What is tea?

There are countless types of tea in the world. Amazingly, they all originate from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis is a sub-tropical plant that is always green. The descents from Camellia sinensis are to be considered "real tea". Drinks made from plants or flowers other than Camellia sinensis, e.g. herbs and rooibos, are not strictly speaking tea, but should be called herbal teas or tisanes.

Real tea can be classified in several ways. The most common way is to classify tea by type: white, green, black, oolong, yellow, pu-erh. But there are many other more complicated classifications.

There are a number of factors that distinguish all teas from one another. Among other things, the time of harvest, which parts of the plant are harvested, which plant variety, processing method, region, etc. Let's consider a few and start with flush.

"First Flush", "Second Flush", "Autumn Tea", "Shincha" or "Bancha." All these words refer to different types of "flush" or the period of picking the tea. Each region has its own conditions and many cultures have their own terminology, but the basic principle is the same.

At the beginning of the growing season, new shoots appear on the tea bush. These shoots have two leaves and a bud. (The bud does not refer to a flower shoot as in a regular flower, but to future unopened leaves.) When these leaves and a bud are plucked for the first time in the season, it is called the "first flush." They contain the most catechins (antioxidants), L-theanine (a central stimulant) and caffeine of all the flushes. They also tend to have a very delicate taste, a light color and a short shelf life.

After two leaves and a bud have grown (and been picked), the bush goes into a short period of dormancy. During this time it also grows, but very little. The growth is trimmed to stimulate new growth. (Some plantations will use this growth to make very low quality tea, and is typically used in tea bags.) When the new leaves grow out and are harvested they are called the "second flush."

Some areas have consecutive harvestable flushes, others do not, but the terms "first flush" and "second flush" are very common.

Another classification is the cultivation. The tea plant is cultivated in different ways, from small family-owned farms to properties of several thousand acres. For the large plantations, it is common to lie in the lowlands, where it is possible to pick the tea leaves by machine. With some exceptions, the best tea is usually grown high above sea level, on steep slopes, where the tea leaves have to be picked by hand. But the best quality comes from whole-leaf tea anyway and must be hand-picked.

That brings us to another factor that plays into the result you get in the cup, the harvest. The old way, which has existed for thousands of years and which gives the best quality, namely the full leaf, is called "the orthodox method". Carefully pick two leaves and a bud individually by hand. The unorthodox method of harvesting is usually used in conjunction with the Cut-Tear-Curl (CTC) method of processing. This happens by a machine driving over the fields and cutting off the top leaves.

Now you may know a little more about what real tea is, but wondering what all the other stuff you've heard about is? You can read more about that in the next course: Infusions and herbal teas !