By Bill Waddington, owner, TeaSource, contributor
There are more than 3000 types of teas in the world, most of them from China, where tea dates back almost 5,000 years. Legend has it that the emperor Shen Nung discovered tea in 2732 B.C. when some tea leaves blew into his pot of boiling water. It is said the resulting brew with its pleasant aroma and sweet taste invigorated both his body and spirit.
Amazingly all 3,000 types of tea come from one plant that is native to China, Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. While there are many hot herbal drinks like mint and hibiscus, all true tea comes from this one plant.
Six categories of tea are created from this single plant. Tea categories are determined by differences in processing methods and differences in flavor and aroma. The six categories of tea are:
White tea, also known as Bai Cha is the lightest, most delicate of all teas. Traditionally only made in Fujian, it is called white tea because of the downy fuzz on these youngest of tea leaves. That downiness adds to the sweet creamy texture of this tea.
Green tea, known as lu cha is the most popular type of tea in China, with more varieties than any other tea category. Every Chinese province that produces tea (17 out of 23 provinces) makes some sort of green tea. During processing, the leaf retains a green color and the liquor tends to be light green with a hint of amber in the cup. The brew tends to be lighter, grassy, vegetal, and slightly sweet, or herbaceous. The tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor in 1776 was a Chinese green tea called Young Hyson.
Yellow tea is the rarest category of tea in China. Commonly known as huang ya cha, yellow tea is primarily produced in Hunan, Zhejiang, and Sichuan provinces. It is called yellow tea for the yellowish, slightly green hue of the steeped liquor. It is similar to a green tea; in fact, it starts out as a green tea. But it goes through some unique processingsteps; including “Kill Green” and being wrapped in damp cloths and fired over charcoal for days. These extra steps makea tea that is similar to a green tea, but with a flavor that is both brighter and earthier than green tea, and unlike anything else in the whole world of tea.
Oolong tea, often seen as wulong tea, roughly translates as: black dragon.” This name refers to the long sinewytwisted leaves of oolong teas. The most and best oolong teas come from Fujian or Guangdong province. Simply put oolong teas exist between black and green teas. They tend to be darker, with more flavor and body than green tea, but softer, mellower, with less body than black teas. The range of flavor profiles of oolong is the largest of any tea category. They can be soft, light and sweet or dark as sin with a toasted, almost charcoal-like note; and anything in between. If you love infinite variety and experiencing something new, oolongs may be the tea for you.
Dark Tea (including puer) is known as hei cha. Hei cha is a tea that, after initial production, goes through a deliberate aging process, during which naturally occurring bacterial activity occurs in the stored leaf. This microbial process can dramatically change the appearance, aroma and flavor of the tea. If a good quality dark tea is stored well; then the older it gets, the better the tea becomes (and the more expensive it becomes!). I’ve tasted puer teas that are 90- days old and puers over 100 years old. In 2007, there was an economic oddity; a world-wide puer bubble, very similar to the dot com bubble of the early-2000s. Speculators were buying and trading puers as a hedge against the future, since puer gets better with age. As with all such economic events, a lot of poor puer flooded the market, many bad decisions were made, and the puer market crashed. Although it has taken a decade for the puer industry to recover wonderful puers, both old and new are again on the market.
Black tea, is also known as hong cha. This is a fully oxidized tea which makes the leaf black/dark brown. The steeped liquor of this tea tends to be a deep dark ruby red, hence the name hong cha. Black teas tend to be very full-bodied, sometime earthy or toasty, and are drunk little in China. Most of the black teas from China are sent to the west. Black tea is produced in Anhui, Yunnan, Fujian, Sichuan, and Hunan provinces. Properly preparing tea is simple: take a large pinch of tea leaves (about an acorn-sized pinch), put it in a large mug or small teapot. Add hot water. Relax for a short time, then drink the tea. If you increase the amount of the tea or the time steeped, the tea will be stronger.
The tea industry confronts change
The Chinese tea industry remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Some of the same tea classification terms and numbers were used for centuries, well into the 1990s. From at least the 1950s the Chinese tea industry was entirely controlled, administered, and managed by the government. Beginning in the late 1990s capitalism began to creep into China causing changes in Chinese society, culture, the economy, and industry, including the tea industry. As with all changes; some of the effects were for the good, some not so much.
Some good changes were:
The greatest expansion of prosperity and specifically, the middle class, that has ever occurred.
Raising the standard of living for almost everyone in China, while lowering the levels of poverty to the lowest levels in Chinese history.
Increasing the variety and the sourcing options of all teas, and increasing the creativity of teas being made.
Allowing entrepreneurships to flourish with hundreds of small-scale tea producers springing up, creating the opportunity for direct sourcing of Chinese teas from the men and women who actually make the teas.
China becoming one of the leading economic powers in the world.
Some of the not so positive effects of emerging capitalism were:
The consistency of the quality of Chinese tea went down. Pre-capitalism Chinese teas were the most consistent and reliable teas in the world. Everything was controlled by a government bureaucracy, which ran the Chinese tea industry with very strict guidelines and definitions as to the appearance, aroma, flavor of all the teas. When I began in the tea industry 22 years ago, Chinese teas were the only teas in the world I did not need to get samples of before purchasing, because the quality was so strictly controlled.
No more. Chinese teas are now similar to teas from the rest of the world; in that they are inconsistent. There are some GREAT Chinese teas I never would have tasted in the past. There are some horribly misrepresented and over-priced Chinese teas on the market.
Counterfeit teas are now commonplace. Particularly puer teas.
So, it has become a “buyer beware” situation in the Chinese tea industry (another hallmark of capitalism). Despite these changes, tea survives. Tea is simplicity itself; just water and leaves. But this amazing beverage has shaped history, has triggered wars, has built and toppled fortunes, has civilized societies, and has brought solace and health to millions.