronunciation is “te”, from the Malay word used to describe the beverage in the Min-nan dialect used in Amoy. The Dutch, who introduced tea into Europe in 1606 after buying it in Java, gave it the name thee, from which the French thé, the English tea and the German Tee are derived.
In countries where the pronunciation starts with a “t” the use of tea spread by land, whereas in countries where the pronunciation starts with a “ch”, it developed by sea.
According to Chinese legend, the use of tea as a drink began in 2737 BC, when leaves fell off a tree into a cup of hot water in front of Emperor Shen Nung. Tea receptacles dating back to the Han dynasty (-206 to 220) have been found, but it was under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) that tea really took off as a popular drink.
Tea is grown all around the world, primarily in China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Nepal, Turkey, Kenya and Tanzania.
(Note: in the tea trade, Sri Lanka and Taiwan are known by their old names of Ceylon and Formosa, respectively.)
Tea plants need a warm, humid climate, without a very marked dry season. In tea plantations (density of 10,000 plants per hectare), tea plants are pruned so that they do not exceed a height of one metre, to make picking easier. The first harvests begin after three to four years.
Tea is still picked by hand, usually by women, except in Japan and Georgia, where harvesting is mechanised. The plants are harvested every day, all year round (except in specific regions), at 4 to 14-day intervals, the time required for new tea leaves to grow.
The youngest leaves are light green. It is these young leaves that have the highest substance content (caffeine, tannin, etc.) and that produce the tastiest, finest tea. At the end of each branch is a bud covered with whitish down: the pekoe, which means “white down” in Chinese and is simply a young shoot that is still rolled up. These buds are particularly prized. The further you go down the branch, the broader the leaves and the less tasty the resulting drink.
Several different sorts of picking are carried out, therefore, depending on the beverage quality sought. Hence, in “fine” picking, the Pekoe is picked, along with two leaves, and in normal picking, the Pekoe plus three or more leaves are picked.
The different sorts of tea (black, green, Oolong, etc.) do not come from different species of tea plants, as was long believed in the West, but are obtained by processing the leaves harvested differently. Although the basic operations can be easily described, the exact methods used are often jealously guarded industrial secrets. In addition to the operations described hereafter, tea leaves are sometimes shaped by hand into balls, flowers, pine needles, etc.
The different families and “colours” of tea
Tea is divided into three main families, which are all the result of a specific processing method to obtain different types of teas – and, consequently, different tastes – from the same plant.
Tea can be:
- unfermented (unoxidised), in which case it is green tea,
- fully fermented (fully oxidised), in which case it is black tea (the Chinese usually call this “red” tea),
- or simply dried, in which case it is white tea.
From these main 3 categories, variations in the processing method lead to the production of different teas, such as Oolong tea (also known as blue tea or partially fermented tea), Pu-Erh tea (post-fermented) or yellow tea, etc.
This difference is not the result of a different tea plant but, rather, a different type of processing.
To protect their expertise and dominant position, the Chinese – who were the only suppliers of tea until around 1830 – for a long time let it be believed that one type of tea plant was used to produce green tea and another to produce black tea.
In fact, it is the way the leaves are processed after harvesting that leads to the production of black, green, white, Oolong or yellow tea, etc.
Just as black grape varieties can produce red, rosé or white wines, tea can produce:
- Black tea (known as red tea in China): fully fermented,
- Green tea: unfermented,
- Oolong tea: partially fermented,
- White tea: very slightly fermented,
- Pu-Erh tea: post-fermented. It may also come in compressed form.
It is important to recall that the difference in the resulting tea does not depend on the plant material itself but on the way the fresh leaves are processed in the factory.
Black tea is a tea in which the leaves have undergone fermentation (or oxidation).
Several different processes can be used to develop different organoleptic compositions (Orthodox, CTC, Legg-cutter, Rotorvane, etc.).
For high-quality teas, the Orthodox process is used.
Below are indicated the main technical steps, performed immediately after picking, that promote the change from green to black tea and influence the taste of the tea in the cup.
Withering: duration: 6 to 24 hours
The purpose of this step is to eliminate a large proportion of the water contained in the leaves.
The leaves are spread out on racks – in a layer around 20 cm thick – and warm air, at a temperature of around 20°C, is circulated between these racks. At the end of this operation, the leaves are completely wilted…
Rolling: duration: around 30 min
This step is designed to break up the leaves’ cells in order to release their essential oils and sugars, which will enable fermentation.
This can be done using rollers, fitted with two horizontal discs rotating in opposite directions, or using rotorvanes fitted with a screw cylinder. It is this action that gives the tea leaf its final shape.
A key operation that gives black tea its colour and, especially, its aroma – Can take from 30 min to around 2 hours
Via a variety of (relatively mysterious) chemical reactions, the leaves are oxidised, turning from green to a coppery red/brown colour. The chlorophyll contained in the leaves – in variable quantities depending on the geographic location and the daytime humidity (monsoon season or otherwise) – will give the tea its final colour.
The fermentation duration depends on the region and the environmental conditions (“terroir” – soil, climate, etc.) of the tea and the taste characteristics sought.
Briefly, fermentation is carried out as follows:
The leaves are placed on a fermentation table, and warm air with a high humidity rate (around 95%) is circulated.
The colour and odour of the tea leaves gradually change. The odour changes from that of a freshly cut grass to the characteristic odour of the “terroir” or region.
It is the job of the fermentation manager to identify when the tea has reached its maximum odour. To do so, he must regularly smell handfuls of the whole leaves and constantly check the air humidity, in order to stop the process at exactly the right time.
This operation demands a lot of experience. If the fermentation operation is too short, the tea will lack body and character, and if it is too long, it will lose some of its aromatic subtleties.
There is no mathematical formula for producing a good tea, any more than there is a set method for producing a painting masterpiece.
Each fermentation manager has his own style and it is his expertise that will make all the difference. It is this that allows him to understand the leaves, and to adapt to the various constraints (climate, grade types wanted, leaf quality, etc.) in order to convey the value of his message: that of a job well done.
Drying or Desiccation – The purpose: to halt fermentation
This very delicate operation is carried out in an oven, where the leaves are subjected to a temperature of around 90°C.
If the water content is too high, the tea turns mouldy; if it is too low, it does not release any aroma on infusion.
Then comes sieving and sorting. The tea is sorted on the basis of grade: large (whole) leaves, small (broken) leaves, etc., according to the size standards generally adopted. The tea leaves are then placed in tea chests, less than 36 hours after picking.
Another type of black tea: Smoked tea.
Many people call this type of tea “China tea”.
Known as Lapsang Souchong or Tarry Lapsang Souchong, these teas are, in fact, just one of the numerous tea specialities in China and represent only a very small proportion of the country’s tea production.
Following fermentation in a pan, the souchong leaves (lower leaves and therefore “old” leaves of the tea plant) are rolled, >then pressed in wooden barrels covered with fabric until they are fully fermented.
The leaves are then roasted again and rolled. Finally, they are placed in bamboo baskets over a pinewood fire. This dries the leaves and the smoke absorbed from the Chinese Pine or Cypress wood fire gives the tea its unique taste. Smoked teas from Taiwan can also be found.
These smoked teas are ideal with an English breakfast or brunch.
PU-ERH TEA: a post-fermented black tea
This is primarily produced in South-West China, in the province of Yunnan.
The biggest leaves (hence the “oldest” leaves of the tea plant) are used and undergo a “sweating” process.
After “roasting” in the oven (in pans covered with straw) and rolling, the leaves are kept squeezed down under a moist fabric, for more than 20 hours, at a humidity level of between 80 and 90%.
They are left like this until they oxidise, under the effects of humidity and certain bacteria. This fermentation is non enzymatic. Thereafter comes the rolling phase, followed by brief drying.
Finally, the tea is kept for as long as possible, in order to develop post-fermented aromas and a very moist earthy taste of “undergrowth”. It is reputed to promote the elimination of fats.
It is sometimes compressed into bricks or “bird’s nests”.
The term “green tea” has nothing to do with the colour of the leaves or the colour of the liquor produced. It is an unfermented tea.
Green teas are primarily made in China, Japan, Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) but for the past few years, they have also been found in Ceylon and India, traditionally producers of black tea.
The freshly picked leaves are withered then heated for a few minutes to destroy the enzymes and stop any possibility of fermentation.
In the “Chinese” method, copper pans are placed over a fire. In the “Japanese” method, the leaves are steam-dried (at around 80°C) in vats, which gives them specific organoleptic characteristics.
Drying stabilises the tea and prevents it going mouldy.
Different rolling operations (sometimes even hand rolling) lead to leaves with a variety of appearances, including flat, pine needle, twisted and rolled leaf shapes.
A Chinese speciality is hand-shaped tea, using very young, fresh tea leaves to reproduce shapes that can be found in nature. These are known as Flowering Teas. e.g.: Tea roses or Mu dan, needle or eyebrow shapes.
Oolong tea (or partially fermented tea, also known as “blue tea”)
Wu Long means “black dragon”. The legend of its creation recounts that, around 300 years ago, a tea planter from the region of Fujian was walking through the tea plants, wondering how to create new varieties and “obtain” new tastes.
Suddenly a dragon, an emblematic animal in China, came out of one of the trees. The tea planter interpreted this as a good omen, picked a few leaves, left them to ferment for a shorter time than usual and discovered original new flavour notes. Oolong tea was born.
So Oolong or Wu Long tea (just like a black, green or white tea) owes its taste to the way it is made. It is neither a black nor a green tea, but, instead, a compromise between the two.
It is partially fermented, with fermentation having been deliberately halted before the transformation into black tea has been completed.
The degree of fermentation ranges from 15 to 60%.
The leaf, which is still large, undergoes a dozen successive handling operations, giving it a very characteristic twisted, fleshy appearance.
Its very subtle, delicate flavour varies depending on its fermentation rate. It may have white floral notes, or chestnut, honey or hazelnut flavours.
It is therefore a speciality of Fujian, as well as of Formosa (Taiwan), where quality takes precedence over quantity.
Oolong teas from Taiwan have all the delicacy of a Very Fine Tea. They are very highly reputed and often expensive.
White tea is produced using a minimalist process.
Barely opened leaves (or only down-covered buds in certain cases) are plucked then quickly withered before being dried in the sun or with steam.
A 19th century traveller had observed that to make these teas, the Chinese left freshly picked leaves and buds in the sun, then in the shade.
These slightly silvery leaves, covered by a fine white down, are broad and unrolled.
Yin Zhen and Pai Mu Tan are white teas. They are produced in China, especially in Fujian province.
Their liquor is relatively surprising, since it is non-tannic, very clear and light, with a very delicate apricot flavour. These teas have fresh, floral notes. White teas are often drunk in the summertime in Asia, as >a cooling refreshment.
Yellow tea is a tea that has been very slightly fermented.
The youngest leaves of the tea plant are selected and dried in the Chinese manner.
Shortly before drying, they are placed under straw or under old papers for around one day. This leads to slight fermentation.
The leaves are then rolled into long needle shapes before being dried.
This process, which gives the tea a fruity-flowery note or even an underlying walnut flavour, is only used in the Yunnan province of China.
A tea that’s not a tea: Rooibos or red bush tea
The English use the word “tea” for both real teas and herbal teas or infusions.
It is for this reason that rooibos, incorrectly known as “red tea” has been lumped together with tea in day-to-day language.
Rooibos is a plant that grows in the South African bush, which has the Latin name of Aspalathus.
This spiny shrub with fine, needle-like leaves grows wild in the region of Cederberg in Africa, north-west of Cape Town.
Once they have been cut, the stems are collected and placed in the sun. Fermentation occurs, oxidising the initially green leaf to turn it red.
This plant has become increasingly popular in recent years. A number of studies have shown that rooibos has many medicinal properties, due to its high vitamin A, C and E content and that is has beneficial effects on arthritis and rheumatism.
It is also beneficial in the event of allergies and eczema and is used in cosmetics. It contains numerous antioxidants and boosts the immune defences.
Obviously, since it is caffeine (thein) and tannin-free, it is mellow and easy to drink at any time of the day.
b. Tea-growing countries
India is the world’s biggest tea-growing country, accounting for almost a third of total global tea production. Indian teas are extremely varied. Firstly, because the climate conditions and relief vary hugely from one region to another: mountainous areas, plateaux or plains; and secondly, because the plantations do not all have the same varieties of tea plants.
India, whose first tea gardens or estates date back to the start of the 19th century, is the world’s biggest producer, but not the biggest exporter (which is Kenya). In 2001, its production fell, due to poor weather conditions and strikes. The tea sector in India employs some 1.1 million people (50% of whom are women).
Three tea-growing regions are particularly well-known:
The Darjeeling region:
“Mythical” city and region, located at the foot of the Himalayas at an altitude of 2,145 metres.
In 1856, the first Tukvar tea garden was established on land belonging to Major Mason. The plantations were located at an altitude of between 1,000 and over 2,000 metres.
Darjeeling supplies 2 to 3% of India’s total tea production. Darjeeling’s reputation comes from the taste of the teas produced in this area, including its unique “muscatel” aroma, not found in any other region of the world.
Its geographic position means that production is governed by the rhythm of the Himalayan seasons and is only possible from around 10 February to 15 December.
During this period, the tea is picked and produced every day.
A total of 83 tea estates can be counted, including: Risheehat, Castleton, Gielle, Jungpana, Margaret’s Hope, Sungma, Singbulli, Balasun…
The aromatic diversity is due to skilful crossing of plants from Assam and China, to the combination of winds and rains, which change according to the orientation and altitude of the cultivated slopes, as well as to the nuances of characters that are variable depending on the time of the year.
In the life cycle of a Darjeeling tea, there are very short periods lasting around 5-6 weeks, when the tea develops specific aromatic notes…
These periods are incorrectly given the following names:
This name indicates that the tea will have a lively, fresh, very subtle and delicate, slightly green flavour, with floral notes or even a hint of almond. It is the first flush period, which starts around early March, at the end of the winter. To obtain this flavour, very young, fine leaves that are barely developed are used. This specific flavour is found until around 15 April. Beyond this date, the characteristics indicated above are less pronounced, less clear.
Under the influence of warmer weather and more sunshine, the second flush period, called the “Second Flush”, begins at the end of May. The tea leaves produce a full-bodied brew with mature flavours of ripe fruits, more complex than the First Flush, with pronounced notes of musk.
This period lasts until around 15 June. This is peak tea season in terms of quantity.
Beyond this date, the quality of the tea decreases, the monsoon rains wash out the leaves, which produce a brew without body, and it is only around the 15 October that the tea again offers >a full liquor, with a strong, pungent flavour. This is the third flush period, the “Autumnal Flush”
From the end of November, the quality of the tea decreases again, as does production. The weather begins to cool down and the tea plants become dormant until the month of February.
The region of Assam:
This is the biggest tea-producing region, not just in India but in the world, with some 187,000 hectares.
The tea plants belong to the second variety of “parent plants”, Camellia assamica, particularly well suited to plain regions >The tea from this region is known for its brisk, malty, spicy flavours, for its pungent, rich liquor, which readily tolerates a drop of milk. Assam teas are used in the majority of breakfast tea blends, the famous English >Breakfast teas. Among its 2,000 tea estates, the most well known include Dikom Gold, Bhooteachang, Orangajulie, Napuk, Mokalbari, etc.
As with Darjeeling tea, there are two major 6-week periods when the tea develops specific aromatic notes.
These flush periods are slightly different in Assam than in Darjeeling, i.e. from May to June for the first period and from early July until the end of August for the second period.
The region of Nilgiri:
These plantations are in the mountains of southern India, offering a relatively mellow tea, known for its smooth flavour. The leaves are picked all year round, in contrast with Assam and Darjeeling teas, which are seasonal. The word “Nilgiri” translates literally as “Blue Mountains”.
Sadly, the teas from this region are not very well known and little exported since their flavour does not really suit French tastes.
The flush periods are: – the month of February (the teas resemble a Darjeeling tea in terms of their blonde colour and their flavour is delicate, with no greenness or astringency) and the month of September, when they offer more pronounced flavours and a stronger cup of tea.
The big tea garden names are Thiashola, Korankunda… and are located around the town of Coonor, among others.
The birthplace of tea and the world’s biggest producer until the 19th century, China is in second place today, behind India.
There are more tea gardens in China than there are wines in France: an infinite number of tea categories, be they white, yellow, green, Oolong or black teas. It should be specified that, with a few rare exceptions, Chinese teas tolerate neither sugar nor milk. Historically, China is the oldest tea-producing country and used to be the only tea exporter in the world.
Several major tea-producing provinces can be identified. The main ones are:
- Yunnan: A very rich region located in the south-west of the country (bordering Vietnam), which produces teas that are round, long and enveloping in the mouth, combining aroma and strength with notes characteristic of its “terroir”. The province of origin serves as a reference, producing both black teas and green teas. The PU-EHR tea category is also found in this region.
- Anhui: located on a level with Shanghai, Anhui is one of the main tea-producing regions, where Keemun teas are produced, among others.
- Fujian: many types of tea are grown in this region in south-east China, facing Taiwan, including Lapsang, smoked teas, certain jasmine teas, certain types of white tea and Oolong tea.
The tea picking and production season generally starts in the springtime in China, in around April, and finishes at the end of August.
It is interesting to note that in China, teas are not named on the basis of their plantation but after the name of the producing region or the type of tea For example: Yunnan green.
In 1972, the island of Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka, but its old name, dating from the British Empire, has continued to be used in the world of tea, and a tea from this country is frequently referred to as a Ceylon tea. The world’s third biggest producer, Sri Lanka, nicknamed the island of tea, supplies over half of the black tea consumed in France.
Sri Lanka’s tea plantations date back to the end of the 19th century. (The first plantation dates from 1839).
The plants are grown from altitudes of 650 metres above sea level and up to 2,200 m. Tea is one of the country’s biggest commercial crops, accounting for 36% of total export income.
The name Ceylon tea actually covers four major tea-growing areas and numerous tea estates. They each have their own character and their own specific flavour. The tea leaves are harvested all year round, at around fortnightly intervals.
These regions develop flush periods, during which the tea presents specific aromatic notes.
Depending on the combination of winds, rains and the season, the nuances and character of the teas varies greatly and, beyond a specific period, they are no longer found for the rest of the year. This is “the Season” (a little like the seasonality of some fruit and vegetables here, very good when they are in-season and mediocre the rest of the time).
In the west, Dimbulla:
The biggest tea area on the island in terms of its size and the number of tea gardens. The teas are highly prized because during the flush period (the Season), which is in January/February, they have a mellow, creamy flavour, with sweet notes, are very easy to drink and present a fine amber colour. The tea estates found in this region include: Saint-Andrew, Saint-Clair, Great Western, Torrington, Fordyce, Weddemulla…
In the centre, Nuwara Eliya (pronounced Nourelia):
At an altitude of 2000 m, it is during the flush periods (February/March and June) that these very delicate, fine teas have their optimal floral flavour, slightly creamy, slightly herbal, with no acidity or astringency and no notes of tannin. The BLONDE colour of the brew produced is reminiscent of the colour of Champagne, hence the nickname “Champagne of Ceylon teas”. The most famous tea estate names include Lover’s Leap, Pedro Estate, >Nuwara Eliya Estate…
In the east, Uva:
Located in the south-east of the high plateau region, this district produces the most aromatic teas during the months of July/August. They are extremely high-quality teas, with >a full-bodied, nuanced, complex liquor, offering aromatic notes with a slight hint of “menthol”. The tea estates found in this region include: Saint-James, Uva Highlands, >Aislaby…
The other tea-growing areas in Ceylon are not subject to the Season phenomenon and produce teas every day, with a flavour that is stable all year round.
These are located in the regions around Kandy as well as in low and moderate altitude areas.
The most well-known estates to a French public include: Kennilworth, Petiagalla, Koslanda…
Unlike all the other green teas produced around the world, Japanese green teas are not prepared using the traditional Chinese process but, instead, undergo a very specific roasting process, using steam, giving them an immediately recognisable glossy appearance and slightly salty flavour.
Japan almost exclusively produces green teas, with 97% of its harvest consumed within the country. The green tea production process is highly industrialised in Japan. The leaves harvested are steamed on conveyor belts coupled with heating tunnels. The leaves become very soft and are then dried.
Japanese tea leaves can have a variety of visual appearances (pine needle shaped, flat, etc.).
The most common tea grades are Bancha, Sencha and Gyokuro. Top-of-the-range Gyokuro and Sencha grade teas can be very expensive. Matcha – powdered green tea – is mainly used during the Tea Ceremony.
In Japan, tea is harvested and produced between April and the end of July.
When it comes to tea, the island of Taiwan is still known by its old name of Formosa. Annexed by the Chinese at the end of the 17th century, Formosa began by producing tea in small quantities but of very high quality, using tea plants transplanted from Fujian.
Formosa produces green tea and black tea, but it is best known for its Oolong or partially fermented teas.
Due to their exceptional aromatic qualities, they are generally expensive but much appreciated by tea lovers. This “high-end” tea is extremely popular in the USA.
Indonesia – Vietnam – Malaysia
Sumatra and Java have been producing tea from Assam plants since the start of the 19th century. Together, they are the fifth biggest producer worldwide.
Nepal produces a tea that is very similar to Darjeeling tea in appearance, aroma and ripe fruit flavour.
Sikkim is a small Himalayan state that produces a fine, aromatic tea, very similar to the best teas produced in Darjeeling, to which it is geographically very close.
Bangladesh produces a tea similar to Assam tea, in the north of the country, close to the border with India. Deeply coloured and aromatic, it does not tolerate milk very well.
During the 19th century, tea-growing developed in Russia and, more specifically, Georgia. However, the production and quality of this tea are very modest and it is only consumed locally. Since the Chernobyl disaster, it has been strongly advised that genuinely Russian tea not be imported. In addition, the complete mechanisation of the tea harvesting process does not enable fine, selective picking. “Russian tea” is, in fact, a blend of Chinese teas imported into the country.
In the 20th century, the British introduced tea growing into their African colonies (Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania). These African plantations have managed to gain a good share of the world market since their teas are big sellers in Britain. Sometimes produced mechanically and predominantly using the CTC process (cut, tear and curl process primarily used for tea bags), these teas do not offer the same quality as teas produced using the orthodox process.
In Kenya, a very small proportion of tea is produced using orthodox methods, such as the Marynin tea estate.
For the past few years, a South African herbal red tea, known as rooibos or red bush >tea, has been sold in France and Europe. This plant does not belong to the Camellia sinensis or assamica families and is therefore not actually a true tea, technically speaking. It is a plant that grows in the bush. It is much appreciated for its antioxidant properties, its skin benefits and its mellow, light flavour.
c. Tea grades
The term “grade” means the size of the leaves once production of the tea is complete.
Teas are categorised on the basis of the shape and size of the leaves, or “grades” irrespective of whether they are Indian, Ceylon or Chinese teas. Black teas and green teas are graded separately.
There are three main leaf grades:
- large leaves (whole leaf);
- small leaves (broken leaf);
- very small leaves (fannings & dust).
Whole leaves are primarily used for bulk tea sales.
Broken leaves and fannings/dust are usually selected for packaging in paper or cotton bags. The smaller the tea leaf, the stronger and more pungent the liquor will be and the better it will tolerate milk. They are breakfast teas that tolerate milk well.
It is simply an indication and not a quality criterion. A whole leaf tea should not be considered to be of better quality than a broken leaf tea. It is simply a matter of personal taste.
What changes is the construction of the liquor. This is because the smaller the leaf, the greater the contact surface with water. The result is a more intense, pungent liquor, whereas a whole leaf tea will produce a lighter, aromatic and less thick tea.
Never rely on a tea grade to judge its quality. There is no substitute for tasting the product.
Black tea grades, or the mystery of Orange Pekoe
Does Orange Pekoe indicate a tea flavoured with orange? No, it is not tea flavoured with orange but a technical term providing information on the size of the tea leaves.
The name Orange Pekoe was given by the first Dutch tea importers in the 17th century. It comes from combining the name “Orange”, in tribute to the Dutch royal family – “the House of Orange-Nassau” -, and the word “Pekoe” – meaning “white down” in Chinese. It indicates all the young downy leaves, still rolled up and inaccurately described as “buds”, which the Emperor of China was particularly fond of and which were harvested especially for him.
Today, the term Orange Pekoe indicates a tea with whole leaves, of a specific size, generally obtained by picking two leaves and the bud. It is indicated by the abbreviation O.P. on a tea label.
Preceded by the letters F (F.O.P), G (G.F.O.P) or T (T.G.F.O.P), it indicates that the tea is still a whole leaf tea but that it contains a variable number of leaf buds, or golden tips.
Whole leaf tea
Preceded by the letter B or if the letter B appears somewhere in the grade abbreviation, this means that the tea is a broken leaf tea (small leaves) because B stands for Broken. The difference will be in the final size of the tea and whether or not it includes buds or golden tips.
Broken leaf tea
The smallest tea leaves are indicated using the terms:
- Fannings (F)
Green tea grades
The names of the different forms of green tea vary depending on the country in which it was produced, national or even regional names and the production methods.
The following terms are used:
- Sencha: which indicates teas exposed to sun and which have flat leaves.
- Kukicha: A Sencha to which tea plant leaf membranes have been added.
- Gyokuro: corresponds to teas that have been grown partially in the shade (covered by woven bamboo screens). Its leaves have a pine needle shape and are emerald green coloured.
- Bancha: indicates a tea produced using Sencha leaves picked at the end of the production season (of lower quality). >Leaves visually less uniform with lots of stalks.
- Hojicha: a roasted Bancha
- Genmaicha: a mixture of Bancha and puffed rice.
It is very difficult to propose a grading system due to a lack of rigour and precise standards, particularly since certain teas can correspond to several different criteria.
Grading may be carried out on the basis of the tea shape, or the name of the region, or the production method.
For example: Teas with leaves rolled into balls, such as Gunpowder or Chun Mee, in which the “balls” will be larger since they are rolled lengthways.
Flat leaf teas produced in a specific region, such as Lung Ching: flat leaf teas from tea growing villages in the region of Zhejiang.
d. The properties of tea
What does tea contain?
- TANNINS: approximately 12. These are astringent substances contained in the bark of certain trees. Around twenty different tannins can be found in tea. These soothe the stomach, help prevent intestinal problems and develop after infusion for 5 min.
- FLUORINE: around 0.2 mg to 0.3 mg per cup
This substance makes teeth more resistant to decay and is favourable to growth in general.
- CAFFEINE (THEIN): between 1.5% and 4% depending on the tea. It acts as a stimulant on the brain system, without directly stimulating the heart. Caffeine can be controlled: after infusion for 3 minutes, its content is reduced under the action of tannins.
- MINERAL SALTS: Calcium, potassium, iron. These help to prevent anaemia.
- VITAMINS: D1 for growth, C, B1, E slow down cell ageing.
- THEOPHYLLIN: Substance with a diuretic action and beneficial effects on the blood vessels and heart.
- ESSENTIAL OILS: These contribute to the aroma of the tea. They are small particles visible on the surface of a cold tea.
- Action on the cardiovascular system: Caffeine acts on the myocardium via the nervous system.
- Action on the respiratory system: Stimulation and increase in pulmonary rate.
- Action on digestion: Action of caffeine on digestive secretions
- Action on the muscle system
- Action on the intellect
- Effective aid when dieting: Calorie and salt-free, it helps dissolve dietary fat. >Suitable for low-salt diets. Very diuretic
- Protects the body against the harmful effects of free radicals.
“My tea passport” (Pdf)