What is tea?

What is tea? An evergreen shrub thought to have originated wild in the Brahmaphtra valley of northern India and in northern Yunnan Province of western China.

So, what is tea? It is a member of the Camellia family, typically growing in well-drained, acidic upland soils where there is plenty of rainfall and humidity. They are native to Asia. Separate varieties, Camellia sinensis var. assamica – native to the west, has developed from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, or Chinese Camellia, which is native to the east. The former has a larger, broader leaf than the narrower Chinese variety. These native tea areas are divided by the Patkai highlands of Burma. Tea grows in neutral to acidic soils commonly associated with upland areas with annual rainfall of over 40 inches. Temperatures tend to be tropical or subtropical.

What is tea

The plant has a life of around 50 years. It takes two and a half to five years to become fully mature. It is pruned every two to four years to keep its height down to a manageable three feet with a flat top for ease of picking. Left un-pruned, a bush would grow to become a tree of 30-40 feet in height. In this natural state it is used for seed production.

Tea is grown from as far north as the Russian republic of Georgia to as far south as Santos in Brazil. Cultivation requires warm, sub-tropical climates with high rainfall of over 50 inches per annum and it grows at altitudes up to 7,000 feet, on acidic soils. There are a number of hybrids created through natural selection between the two varieties and tea planters have also created specific cultivars based upon pure assamica or sinensis varieties such as TV1 (Assam) or Long Jing No. 43 (China).

How is Tea Produced?

It is picked during the ‘flush’ or growth phases of the bush. In India these growth periods occur during December and January, but it is all year round in Sri Lanka. April onwards is the best period for China teas.

For good quality tea only the bud and top two youngest leaves are picked. A skilled picker will pick thirty to sixty pounds per day. A pound of manufactured tea may require as many as 3,000 shoots. Black tea will have been picked on a clear morning when the dew has just evaporated.

Picked tea is withered on mesh racks for between 8 and 24 hours. Any stalks or impurities are removed by sieving. It must be manufactured near the tea gardens as it must be made from freshly plucked leaves.

In the traditional orthodox method, the tea is squeezed by rolling, releasing juices onto the surface of the leaf. It is this method by which virtually all teas offered by Grey’s Teas are made.

The leaves are laid out in a cool, humid atmosphere. For black tea the leaves are left from twenty minutes up to three hours to allow the polyphenols in the juices to oxidise – turning to a coppery colour. For more details about how green teas are made see our Green Tea page.

Tea is dried, known as firing, in hot air from a furnace at a temperature of between 80 – 90 degrees F, for about thirty minutes, until about a third of the leaves’ moisture content has been lost.

It is fired, turning black teas to their characteristic colour. This can be done in pans, over a fire and, more commonly now, with hot air. Lapsang Souchongs are fired over a pinewood fire. We stock two excellent Lapsang Souchongs.

Tea Grading

Tea is graded by size. We at Grey’s Teas focus on the large leaf grades for these give a more all-round and balanced cup. These grades do not apply to China.

  • FTGFOP – Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • OP – Orange Pekoe
  • BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
  • Fannings Small leaf grade. Use for teabags.
  • Dust – The finest leaf particles. Used for cheap teabags.

The Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) classified teas according to the colour of the infused liquor: white yellow, green, red and black. Today we use the classification above and used in our Tea Store.

Our Tea Store

See our catalogue for Black tea.

Why we only sell loose leaf tea

Large leaf teas have a smaller surface area relative to the weight of the tea. Therefore the easily soluble elements of the tea’s flavour such as tannins do not become too dominant in the liquor. This gives time for the more subtle and complex flavours to become infused. This does mean however that a good loose leaf tea takes longer to brew than teabags. Allow from three to five minutes, depending upon the tea. Teabags require the smallest leaf grades to be used in their manufacture. Teabags therefore do not allow the full balance of flavours to be infused into the cup. Given too much time the tea they produce will be bitter, containing too much tannin.

Find out about Oolong Tea. This is a semi-fermented tea, between that of a black and a green tea. Oolong is otherwise known as Black Dragon.

Want to know more? See our blog posts on specific types of tea: What is black tea, what is oolong tea, what is yellow tea, what is white tea and what is English tea?