Chapter 1: An Introduction to Tea

With more varietals in China than there are wine grape varietals in all of France, tea dazzles us with its diversity. But there is only one plant. Even with the endless complexities and variations in all the teas of the world, every tea springs from the singular plant species Camellia sinensis.

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Welcome to Tea 101!

Black Tea

Black tea is the most common tea in North America. It is produced when withered tea leaves are rolled and allowed to oxidize (similar to how an apple changes color when the white flesh is exposed to air). This darkens the leaves and develops flavor, color and body in the leaf. When the time is right, the tea is dried to halt the oxidation process and lock in these characteristics. The result is a robust cup with bright or lively notes that are perfect for breakfast teas, with about half as much caffeine as a similarly sized cup of coffee.

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Green Tea

Green tea is extremely popular in China and Japan, and is gaining popularity in America. It is produced when tea leaves are heated or steamed right after being harvested. This halts the oxidation process, preserving the leaf's emerald hue and naturally occuring antioxidants and amino acids (Theanine). The leaves are finished by rolling or twisting, and then fired. The result is a bright cup with fresh grassy notes and about a quarter as much caffeine as a similarly sized cup of coffee.

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Oolong Tea

The origins of oolong tea trace back to Taiwan and southeast China. Oolong gains its alluring character when the tea leaves are withered and briefly oxidized in direct sunlight. As soon as the leaves give off a distinctive fragrance — often compared to the fresh scent of apples, orchids or peaches — this stage is halted. The leaves are rolled, then fired to halt oxidation. The degree of semi-oxidation can range from 10-80%. Oolong's caffeine content is midway between black and green tea.

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100% White Tea

White tea was introduced to the West in 2002 by The Republic of Tea. It has since become a staple of high-end tea collections. 100% White Tea is the most minimally processed of all tea varietals. The fragile tea buds are neither rolled nor oxidized, and must be carefully monitored as they are dried. The rarest white teas are made from tea buds that are plucked the day before they open. This precise and careful technique produces a subtle cup with mellow, sweet notes.

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Pu-erh Tea

Pronounced "poo-erh," this tea takes its name from a town in the Yunnan Province of China (similar to champagne getting its name from the Champagne region of France). Like wine, it improves with age; some pu-erhs are still drinkable after 50 years! The tea leaves are processed like green tea, then heaped into piles or formed in bricks. Heat is then combined with moisture to encourage natural bacterial fermentation. When the tea is ready, it is only partially fired. This stops enzyme activity, but leaves the tea moist enough to continue to age.

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Herbal Tea

Although many devoted tea drinkers find great pleasure in sipping these aromatic brews, "herbal teas" are not officially teas. In the purest sense, only the leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis, the plant that gives us black, oolong, green and white tea should be called tea. However, we love herbs, and there is so much to say about them that they are the subject of their own email later in this series.

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Matcha Tea

Organic matcha powder is ground from fine Japanese green tea leaves. It is the star of the centuries-old traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Matcha powder is whisked in a bowl with water slightly less than boiling to create a frothy, bright green, nourishing beverage. For iced matcha, sometimes cold water is used. Once prepared, it is then immediately consumed in its entirety.

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