The Tea Plant

It’s hard to believe, but all teas come from essentially the same plant, an evergreen of the Camellia family that is native to China, Tibet and northern India. There are three major varieties of the tea plant:

  1. Camellia Sinensis – a small leaf variety that thrives in the cool, high mountains of central China and Japan
  2. Camellia Assamica – a broad leaf variety that grow best at lower elevations, in the moist, tropical climates found in Northeast India and the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China.
  3. Hybrid type – a cross between the assamica and the sinensis.

The tea plants do have characteristics that are common throughout the varieties. They all produce dark green, shiny leaves and small, pure white blossoms, averaging about 1 1/4″ in diameter and resembling a white wild rose. The blossoms bright yellow stamens are so bushy and showy, that in some varieties the flower appears to be yellow rather than white. The flowers in some Chinese and India plants are very fragrant and they have been used for scenting tea leaves.

Tea plants have a growth phase and a dormant period, usually during the winter. The leaves are plucked as the new tea shoots (flush) emerge. In hotter climates the plants have several flushes and can be picked year round. In cooler conditions at higher elevations, there is a distinct harvesting season. Most tea experts feel that the leaves from the earlier flushes, in the spring yield the finest quality teas, but this is a personal taste preference. Each flush produces fine teas, with different characteristics.

If left to grow wild the tea tree can grow as tall as 60 “, depending on the climate. There is even a 1700-year-old tree in the Yunnan Province of China that stands over 100 feet tall. Today the tea plant, also know as the “tea bush”, is pruned and harvested and its height is maintained at about 3 ‘. This tea bush is the standard for most of today’s tea cultivation due to its richer and fuller leaves.

Affecting the thousands of varieties of tea are variables such as soil, altitude and weather. Some teas crave high mountains and cool mist, while others grow better in lower terrain. Most premium quality teas grow at higher elevations, where mountain mist and dew shield the plants from direct sunlight. This humidity helps protect the leaves during the cycle of each day, maintaining a temperature that allows the leaves and buds to develop and mature at a slower pace.

Besides factors such as geography, soil, climate and altitude, the fate of tea is also dependent on the human touch. Since all tea comes from one plant, the way it is processed is the artistry we taste in the final cup. The production of tea is a labor-intensive process and requires close attention to details, such as humidity, oxygen, temperatures, throughout the process. During production the valuable whole leaves are removed form the lower quality tea dust and fannings. It is this production phase that adds to the uniqueness of the final product and is viewed as one aspect of the “art of tea.”

Once you have experienced a true cup of tea, the harder it is to drink tea dust and flavoured teas. Fine tea offers a level of subtlety, complexity and variety of flavours that only the finest wines can compare to. There is an “artistry” inherent in tea, at each stage: from the planting, harvesting, processing and preparing that marvelous cup of tea to sip during the day. You will find that taking the time to have a good cup of tea will always enhance, relax or soothe you throughout the day.

“The best quality tea leaf should ‘curl like the dewlap of a bull, crease the leather boots of a Tartar horseman, unfold like mist rising over a ravine, and soften as gently as fine earth swept by rain”.

Lu Yu, Ch’a Ching

Tea Processing

Tea is probably one of the, if not the oldest beverage in the world. It has been the preferred beverage among emperors, kings, queens, peasants, Buddhist monks and nuns, Taoists and scholars. Tea is a beverage rich in history, culture and research. This small plant has been the centre of attention in so many diverse areas and economic conditions, thus we have so many flavours originating from one tiny plant – the Camellia Sinensis. China, alone, has over two thousand different types of green tea, all beginning from this one plant.

There are many factors involved in the life of a tea leaf before the “agony of the leaf” or as we better know it “steeping” the tea leaf. The processing of the tea leaf is an essential part or art of creating the flavour of “real” tea that we enjoy in our tea cup. The processing determines whether the tea is a black, green, white or an oolong tea and whether it has a smoky, vegetal, sweet or astringent tone to it.

The following outlines the basic definitions of the processing terms that a tea leaf will undergo, depending on the type of tea which is being produced.


This is the first stage of tea processing. The harvested leaves are evenly spread to wither either naturally (where climate is suitable) or by means of hot or cold air forced over the racks. The purpose is to evaporate the tea leaf’s moisture content so the leaf becomes pliable like a soft leather glove. If the moisture content at this stage is too high it will produce a bitter flavour, and if it is too low the flavour of the tea will be too mild.


The soft, green leaf now passes to the rolling machinery, where it is twisted and rolled to rupture the leaf tissue and break the leaf cells. This releases the cell-sap, which spreads like a film on the surface of the leaf. The first important chemical change begins here, when the sap, which remains on the leaf, is exposed to the air and development of the essential oil begins.


This is a chemical process where oxygen is absorbed. This process began during the “rolling” of the leaves, when the cell membranes were broken and the sap was released. Through this absorption of oxygen the leaves begin to turn a bright coppery colour. This process is the main deciding factor which distinguishes the black teas from the green or oolong teas.


The purpose of this stage is to stop further oxidation, and to dry the leaf evenly and thoroughly without scorching it. The tea leaves are spread evenly on trays and there is a continuous blast of hot air forced over them. The temperature and speed at which the trays move are the main factors in successful firing.

GREEN TEA: Green teas may or may not be withered, but steamed immediately after they are harvested. This softens the leaves for rolling and keeps the cell sap from oxidizing. The leaves are then rolled and dried (sometimes many times) until they are “crisp”. The leaves remain green. OOLONG TEA: Oolong teas are usually withered in direct sunlight and instead of rolling, shaken to bruise the outer edge of the leaf. The oxidation period for oolong is half that of black tea. Once the veins become clear, the edges of the leaves become reddish brown, while the centre remains green, the oxidation process is stopped, by firing. Oolong teas are heated at a higher temperature and thus have a lower water content than black teas. DARJEELING: Darjeeling tea is exclusively grown in an area nestling the foothills of the Himalayan range. They are oxidized at a low temperature and normally fired at high a temperature.

The Main Type of Teas

Today’s enormous selection of teas can baffle even the most sophisticated tea drinker. Here’s a brief guide to help unravel the confusion surrounding tea. There are four main types of tea: black, green, oolong and white. They all originate from the same plant type (camellia sinensis) but undergo different processing methods.

Black tea

Requires the most processing. Once picked (hand or machine) the leaves are withered, rolled, heated and most importantly fermented (or “oxidized). The fermentation process produces black tea’s distinctively rich flavour and range of amber hues when it is brewed. Black tea varieties include – Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, Keemun.

Green tea

Withered and rolled but heated dry (or “fired”) to prevent fermentation. The result is a lighter, fresher tasting tea producing a pale, greenish, yellow or emerald liquid, with somewhat grassy, flowery or sweet flavours. Japanese teas are green, with names such as sencha, or hochicha. Well known Chinese green teas include jasmine, dragon’s well, gunpowder.

Oolong tea

Oolong tea lies somewhere in the middle between black and green teas. It is fermented like the black teas, but only partially, producing a unique balance between green tea’s delicacy and black tea’s depth. Formosa oolongs, from Taiwan are considered one of the finest.

White tea

The rarest and least processed tea variety. It is neither fermented nor withered, but simply steamed and dried. This special tea, picked only at daybreak in four northeastern Chinese provinces, contain buds covered with fine silvery hairs imparting a whitish grey colour to the tea. Names include silver-tip pekoe and white needle. Prices may climb to as much as $35 for 50grams.

Within these above four main tea categories there is an incredible variety of flavours, colours of brew and leaf appearance. China, alone is said to have over 2,000 different types of green teas. This variety is due to many factors including: growing conditions, harvesting times, picking techniques, rolling methods, fermenting and firing techniques, leave size etc. The important fact is that all the variations come from the same plant species – camellia sinensis.

Flavourful Blends

Flavoured and blended teas constitute two major subspecies of tea. Most commercial blends contain 20 or more teas from different origins. English breakfast, orange pekoe and Earl Grey are all well-known black tea blends. Earl Grey also belongs to the flavoured tea group, as it is perfumed with oil of bergamot. Other flavoured/blended teas include chai, monk’s blend, mango, Irish breakfast.

Not “True Tea”

We call it “tea”, but technically herbal tea is not a true tea because it doesn’t contain leaves from the camillia sinensis. Best defined as herbal infusions or fruit tisanes, popular brews are mints, chamomille, rose hips, lavender, licorice.

Orange Pekoe

Many people assume that “orange pekoe” is a type of tea. In fact the term “orange pekoe” identifies a leaf size or a grading measurement. Most teas labeled orange pekoe are a blend of black teas from India or Sri Lanka. The popular “Breakfast” blends – English, Irish, Scottish – are created by blending together several different types of orange pekoe black teas.

Tea Grading Initials


Black teas from India are graded according to various criteria. The tea grading initials, which are commonly stenciled along the side of tea chests are briefly described below:

The term often used to describe the largest leaf grade for teas from Sri Lanka and occasionally from the south of India. The term Orange was derived from the Dutch house of Orange. Pekoe was derived from a Chinese word meaning white down and refers to the tips of young buds’ leaves.

The term used throughout the rest of India to describe the largest tea leaves.

FOP with golden tips which are the delicate yellow tips of the buds’ leaves.

FOP with a larger proportion of golden tips than GFOP.

Very high quality FOP.

Very high quality FOP with lots of golden tips. For Darjeeling teas, the S indicates Supreme light coloured liquor.

Broken size tea leaves.

Tea fibres that are smaller than BOP leaves and are commonly found in tea bags.

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