Joe spills the tea on all things tea
By Joe Daily
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Here we are. It is almost my favorite time of year. The leaves are changing, the temperature is relaxing, and sweater weather is almost upon us. This month in Daily Libations, we are going to discuss tea. Being from Kentucky, sweet/unsweet black tea was a staple growing up with my family, as I am sure it was for many. Most of us are familiar with this standard black tea blend. We are going to open up the world of the most consumed beverage in the world.
For thousands of years, tea has been cultivated and consumed for its health and wellness benefits. Hot or cold, it is a beverage everyone can typically agree on in some form or fashion. Tea is generalized quite often but is much deeper than just green or black. Those are ultimately two categories of many, with many sub-categories falling underneath their leaves. This month we will talk about the origins of the tea plant itself, Camellia Sinensis and cover black teas production methods. Due to the wide varieties of tea there are in the world today, we will merely scratch the surface, but hopefully, you will leave with a little more understanding than you previously had before—a few words to fill your cup.
Tea can ultimately be very confusing, so I wanted to add a footnote now. The teas we mainly discuss derive from Camellia Sinensis; I am not referring to tisanes, hibiscus tea or fruit and herb/root-based teas are considered tisane teas. Tisanes are, however, a trendy alternative to traditional teas and often beautiful as pictured in this month’s spread, but they are not the focus of our discussion at this time.
If you’re curious about black tea, stick around, we will cover it in this column. We will dive into other categories of tea later in the year as well.
Camellia Sinensis was initially discovered in China by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago. We have also established signs of cultivation dating back to 7000 BCE. It was not until the 1600s before western society began to cultivate their tea. Today we stand with over 35 major tea-producing countries around the world. If you would ever like to visit one, look no further than Charleston, South Carolina, The Charleston Tea Garden.
Now let’s break into black tea and its method of production. Black tea accounts for 90% of the tea consumed in the western world. It is served and prepared in a multitude of ways. Often with milk or cream if served hot or in iced tea chilled sweet or unsweet. It’s versatile by nature. Black tea is fast-growing tea that is easy to produce and harvest every ten or so days. One with origins in the lowlands of northern India, varietal, Camellia Sinensis, Assamica is typical black tea.
Now we will discuss how this tea is processed post-harvest:
Step 1: Our first stage of preparing tea is withering. The freshly picked tea leaves are laid on large, perforated metal racks to remove excess moisture. A fan above pumps air from the top through the shelves of leaves at a controlled temperature and speed to ensure withering is an exact process. Occasionally the leaves are flipped to further even the process.
Step 2: We are now on the stage of rolling the tea. For many years, workers would knead tea leaves by hand to break down the leaves’ cellular structure and relieve even more excess moisture. Today we use specialized equipment known as a roller to press tea leaves in a more expedited process. There are still higher-end teas hand-rolled into tiny pearls, Oolong occasionally being one of them.
Step 3: We place our newly rolled tea leaves onto a table or the ground for the process known as oxidation. (For my wine drinkers out there, we typically avoid too much of this, ha!) This vital step allows oxygen to integrate with the tea leaves fully. The enzymatic reaction is due to the exposure of oxygen to produce the desired aromas, taste and color for black tea. Black teas are typically fully oxidized, but in some cases, particular styles of tea halt oxidation.
Step 4: The drying process of our tea is one step closer to having a cup. Through drying, we halt the oxidation process to remove nearly all moisture content. We leave 3-4% moisture in our leaves, resulting in a shelf-stable product to enjoy for quite a long time.
Step 5: It is time for the cleaning process to remove access veins, stems and particulates from our newly dried leaves.
Step 6: The most crucial step is grading. A grading apparatus is a machine that consists of a rotating drum with multiple layers of mesh with different size holes to allow the separation of different-sized leaves.
Step 7: The final step in our adventure is packing our newly finished tea into tea sachets or bagged loose-leaf tea. The package includes a label with its grade, weight, origin and package date.
So, what are your thoughts so far? Did you ever think you would find yourself reading about the wonders of tea? The history of tea as a commodity is rich with history—tales of corporate espionage to taxation to all-out war. The production of tea was a highly regarded secret for generations. For me, to have the ability to talk about this to this day openly is a feat in itself. I find myself sitting back and thinking about it quite often. I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s read on the introduction to black tea. If you ever see me out enjoying a cup, feel free to stop and have a chat!
If you drink it. I study it.