Tea Basics 01 - Tea plant
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I'm posting some tea knowledge in a nut shell. The purpose of this is to spread to joyful message of tea and get everyone's basic information on the same page, as there are quite a lot of misinformation and confusing theories of tea. I try to make it as simple and understandable as possible! I'll start with the basics, so everyone keeps up and can form a general picture of the wide subject of tea :) So I won't tell absolutely everything about one subject in the Basic series, as this will only confuse people that want to get a general understanding of tea.

After the basic information I'll go to Advanced series, where I'll post more information that goes deeper to each subject and here I list trivial information and exceptions as well. Basically this is nice, interesting facts about tea that you can enjoy and tell to your friends as fun facts! :) 

Please, feel free to comment, ask anything and suggest new subjects to post about!

Hopefully you find this helpful!

 

Pro Tea Tip: why tea buds are always present in quality teas
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When I've sang "I like big buds and I cannot lie" for several days, it's a sign that I need to write about this subject.. The main message is: be on the lookout for presence of buds in your tea! If there are none, it means the leaves that have been plucked are of inferior, older quality. You can recognize the buds from the wiry form and the small white hair that's on the bud protecting the fragile leaf before it's time to open up to the world. In black tea the buds are golden, because of the oxidation processing.

Real quality tea always has buds in it. Why? Because the unopened leaf which is still in the shape of a bud is the newest part of the tea plant, containing the most flavors and nutrients (and caffeine!). The bud is the smallest part in the plant, followed by the next two leaves. Most often in high quality teas the bud and the upper leaves are adjacent, to prove that the two leaves below the bud really are the second and third leaves, not the older and bigger leaves. There is a term in the tea world describing the picking of this part: "two leaves and a bud" and then you know the best parts are beings plucked. This is because these parts have the least surface for the aromas to disappear to thin air, they're the freshest parts and they soak up all the sunshine.

Because buds and the following leaves are so small, it takes so much more effort to pick just that part in comparison with bigger and heavier leaves that grow lower in the plant. And the crops is of course smaller and more expensive, because of the thorough time-consuming picking. And these parts you really want to nurture with love and care to create the best teas, so the processing is always slower.

The leaves that grow lower in the plant have been aged for a longer time, growing their surface and from that big surface the flavors and nutrients disappear quite fast. These lower quality leaves are used to create tea for cheap mass-production. There are a couple of exceptions, though: oolongs and puers are often made so that the older leaves are picked as well, to endure the rolling and processing.

Pro Tea Tip: choose whole leaf teas
 
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There are dozens of teas found on your grocery store shelves, and different ways to describe these teas. The different types might baffle you a bit, so let's explain the terms. I got excited to tell you about the historic side as well, hope you find it interesting!

The most common form of tea you'll find is teabags, no matter where you go. These bags contain often the lowest degree teas that are called dust and fannings. Unfortunately this is the type that the Westerners have adopted as tea. This is a product that was born after a high pressure to produce a huge amount of teas, as the Europeans discovered and fell in love with tea during their China travels. The demand was rising exponentially. Often the teas' flavors were mildened and altered by the long travels from China to Europe so the black tea, having the most powerful flavors, became the Western world's favorite tea. Unfortunately the other amazing, but sensible Chinese teas such as green and white teas suffered by the trip's length and unfavorable conditions, and therefore remained to be discovered later on. 

The Chinese tea was too expensive for the Westerners, and so the Englishmen decided to smuggle Chinese tea plants to their colony India and start making their own teas. The Indian work force was cheaper and the machines that were invented could create tea for fraction of the price for Chinese teas. These machines produced teas in a much faster pace, fitting the lifestyle of busy and unpatient Europeans.

As the black tea that they had received from China was of lesser quality and not that flavorful as intended, the Englishmen got used to using different additives with their teas, such as milk, sugar and honey. In India, they wanted to create something more robust, to have enough body and strength to taste the tea underneath all the milk and sweeteners. So they came up (thanks to industrial revolution) with CTC method. CTC is short for Crush, tear, curl and is really discriptive term for the method. The tea leaves are crushed, torn and curled into dust-like powder in order to create powerful aromas, that way extracting the flavors faster in the brewing process. The tea is pulverized so that the tea materia would fit in the tea bags. And because this tea was the lowest degree tea that was really powerful in taste, no one would complain that in this process the lesser grades of tea leaves were used. And that's how we got used to drinking the worst quality in the Western countries. And still we call it "tea", even though it couldn't be more further away from the real thing. 

After the lowest degree, dust and fannings, come loose leaf tea. This can be all sorts of tea, the only thing is that it isn't packed in a bag. This can be dust-like leaf substance, this can be broken leaves and this can be whole leaves. So if the tea is classified as "loose leaf tea", that isn't necessarily a choice for the better.

The highest category is whole leaf tea (known as well as full leaf tea). This is the traditional way of processing tea leaves. This term is misused quite often, so be aware. Whole leaf teas are always unbroken and almost always handpicked as this method requires accuracy: the leaves are easily destroyed and this alters the flavor, making the sharp flavors come out and dampen the subtle, elegant flavors. In whole leaf tea you really can recognize the full leaves and buds.

Why are the whole leaf teas so much superior than others, you might ask. The flavor of the tea comes from the tea leaves as they slowly open and unfurl. Different flavor compounds appear at different times. The bad flavors appear last and in brewing your tea you need to know when to stop the brewing before these unwanted compounds break loose. 

Whole leaves are seldom blended with other teas, so you can taste the real flavor of origin. This of course is the way we want to taste teas, because it is the origin (soil, climate, altitude, plant variety, picking style, part of the plant being plucked, processing method etc.) that makes the flavor in tea. It is always more expensive to produce, but it’s worth it!

Whole leaf teas won’t lose their flavors as fast and stays much fresher and more interesting, giving a really nuanced cup. Teabags become stale and dull quickly and they have issues with freshness. When you brew a teabag or broken leaves, the flavor compounds are transfered much faster to the cup creating uncontrolled brewing and most often over extraction, making the teas flavors straightforward without any nuances and bitter. 

 
Transparency in regular tea

In this post I want to tell you about the road from tea farm to the retailer, and why it's important to buy Direct Trade tea, i.e. tea trade that has no middlemen: the tea comes straight from the tea farm to the retailer. I'll dive into the history of tea trade and how we Westerners lost contact with the origin.

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Tea Trade

Most often, as you can see from the chart, tea has A LOT of middlemen, and the tea market is the buyer's market: the biggest tea buyers tell the farmers at what price the tea will be bought. Often the tea is sold in auctions, where the predictability is hard, and sometimes farmers get their share of money and sometimes it's under priced.

The more middlemen are in the mix, the cheaper the buyers need to buy their teas, as each and every middleman take their part of the cake. That means really low income to tea farmers and the younger generation is abandoning tea farming as a whole, because there are more prosperous and easy ways of making a livelihood. A report from Oxfam stated that tea workers’ wages are often below the poverty line, whether they are on certified or non-certified estates. When the farm owners get a low wage, they won't have the money to pay enough wage to the employees either and start compromising their working conditions and using questionable work force, such as child labor. When bought directly (and being responsible in choosing the right kind of farmers with right values) all these problems disappear, because finally the farmers get to say their price, not the other way round!

This situation is enabled mostly because the market is taught to buy cheap tea bags that contain the lowest grades of tea - dust and fannings. This is ground tea or the left-overs and rejects after larger leaf pieces are gathered for sale as loose tea and the name tells it all: its dust-like material that has nothing to do with real whole leaf teas. 

Why are the Westerners drinking this traditionally low-quality tea?

All began with the huge demand in the last century as the practice of tea drinking became popular. The industrial revolution played a part, as the production shifted from manual to machines. The commercialization of tea was the end of slow-produced tea and bigger leaves as they need to come to the market faster and the leaves take more space to pack in to bags than dust. 

One single machine  produces two-million tea bags a day and this required the tea leaf to be crushed and replaced by a lower grade. They started making CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl: tea is manually ground to tiny pieces and agitated so that the flavors become more robust) Big tea factories prefer dust tea because it is cheap and also produces a very strong brew; consequently, more cups are obtained per measure of tea dust.

So if you want to be ethical and have transparency in your tea cup, choose the right retailers and get to know the farmer behind the tea.

 

Quality teas
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In my first blog post I want to discuss quality.

There are many big sellers out there that claim their teas high quality, but great quality teas cannot be made in large quantities. In order to understand this we need to go deeper.

The more the seller tells you about the tea, the better! That means your seller knows something about the origin, but another thing is do they know what all the info means. If you want to try great quality tea, this is what you need to look for in your next tea purchase:

1. Buy whole leaf (not broken or crushed! And not to even start talking about bag tea. You can't fit a whole leaf in a bag, end of story) If the leaves are smaller pieces of one leaf that means they're of worse quality, and as soon a leaf is chopped it starts oxidizing uncontrollably and that alters the subtle and complex flavors of tea.)

2. Buy tea that isn't flavored (when flavor are added that means it doesn't matter what the base tea's quality is, as the flavors hide the taste of tea). If you want to choose flavored teas, choose only natural flavorings, no aromas or artificial flavorings. In our opinion, if you want to taste the real taste of tea, only the most classical flavorings are accepted (bergamot, flowers, chai spices, turmeric etc), so perhaps it's better to leave the champagne-yoghurt-blueberry pie blends on the shelf.

3. Buy tea where you know the origin (no mixed teas, so only tea from one cultivar and from the same farm in one country (single estate or single origin). When you mix teas that means you mix different cultivars, different soils, different processing styles, and different tastes altogether, i.e. you don't taste the original flavor). Direct Trade teas are the best ones, because then you know the teas come straight from the farmer, without any middlemen.

4. Buy tea that is fair (there's so much cruelty in tea world and inhumane conditions and pay, so please buy from a source that you really can trust. Even fair certifications have their own problems and cannot be fully trusted. For example, they often guarantee "a minimum wage", but the minimum wage often is just above the poverty line.)

5. Buy tea that is fresh (tea is a fresh produce and you really need to focus on seasons in tea). Again, if the tea is Direct Trade, this shortens the distances and warehouse storing time tremendously.

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What makes quality in tea?

There are many factors playing a part, but everything has something to do with origin and skills of the maker, and the final contribution to the artisan wonder of tea lies in your hands:

1. where the tea plant grows (altitude, country, soil, climate)

2. what cultivar the plant is (like wine, tea has hundreds of cultivars and each of them contribute with their own unique flavor)

3. the farming methods of tea: a) is it organic farming? We want to eliminate all the fertilizers as they deteriorate the taste and contribute to unhealthy substances in tea and poor working conditions to tea workers. b) how are the leaves picked- by hand or by machine? By hand is more thorough and doesn't brake the tea leaves and we get the part we want. The heavy machines destroy the nature and increase the pollution.

4. which part of the plant is picked (the top part is the best quality as the leaves are fresh and small. The lower we go in the plant the older and bigger the leaves and the more surface they have to release all the good aromas. The top part weighs only a little so the pickers need to do so much more work in order to get 1 kg of tea, that's why it's more expensive.)

5. when the tea is picked (quality tea picked in the spring is better as the plant has been resting through the winter and gathering all nutrition and flavor)

6. of course, last but not least: the brewing method. There are no general rules of thumb when it comes to tea brewing, as all the different tea categories have their unique teas that need adjusted brewing ways. In general, it's known that the green and white teas, as they are less processed and therefore more susceptible to heat, need lower brewing temperatures. A good place to start is to brew water to 60-70 degrees for green, yellow and white teas, 80-90 degrees for oolongs and about 95 degrees for black teas and fermented teas. A good rule is to measure 1g of tea per 1dl of water. Once the leaves start to open, the tea is ready. Don't let the leaves open fully, as that means that you've passed this stage in brewing where the unwanted, bitter flavors start to emerge.

Hopefully this helped in creating a better understanding towards quality and tea! It's not a simple matter and many wrong beliefs exist in the tea world, but the most important thing is that you have the courage to try different ways to brew your tea, compare many similar teas with each other and find your way to enjoy the tea the fullest!