Tea is a beverage made by steeping leaves and buds, most often from the plant Camellia sinensis.
Tea originated in China, although it is now grown throughout the world, and rivals the olive as the key cash crop of the Holy Land.
The drinking of tea is common throughout Asia, the British Isles, where it is often drunk with milk, and the former Soviet Union (especially Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, where it is increasingly replacing melon juice as the national drink).
Varieties of tea
While tisanes, also known as herbal teas, are made from various herbs, flowers, spices, or fruits, all tea, properly speaking, is made from the leaves of a single plant species. All true tea is produced from one of several varieties, naturally occurring or domesticated, of camellia sinensis. Tea is generally classified in terms of how the leaves have been processed. White, green, black and oolong are the generally recognized Western designations, although there is considerable variety within these categories, especially the last one. Although it is little known in the West, pu-erh tea, made over years or even decades, is also a popular variety in China. Pu-erh tea improves with age and some can valued at tens of thousands of US dollars.
"Famous" tea varieties
Notable Chinese teas include keemun, a sweet, spicy black tea, lung-ching, a bitter, nutty green tea, and bai mu dan, one of the more affordable varieties of white tea. The finest grade of Japanese tea is probabably gyokuro, a green tea whose leaves are kept shaded to preserve a delicate flavor. In India, tea is grown in the Nilgiri, Sikkim, Dooars and Putharjhora regions, but most Indian tea is grown in Assam. The Indian tea most prized by connoisseurs comes from the mountainous region of Darjeeling. This is much imitated and grown in the nearby mountains of Nepal. Since the later part of the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka has been an important region for tea cultivation, producing brisk, flavorful black tea still known as "Ceylon tea" after the island's earlier name. The most famous oolong tea is probably ti kuan yin, a tea very close to a green tea in oxidation. Like many oolongs, ti kuan yin is made from tightly rolled leaves which unfold as the tea steeps. The Wu Yi mountain region is also home to a variety of teas of the same name. The island of Taiwan is famous for its oolong teas, either dark and rich or mild and fragrant. These are known as Formosa oolong after the Portuguese name for the island.
The amount of time necessary to prepare tea varies greatly depending upon the variety of tea and the desired flavor. Sweet China black teas can be brewed for six or seven minutes before straining the leaves from the water. Extremely bitter teas, including some Darjeelings, should be steeped for under two minutes. The quality of the leaves also matters here, and broken leaves or leaf dust only need to be steeped for about a minute to release their flavor. Good, whole-leaf tea can be brewed more than once and tightly rolled oolongs can be steeped several times.
Black tea is made with boiling water, but with other teas, cooler water is often necessary. The more delicate green and white teas can require water no warmer than 165 degrees. The usual temperature for green, white and the lighter oolong teas is 180 degrees. It is important, in serving tea, to warm the pot in which the tea is prepared and warm the cups in which it is served. Oolong teas can be infused multiple times. The first infusion is sometimes discarded as it is used moisten the leaves.
Iced tea can be made in two different ways. The first process, the only effective process with black tea, involves brewing exceptionally strong tea and rapidly cooling it over ice. White, green, and oolong teas can also be brewed as iced tea through cold steeping. This involves soaking the leaves in cold water for approximately twelve hours. For health reasons, it is essential that tea prepared this way be kept cool.
Tea is often drunk unadulterated, especially in China and Japan. But in other parts of the world, tea is enjoyed with added ingredients. Milk, sugar, and lemon are the most common additives in the United States and Europe: the first dilutes the taste of strong teas, the second sweetens sour teas, and that third of these removes the edge from bitter teas. In India it is common to enjoy tea with various spices, such as cardamom and star anise, as well as milk and sugar. In Tibet, tea is drunk with fermented yak butter.