By Andrea de Roode, MS RD LD
As a tea farmer, I may seem biased writing this, but tea is really an incredible plant! I have to marvel at its versatility, both biologically and chemically, as a plant and beverage. How many cultivated crops can boast having such diversity of color, of flavor, of biochemical composition and biology? How many crops can grow happily in the snow covered mountains in the Himalayas, on the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, in the lowlands of the Southeastern United States, in the highest altitudes of Kenya, and in Western Canada? Tea does, it’s a superhero plant! I can only think of Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) as its equal. When people are more familiar with wine than they are tea, I happily use wine analogies to to describe tea (Camellia sinensis), and that can help make tea more approachable.
The tea plant is indigenous to China, and today is cultivated all over the world, including here in Hawaii. Over the past several hundred years of global tea cultivation, different cultures and their trading partners developed preferences for specific varieties or “cultivars” of Camellia sinensis. Each cultivar lends itself to a specific style of tea. Hence, traditionally Japan is well known for its green teas and India, formerly colonized by the British, for its black teas.
At our young and growing Maui Tea Farm, my superhero teamaker husband Alex transforms our tea into a black tea. This is in part a personal preference, but also a biological one: our tea plants are offspring of teas from the Big Island of Hawaii, with genetics tracing back to India. At the Maui Tea Farm, we develop our own recipes for green tea, and the semi-oxidized style of tea known as “blue-green” oolong and yellow teas. It may take us a few plant generations of cross-breeding and cutting cultivation to be able to get a field of plants we like specifically for green or oolong tea making. On a side note, oolong style teas are a whole amazing tea journey unto themselves, and we will need to devote future articles solely to them.
How and when Alex transforms our freshly picked, chartreuse-colored tea leaves into a batch of green or oolong or black tea depends entirely on the recipe he uses with that harvest. Here’s where tea gets even more like wine, and becomes incredibly complex and geeky: chemical compounds naturally found in Camellia sinensis play an important role in the tea processing experience and ultimately determine the quality, flavor, and mouthfeel of the finished tea product.
Please check out my upcoming article: The Big, Sexy World of Tea and Polyphenols
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To learn more about the world of tea, check out these resources: