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By Oge Okafor
My superior jokingly said he would venture into producing tea because he believes that you get tea when you pluck the grasses (lemon grass) from your backyard, dry it, ground it and add hot water to it. And if our well known tea lover approves of it after tasting, he is good to go. And everyone laughed. In anyway, he is right when you hear of the different tea brands in the market.
But come to think of it: have you ever wondered where your favourite tea comes from while you are enjoying a hot cup? Have you ever thought about what’s in a teabag and why it tastes the way it does? Have you ever stop to think about how much you really know about what you are drinking?
The origin of tea is every bit as fascinating as the drink itself. While many people assume that green, white, black, pu-erh and oolong teas come from different plants; though these teas all taste and look different, they all come from the same plant. Each type of tea begins as Camellia sinensis. The distinction between these six teas comes not from the type of plant but rather from how the tea is prepared after the plant has been harvested. Tea blends are made from the same plant and are processed with care and expertise. The ancient Chinese tradition of drinking tea dates back thousands of years to the early Chinese dynasties and aristocrats who drank the beverage for its medicinal properties. In ancient times, leaves from the tea plant were either ground into a powder or placed as loose leaves directly into water to infuse it with herbal essence. Unfortunately, modern day tea is nothing like the unadulterated version of old tea. Many of today’s tea brands are operating under the guise of providing health benefits and promoting clean living, but are actually laden with pesticides, toxins, artificial ingredients, added flavors and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant
Where the Camellia sinensis is grown partially impacts the flavor and style of tea. Some strains of Camellia sinensis thrive in warm climates that get lots of rain. Other strains can survive in very cold climates, like Japan and China.
The process of harvesting the plant can have a significant impact on the resulting tea. Typically, Camellia sinensis is grown in special tea gardens. The tea plant is grown in rows and need lots of space. The best tea gardens are found in cooler climates, where the Camellia sinensis thrives; if left alone, this remarkable plant can grow to 30 feet tall. Because of this, these plants need to be pruned every few years. When the tea leaves are ready to be plucked, the plants are cut down to about 3 or 4 feet high. The top is cut down so it’s flat like a table. It’s fittingly called the “the plucking table”. This makes it easier for workers to reach the leaves to pluck. Usually, tea is hand-picked because the job is so delicate. Tea growers keep their gardens cut back to improve the taste of the tea and make the harvesting process easier. During the harvest season, the finest teas are hand-picked by tea experts who know how to choose the best tea leaves. For finer teas, this means sticking exclusively to the two uppermost tea leaves, along with leaf buds located at the tips of the stems. Tea is plucked in seasons, based on when the leaves will have the best flavor. Plucking seasons are called “flushes.”
Tea plant after plucking
After a worker collects the leaves, they bring them over to a tea factory. Tea factories tend to be located on the plantation. This is so the oxidation process of the tea can be monitored. As soon as a leaf is plucked, it begins to react to oxygen in the air. The oxidation process is very important in tea manufacturing. That’s why a newly plucked leaf must be handled quickly so manufactures can control how long it oxidizes. Remember, all tea comes from the same plant. What makes the tea green, white, black or oolong mostly depends on the oxidation process.
Immediately following a tea harvest is the withering process when tea leaves are set out to dry. Once the moisture has been removed from the tea leaves, they are then rolled and fermented. The fermentation process is important in that it produces the essential oils that give teas their distinctive aromas and flavors. When fermentation is complete, tea leaves are sorted out by size. Most teas include a combination of full leaves, smaller leaf pieces and tea dust. This unique combination gives more character to each batch. Although oolong, white, black and green tea is all made from the same plant, herbal teas have a different background. Unlike the teas described above, herbal teas typically don’t come from tea leaves. Instead, they’re most commonly made from seeds, berries, flowers or roots. Herbal teas can be created from a variety of plants, including (but not limited to) chamomile, peppermint, dandelions, hibiscus, barley, sage and rosemary. For instance, Noni tea is brewed from the crushed leaves and fruit of the noni plant, or Morinda citrifolia, which is known to the Polynesian people as “the sacred plant.” Also called Indian mulberry or morinda, noni is a tropical evergreen that grows in the Pacific islands, the Caribbean, Asia, South America and Asia.
The wonderful thing about tea is that no matter which type you prefer, you can always discover a unique experience when you brew a cup. Tea drinkers have enjoyed the relaxing aura surrounding this popular beverage for millennia and, based on the recent resurgence of tea, that tradition is not likely to die out anytime soon.