Brew made from leaves is the world’s cup of tea


I come from a family of tea drinkers — the blacker the tea and the hotter the water, the better.

Tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a shrub cultivated in western China for thousands of years.

It traveled around the world and today only water is a more popular beverage.

White, green and black teas are all made from the same plant.

It’s the time of harvest and the processing of the leaves that distinguishes grocery store bag tea from the most exotic and expensive blends.

The location of the tea plantation is also critical since tea grown in the rocky soils of the Himalayas is harvested more rarely than it is on the evergreen plants native to the lower elevations of India.

Only tender young leaves are suitable for commercial teas, so tea shrubs are frequently pruned to produce multiple new shoots and new leaves.

Most Chinese teas are harvested just twice a season. Indian plants are adapted to warmer conditions and have year-round growth.

Once the leaves are picked, there’s a short period to condition and dry the leaves before moisture damages thm.

Tea is oxidized, not fermented, so speed and heat are vital to the process.         

White teas are the most delicate and hardest to produce.

The most expensive of them contain just the smallest top leaf and flower bud on a branch, and they must be skillfully plucked.

These leaves are spread out to dry, sometimes for a just an hour or two.

Then skilled workers turn and massage the leaves by hand to break down the cell walls.

Tea masters oversee this process, deciding how much the leaves should be handled to release the proper flavor.

Light heat is applied to the leaves once they are at peak flavor.

All moisture must be driven out of the tea to avoid the growth of mildew and rot.

Within hours of being picked, white teas are completely finished.

Green and black teas undergo a similar process, although the darker the tea, the more oxidation and heat is used to cure it.

Complex teas are also produced by drying the leaves over open fires with different fuels to add smoky flavoring. Spices may also be added during the steeping process.

China recently documented 4,000-year-old domesticated tea shrubs on their oldest tea plantations.

Tea leaves were first eaten like a vegetable, but the medical use of the leaves quickly spread the habit of drinking tea infusions.

Tea use became widespread at the same time the construction of the Chinese defensive walls kicked into high gear, so it’s possible conscripted workers introduced the tea drinking habit to villages all over China when their construction stints ended.

Green tea is still the most popular in China. Outside of Asia, black tea reigns supreme.

It replaced coffee in most areas influenced by the British, so today black tea drinking dominates in India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and many parts of Africa.

China is the world’s leading tea producer, with India and Sri Lanka growing most of the rest. There are also fledgling tea plantations in the U.S. and Canada.

White, green or black tea is one of the most common parts of meals around the world, and one of the best on a cold Wisconsin winter day.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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