The Life of a Tea Leaf

Originally called cha and tu in China, tea comes from the
Camellia sinensis shrub, a perennial evergreen that grows
mainly between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. (Infusions of
roots, flowers, and herbs, such as chamomile and rooibos, are often
called herbal teas but are more properly tisanes.) Though some 30
countries grow Camellia sinensis, most tea is produced in
India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Kenyan highlands.

The different strains of Camellia sinensis, the
geographic microclimate in which they’re grown, and the age and the
part of the leaf that is picked all yield different types of tea
with unique characteristics. The finest teas are hand-plucked,
while mass market teas are picked by imprecise machinery,
compromising quality. How the leaves are processed and the level of
contact with oxygen determines the type-white, green, yellow,
oolong, pu-erh, or black, which makes up 87 percent of the tea
drunk by Americans.

White tea, from a strain endemic to China’s Fujian province,
undergoes no oxidation. The leaves are steamed shortly after
they’re picked to halt the process. When they’re left to oxidize
longer, the result is green tea. For black tea, oxidizing leaves
are piled up in a heated room, which initiates a fermentation
process that breaks down the leaf, releases tannins, and changes
the color. Bits of broken leaves that result from the processing
are allocated to tea bags for their quick diffusion.

The tea leaves might then be flavored – green tea layered with
jasmine flowers, for example, or black tea leaves sprayed with
bergamot orange oil and, increasingly, dried bergamot fruit to make
Earl Grey. Blended teas might contain different tea varieties
(English Breakfast traditionally includes Keemun and Assam) or the
same kind from different estates. To meet Americans’ growing desire
for flavored tea blends, companies now use flowers and herbs from
around the world.

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