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Tea 101

Courtesy of Annaliese Keller:www.malabartradingco.com

What is Tea?
Tea is the second-most consumed drink in the world, surpassed only by water. An often-surprising fact to tea novices is that all teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. How the leaves are processed will determine their final classification as black, white, green, and oolong teas.

Tea flavors are also determined by where the tea is grown (“terroir”) and what is added to the leaves. For example, Assam tea grown at sea level in hot regions of India is malty, sweet and robust while high-grown Darjeeling, with a long, slow growing season and cooler temperatures, is floral and musky. Cave-aged Yunnan Pu-erh has a non-acidic, earthy flavor while Lapsang Souchong, which is smoked over a cypress fire, has a rich and smoky taste. Green tea is commonly grown in cool mountain regions with names like “Cloud and Mist” or “Emerald Dragon.” White tea is virtually unprocessed young leaves and blossoms, the best leaves being the first, downy young shoots of springtime with names like “Snow Blossom” or “Silver Needle.” 

Black Tea
Leaves for black tea are withered until the moisture content reaches 60 percent. As the leaves dry, they become pliable; at this point, they are either rolled or broken by hand or mechanically. Rolling the leaves helps release organic compounds that gives black teas their distinctive flavors and aromas. The length of fermentation time determines the eventual finished color of the tea leaves, as contact with oxygen turns the leaves from green to coppery red to a deep brown, and then black.

Among the more popular black teas are Darjeeling, a very flavorful Indian tea that has an intense aroma and Keemun, considered one of the top ten teas from China, which was used in the first English Breakfast tea blend. Assam teas are a favorite Indian tea characterized by rich, sweet malty flavors and are traditionally considered to be breakfast teas since they holds up well to milk and sugar. Assam teas are a standard ingredient in both English and Irish Breakfast blends. Yunnan, another favorite Chinese tea and named for the birthplace of tea, has a spicy quality to it. Yet more flavor profiles are achieved by blending various teas. Tea blending is an art form unto itself, practiced by consummate artisans of tea and tea masters and comprise the thousands of teas we know and enjoy today.

Green Tea
To process green tea, the leaves are steamed or pan-fired immediately after picking. Once the leaves become soft and pliable, they are rolled into various shapes, after which the tea continues to dry until it has less than four-percent moisture content.

Green teas include many Chinese teas such as Gunpowder, a tea in which the leaves are hand-rolled into tiny pellets, Dragon Well and Cloud and Mist. Jasmine Pearls are green tea leaves that are rolled around a jasmine blossom. Sencha, from Japan, is light in color, yet rich in the cup; and lastly, Genmaicha is a Sencha or Bancha based tea that has been blended with toasted rice and corn. Green tea flavor is usually characterized as being vegetal or grassy.

Green teas are rich in catechin polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to be effective in lowering LDL cholesterol levels as well as inhibiting thrombosis (formation of abnormal blood clots).

Oolong
Oolongs are primarily made in China (known as “Ti Kwan Yin”) and Taiwan (often called Formosa, its old Dutch name). Oolong is a semi-fermented tea that is made from large, mature leaves to produce its characteristic full-bodied taste and is oxidized to a point between a black and green tea. After being picked, the leaves are withered to remove moisture. The leaves are left to dry in the shade before the semi-fermentation process begins. Fermentation is interrupted by stirring the leaves in heated pans (called “firing”); the leaves are then rolled into small balls by hand and dried.
Oolongs can vary tremendously according to the tea artisan’s skills and the terroir or soil condition of the tea plants.

Formosa oolong, from Taiwan, is generally regarded as the best oolong in the world. Several grades of Formosa oolong are available, with flavors ranging from smooth, sweet and floral to fruity and toasty. Ti Kwan Yin (oolong style tea made in China) is often referred to as the “champagne” of tea. Monkey Picked Oolong and High Mountain Grown Ti Kwan Yin are exceptional oolong style teas.

Oolong has been shown to be effective with indigestion and helps lower cholesterol. Also, recent studies show that oolong tea is effective in lowering plasma glucose levels of those who have Type II diabetes.

White Tea
White teas are made from withered Camellia sinensis leaves. The leaves and first buds are picked and harvested before the leaves open fully, when the buds are still covered by fine white hair or “down”, and then spread on a screen to remove moisture by air drying. An example of white tea is Yin Zhen, or Silver Needle, which consists of the flowery pekoe leaf buds that are plucked on the day prior to their opening. They are steamed and dried, and undergo no rolling or firing. White Peony is another example of white tea, with leaves the shape of peony petals. Silver Needle Jasmine is made when the newest tea leaves and buds are layered between sheets of silk and jasmine flowers and allowed to dry-when the process is complete, the sheet of jasmine flowers is removed and the delicate scent has permeated the tea. White teas have a light, delicate  sweet flavor.

White tea is made from the finest tea leaves from each bush and is finished with a minimal amount of processing. Most connoisseurs consider white tea to be the best of all teas. Many of the best white teas come from China and Japan, but there are also several regions of India that craft white tea as well. White tea is scarce and much rarer than the other traditional teas, and therefore, quite a bit more expensive.

New studies suggest that white tea may be slightly more effective in improving immune system than its green cousin.

Flavored Teas
Flavored teas are made by spraying leaves with essential oils of flowers or fruits and then tumbling them until dry. Earl Grey, a black tea with oil of bergamot (a citrus fruit) is a well-known favorite flavored tea. Virtually any flavor and combination of teas are available, thanks to modern technology.

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Patricia Rain

is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.
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