Lee Rosy's - The Talented Tea Leaf
The Talented Tea Leaf
Tea is the most versatile drink in the world. One can blend it with flowers, fruit, herbs, spices, dairy – perhaps even all at the same time – or indeed anything else the mind devises. But what is even more remarkable is the variety of flavours yielded from the mighty tea leaf alone.
All tea comes from just one species of plant, the Camellia Sinensis. There are a few variants of the plant, but broadly speaking, all the world’s tea beverages, from pungent Puer to gutsy Assam to delicate white tea come from just one plant, the tea plant.
So how do we explain the diverse flavours yielded from just one leaf? The tea leaf derives its flavour from the soil, the climate and prevailing weather. The time of picking is also important, as is the tea leaf’s place on the tea plant. Each factor can be crucial. Let’s look at each of them.
The ideal conditions for growing tea are a temperate climate with lots of rain and sunshine. That’s why some of the world’s finest teas are found in mountains, where they are blessed with sun and plenty of rain but cool temperatures and well drained soil. Many of the world’s most famous teas are grown in the vicinity of the Himalayas, such as Darjeeling or Yunnan, or other highlands or mountain ranges in Asia. China’s Mao Feng is grown in the “Mountain of the Nine Dragons” range, while the cheeky tale of White Monkey’s origins has monkeys picking tea leaves from inaccessible high ground.
Tea grown at lower altitudes tends to face hotter conditions and produces a more intense flavour. Assam – the backbone of “builders’ tea” for generations – grows in the valleys around the Brahmaputra river. The strong sunlight and intense heat produce the classic, intense flavour so crucial to the morning routines of groggy Britons.
Then there is the soil. The mineral content and other qualities of the soil vary widely from region to region and give each tea a unique signature. The aroma of Darjeeling is sometimes compared to muscatel grapes, and derives this character from the soil signature. Sikkim Temi, from the Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim in the Himalayas, is also renowned for its rich aroma, not unlike a fine Darjeeling, thanks to similar climate and soil.
The time of picking is important too. Some leaves are picked just after the spring growth, producing a delicate and flowery flavour. These are called the “first flush”, and some first flush Darjeelings, for instance, can fetch formidable prices. The Darjeeling Puttabong in our range is a notable first flush tea. Other tea leaves are picked during the summer heat – the second flush – and these leaves produce a more full-bodied and aromatic flavour (an example would be our Darjeeling blend).
The tea leaf’s position on the plant makes a difference too – white teas (such as the Pai Mu Tan) are produced with only the top two leaves and bud of each tea plant. The new shoots have fewer minerals than the older ones nearer the ground, giving a very delicate flavour.
As if that wasn’t enough, tea leaves from the same garden can taste different from one year to the next, depending on the weather – a bit like the vintage of wines.
And this is not even to mention what happens to the leaves after picking, when the leaves are processed to make green tea or black tea, for example, and all the possibilities at this stage. That’s for another article. In the meantime, next time you are outdoors please run your hand through some soil like Russell Crowe in Gladiator and contemplate the infinite nuances of your daily brew.