Mystique of Tea
History of Tea
Millions of people enjoy savouring a soothing cup of tea any time of the day, not just at breakfast and teatime. After water, it is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. But we rarely think about where the leaves actually come from, how it grows and how it is harvested.
All the tea we drink today originated from the Camellia sinensis bush. There are six main varieties of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black (known as red tea in East Asian cultures) and post-fermented teas. The most widely known and commonly found are white, green, oolong and black. From these have developed all the hundreds and hundreds of types of different teas we know today.
The Chinese were the first to grow and produce tea with tea drinking originating in China over 5,000 years ago. In 1191 a book of Tea called Kissa Yojki was written by a Chinese author Eisai documenting all the benefits of drinking tea and his findings are being increasingly corroborated by modern scientific research. Tea was brought to Japan more than 1,000 years ago and both the Chinese and Japanese are famous for their tea drinking rituals with the Chinese accentuating the flavour of the tea while the Japanese emphasise the ceremony. The Koreans also enjoy tea ceremonies although these are less formal than the ones practised in Japan.
Tea reached Europe in the early 17th century when Dutch and Portuguese traders introduced Chinese tea to France, Holland and the Baltic countries. The Russians first encountered tea in 1618 when the Chinese made a gift of several chests to Tsar Alexis and their own tea ceremony developed into one of the strongest and most pervasive cultural traditions in Russia. It is also widely drunk in the Middle East.
The English welcomed tea only around the middle of the 17th century as a drink considered exclusively for men. However it was not long before it was adopted by upper class English ladies and by the 18th century it began to symbolise nobility, good breeding and was served in fine porcelain to emphasise the family’s wealth while adding to the sense of ceremony.
Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford introduced “afternoon tea” to the aristocracy in the early 1800s from which evolved two distinct forms of tea service: High and Low. Low tea was served in the drawing room on a low tea table during the “low” part of the afternoon between lunch and dinner in the homes of wealthy aristocrats and traditionally accompanied with scones, crumpets, pastries and light sandwiches. The emphasis was on presentation and good conversation and it was considered a time for relaxing when nothing disagreeable or unpleasant should be discussed.
High tea, also known as meat tea, was the main meal of the lower and middle classes and consisted of a proper dinner comprising meats, bread, potatoes, peas and tea. It was called High tea because it was taken at the high dining table accompanied with food eaten with a knife and fork rather than served at a low table with dainty finger food and little cakes to be eaten with a delicate pastry fork.
1910 saw the tango craze sweep across Europe and America and the advent of tea dances which were held at the finest hotels in England and the US. The calming and restorative effect of tea was the perfect antidote to the swirling passion of the spirited dance.
In India tea was first discovered near Dibrugarh in Assam in 1823 when an Assamese nobleman led Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer trading there, to a plant that was growing wild. After his death Robert’s brother sent a sample of the leaves to Calcutta in the 1830s where it was identified as a variety of Camellia sinensis Sinensis from China and named Camellia sinensis Assamica.
At that time Britain was already consumed by an intense love affair with tea but it was nearly all imported from China and shipping made it expensive. Since the British already had a strong foothold in India they realised they could use this to their advantage, open land up and supply their own tea needs.
In 1839 the British first allowed companies to rent land for commercial tea growing and fifteen years later, with the first shipment of tea to London, the tea industry in Assam was born. Consumers were impressed with the quality and hordes of European speculators began to move into Assam and plant tea gardens. Since then it has grown into a major agricultural industry with Assam becoming home to over 850 tea plantations that produce 55% of India’s and 12% of the world’s tea. The state has held the position of world leader in tea production for over a century and chai in India, usually brewed with milk and sugar and sometimes spiced with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper and allspice, has grown to become the most popular beverage in the whole country.
Sadly, the more tea gardens that were planted resulted in larger and larger tracts of habitat for indigenous wildlife being wiped out. But over time it was seen that this had a surprisingly positive effect. Not only did the employment given to thousands of people help stem the pressure to hunt wildlife for survival, but the plantations themselves acted as buffer zones for the animals, protecting them from even wider scale destruction. Now, instead of taking up a gun to shoot a bull elephant, or rhino, or tiger on the rampage, a planter will take up his camera to shoot a photo and his telephone to call in assistance from a nearby national park.
Lifestyle of the Traditional Tea Planter in Assam
The original planters were a tough breed. They had to be.
It’s hard to imagine Assam in the early 1800s when the tea industry was just beginning, but back then the majority of the state was a jungle – a wild, impenetrable jungle – and the first-generation planters who established the tea estates had to hack it out in order to create the gardens, those neat and orderly rows of bushes interspersed with shade trees bordered with drainage ditches, that we see today. They had to control the workers made up of local and imported tribes, keep the elephants, rhinos, tigers, hyenas and other wild animals at bay as well as fight malaria and other killer diseases. And of course there was also the heat.
They had a constant battle with nature: encroaching jungle, marauding wildlife, fatal sickness, and relentless humidity.
It was also a very lonely existence. In the early days only a few plantations had been established, all in remote areas, and typically the Britishers who ran them were rugged, self-sufficient and unmarried. After all, what woman would be open to taking on such an isolated and dangerous life? Every garden had its own history of sweat, toil and not uncommonly death.
The planter’s relaxation would be to pit his strength and cunning against the local wildlife: perhaps spend days tracking a leopard or tiger, or taking a boat up river in search of a massive mahseer to land. And in the evenings, by the light of oil lamps, he would read.
As time passed the tea industry of Assam developed. More gardens were planted and they became naturally divided between those on the north and those on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River. Slowly the infrastructure improved and so did the lifestyle of the traditional planter. With a greater number of people moving into the region clubs were established that acted as social and sports centres and eventually the typical bachelor status of the tea planter became a thing of the past.
A normal day in the life of a planter revolved around mealtimes and would begin when the bearer knocked on the bedroom door at dawn with a tray of “bed tea,” an early morning cuppa served with rich tea biscuits and traditionally taken before getting up in the morning to go out on the early morning rounds. Breakfast would not be served until the planter’s return to the bungalow a few hours later. Then it would be back to work before coming home again for lunch and a nap. The planter would then go back to the office, or perhaps sort out a problem at the factory until it was time for afternoon tea, the lynch pin of plantation life.
After another few hours at the factory, the office, inspecting tea bushes, or perhaps checking on the work force conducting the plucking, the planter would return to his bungalow at dusk. Finally he could relax and quaff a couple of pegs of whisky on his verandah while looking out at the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance, before taking a hot bath, eating dinner and falling into bed.
Both lunch and dinner would include a mix of Indian and British dishes and over the years some traditional British recipes became tailored to the planters’ maturing, assimilated palates as Assamese and Indian cooking fused with the traditional Scottish and English fare and a repertoire of dishes evolved into the Anglo-Indian cuisine of today.
Food was a focal point of the tea planters’ lifestyle. The work was tough and long – both physically and mentally demanding – not just for the men of the bungalows, but for their wives too. Back in the day they were totally self-sufficient and the women and her staff did everything from making potato crisps by finely slicing peeled potatoes and deep-frying them to serve as a tidbit with drinks when the big boss, the estate’s Visiting Agent, came round to make his inspection, to milking the cows kept on the property. Not to mention protecting the vegetable garden from tribes of marauding macaque monkeys! There was still no electricity back then so everyone had to depend on paraffin fridges and oil lamps. In the monsoon the bamboo bridges over the rivers would get washed away isolating the plantations and necessities had to be air dropped by light planes.
Even a century after the tea industry began in Assam for much of the time the planter and his family still lived a secluded life making the weekly “club nights” extremely popular events with all the families in the area turning up to eat, drink and play sports. Over the years the sports changed (polo, very popular at the beginning of the 20th century was eventually succeeded by tennis, squash and golf) but for the most part the planters remained a gregarious, hard drinking bunch that certainly knew how to party.
These days, however, the life is quite different. With the global tea business becoming so highly competitive only the best tea producers will survive. Now the planter sits behind a desk crunching numbers for his company and the government and has to be more cerebral. He needs a thorough knowledge all his workers’ customs and laws, the latest agricultural practices, chemistry of tea, science of soil, mechanics of engines and workings of electricity as well as a high proficiency in administration and the economics of business survival. As a result he has less time to spend in the gardens than his predecessors. Another significant change is that with permanent bridges spanning the rivers, a much improved road system, the advent of television and access to modern telecommunications the popularity of the clubs is dwindling and few planters now participate in the age-old traditions of club nights, sport and fishing trips.
As a result the clubs are suffering and many have closed down. A few, however, like the Tezpur Station Club, still make a strong effort to hold onto their past. This club keeps its history alive by annually awarding the Chummery Cup, a large silver trophy shaped like an elegant teapot given to the Tezpur Chummery by visitors from Mangledye and Guwahati back in 1881. Originally presented to winners of an annual polo competition, it is now kept at the Tezpur Station Club and awarded to the champions of a fiercely fought tennis tournament held every year between the teams of the North Bank Tea Clubs.
Tea Cultivation, Harvesting & Processing
Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant that grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Some varieties, however, can tolerate marine climates and can be cultivated as far north as Pembrokeshire, South West Wales in the British Isles and Washington in the United States of America.
Tea plants are propagated from seed or by cutting. It takes between four to twelve years for a tea plant to bear seed and about three years before a new plant is ready for harvesting. Tea plants typically require at least 50 inches of rainfall a year and prefer acidic soils. Some people believe that the best quality tea plants are cultivated at elevations around 4,900 feet as the plants at that height tend to grow more slowly and acquire a better flavour.
Only the top 1-2 inches of the mature plant is picked and these buds and leaves are called “flushes”. A plant will grow a new flush every seven to fifteen days during the growing season. Leaves that are slow to develop tend to produce better flavoured teas.
To produce good tea harvesting is done manually and requires some training. In Assam the tea pluckers are usually women. With a quick flick of the wrist that ensures a clean break, the bud and first two leaves are plucked and then dropped over the shoulder into a basket carried on the backs of the workers. If more leaves are taken it is said to be a coarse plucking and produces a lower quality tea. When the baskets are full they are taken to a nearby mobile weighing station where each individual worker’s yield is logged. The leaves are then collected and taken to the factory to be processed.
The discarding of mature leaves (pruning) allows nutrients to go into new growth. Although an un-pruned tea plant will grow into a tree of up to 52 inches, cultivated tea plants are pruned into bushes of waist height to make the job of plucking easier. Other types of tall trees are planted at intervals between the bushes as the shade they provide allows the tea bushes to mature more slowly therefore producing a better quality leaf.
A typical tea bush will generally produce about 3,000 tea leaves a year, but although that sounds a huge amount it only makes about one pound of fully processed tea.
A tea’s type is determined by the processing it undergoes. As the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down after picking they turn progressively darker and tannins are released. This process, enzymatic oxidation (called fermentation in the tea industry) can be either aerobic or anaerobic and is halted by heating the leaves, as heat deactivates the enzymes responsible for oxidation. Different methods used to control the rate of fermentation result in the six main types of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, pu-erh and black.
Although some single estate teas are available the vast majority of teas are blended in order to create a better taste, higher price, or both. Some teas are not pure varieties and have had their flavours enhanced through additives. Tea is highly receptive to absorbing other aromas which proves problematical during processing, transportation and storage, but also allows for the design of an almost endless range of scented and flavored variants such as bergamot (Earl Grey), vanilla and caramel.
Different Types of Tea
A common misconception is that different types of tea come from different types of tea bushes. This is not so although it is true that black tea is more commonly produced from the larger leafed Camellia sinensis Assamica. The different types of tea in fact result from the different ways in which the leaves are produced and processed and they are traditionally classified as follows.
White tea (mainly from Chinese tea) is the least processed type of tea. Immature bud growths and occasionally young leaves are hand-picked in early spring and minimally wilted in the sun allowing almost no oxidisation (fermentation). If mechanical drying is required to fix the leaves and prevent oxidisation they are baked. White tea produces a light cup that is usually a very pale yellow and has a light and slightly sweet taste. White teas are brewed between 75-80° C for one to two minutes and at a slightly lower temperature for 30 seconds longer for successive infusions. It will yield two to three infusions.
The picking of green tea (also mainly from Chinese tea) varies but the best quality comes from hand-picked buds with 1-2 inches of leaves. Wilting is optional after which the leaves are steamed or pan-fried to fix them and prevent oxidisation (fermentation) which should be close to 0%. Green teas can have a woody, grassy or oceanic flavour and are brewed between 75-80° C for one to two minutes and at a slightly lower temperature for 30 seconds longer for successive infusions. It will also yield two to three infusions.
With yellow tea (mainly from Chinese tea) immature bud growths and occasionally young leaves are hand-picked in early spring. The processing is the same as for green tea but the lightly withered green leaves are immediately covered with mats to allow slight oxidisation during a slow drying process. The flavour is flowery, fresh and mild; stronger than white tea but milder and without the grassy flavour of green tea. Yellow teas are brewed between 75-80° C for one to two minutes and at a slightly lower temperature for 30 seconds longer for successive infusions. It will also yield two to three infusions.
Oolong tea (the bud and three or four mature leaves) is hand-picked three or four times a year, once or twice in summer. This is also mainly from the Chinese variety of tea. It is bruised and withered (light bruising with heavy withering and heavy bruising with light withering) and partial oxidisation is allowed. The leaves are then pan fired at a high temperature to prevent continued oxidisation (fermentation) and after shaping are fast baked at high heat followed by slow baking. Oolong teas have a range of oxidisation from 10-70% and the flavour is between green and black teas without the grassy tones of green or the sweet aroma of black. Brewed strong it is bitter with a sweet aftertaste. Some are golden and light and others very dark. Oolong teas are brewed at around 90° C for 90 seconds and successive brews can be at the same temperature for about the same amount of time.
Pu-erh (a sub-category of green tea which is fermented) starts as large-leaved green tea from Yunnan complete with fixation. It is then wet-piled (composted in a controlled environment) which can take six to twelve months to complete and then pressed into dense cakes. Pu-erh undergoes no enzymatic oxidisation but non-enzymatic oxidisation gives it a unique chemical profile. It has an earthy flavour with the raw teas having a more astringent, fermented taste while the darker ones have the colour and intensity of black coffee. The quality of flavour impoves as the leaves age. Pu-erh teas are brewed around 90° C for 2 ½ minutes and successive brews can be at the same temperature for about the same amount of time. Darker, more heavily compressed teas can be brewed at 100° C for 2 minutes whereas raw ones should be brewed at 90° C for 20 seconds.
Black tea leaves (mainly from the Assamese tea variety) are either picked from broad-leafed Assam bushes in India and Sri Lanka or small-leafed plants in China. In Assam the bud and two leaves are hand-picked up to seven times in one year and two distinct processes are used to produce the tea. The Orthodox method wilts the leaf and then passes it through rollers to fully oxidise the tea after which it is dried to end the oxidisation process (fermentation) whereas the CTC method, standing for crush, tear and curl, involves three sets of rollers that crush, tear and curl the leaves after which the leaves are allowed to ferment before being dried. Black teas have 100% oxidisation and the flavours are typically described as deep, rich, earthy, sweet and malty. The pot should be warmed before any tea leaves are added. Brew black tea in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. Delicate Darjeeling tea should only be brewed for 2-4 minutes.
Orthodox tea from Assam is famous globally for its silver and golden tips. Tips are the most tender of buds and leaves that after processing take on a silver or golden hue. Orthodox liquor is sought after for its delicate aroma and light, fragrant taste.
CTC tea from Assam is known for its strength and body and is sought after by the major blenders all over the tea-drinking world.
Grading is an accepted method of classifying the quality of tea leaves and is conducted at the tea estates after processing. It facilitates the international trade in tea and is a key component in assessing the tea’s monetary value as obviously certain grades command a higher price than others and many are used to blend with other grades to produce the finished teas.
The accepted method of grading black tea is based on the size of the individual leaves, which is determined by their ability to fall through the screens of different sized meshes. This also determines the wholeness or level of breakage of each leaf, which is also part of the grading system.
Although these are not the only factors used to determine quality, the size and wholeness of the leaves will have the greatest influence on the taste, clarity and brewing-time of the tea. The whole leaf is considered better quality than broken, and smaller whole leaves generally have more flavour than the larger ones. It is also important that size is consistent between the various grades as smaller, broken pieces of leaves brew faster than the whole leaf.
Separate grading methods are used for teas processed by the Orthodox method and CTC method. In the Orthodox method the plucked leaves are spread out to wither (wilt) which makes them soft enough to roll without splitting the surface whereas in CTC no whole leaf is processed.
With a hierarchy of different terms grading is a highly specialised process and we list a few below as examples. They are taken from both the Orthodox and CTC grading systems.
For readers’ information, the word ‘pekoe’ comes from the Chinese word pek-ho describing the white downy hairs on the underside of the leaves of certain varieties of tea bush. ‘Orange’ denotes quality and refers to Holland’s House of Orange, the royal family of the first European country to import tea and therefore connected with expensive, high quality tea.
FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) where flowery refers to the shape of the leaf as it resembles a crushed flower because it has been loosely rolled
OP (Orange Pekoe) long pointed leaves that were harvested when the end buds were opening into leaves
P (Pekoe) shorter, coarser leaves than OP
FP (Flowery Pekoe) leaves that were rolled lengthwise; also shorter and coarser than OP
FBOP (Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe)
BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe)
BP (Broken Pekoe)
BFP (Broken Flowery Pekoe)
These are small pieces of leaves. The name comes from the old practice of using fans to separate the smallest pieces of leaf from the larger ones. Fannings are typically used in tea bags.
PF (Pekoe Fannings)
BOPF (Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings)
This is the lowest grade and the finest form of leaf. It is the powder left after the tea leaves are processed. It is typically found in the lowest quality tea bags.
PD (Pekoe Dust)
OPD (Orthodox Pekoe Dust)
SFD (Super Fine Dust)
In addition to the above general descriptions additional modifiers are also used. For example:
T (Tippy) indicating there are buds present in whole and broken leaf grades.
G (Golden) describing the colour of the tips or buds, which is considered favourable.
After these even more modifiers are added for example FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) or, as some in the tea business prefer to say, Far Too Good For Ordinary People, and even SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe).
Wild Mahseer is located in the midst of the Addabarie Tea Estate at Balipara in the Sonitpur district of Assam. Addabarie is owned by the Williamson Magor Group http://www.wmtea.com/ which was established as a tea company in 1868 and is now one of the foremost producers of Assam quality tea with twenty-eight estates and an output of 35 million kgs of tea per year. The group is noted for its Golden Bright, Yellowish Bright, Reddish Bright and Coloury Bright teas and the Addabarie Tea Estate in particular has a reputation for its consistently high standard manufacture of the Reddish Bright quality. With 100% CTC processing, Addabarie has a total of 700 hectares planted under tea and a labour force of over 1,500 people.
To ensure consistency of product, when evaluating tea experts consider the variety of tea, the region where it was grown, the stage of picking of the leaves and the tea manufacturing process. However, two additional tests also help in determining the quality and taste of the brew. A scientific test conducted by chemical analysis and a sensory test where the appearance (shape, size and colour of the leaves and colour of the liquor), the feel of the leaves, the aroma (of the leaves and liquor) and the taste of liquor is evaluated which is conducted by expert tea tasters. The sensory test is the most widely accepted means of evaluation.
Every order manufactured by Williamson Magor’s estates is tasted at the Pertabghur Tea Tasting & Quality Control Centre (45-minutes drive east of Balipara) and is cross-checked at their company Head Office in Kolkata by the marketing team.
Some Examples of Tea Terminology Used in Assam
The “Drink of the Gods” is a fine tasting and gentle cup found only during the First and Second Flush which requires the most stringent standards of leaf processing and which is very rare.
The attractive smell or scent from a liquour that denotes its inherent character.
The very selective and rare aroma found only in liquours in certain areas of the Assam valley during the Second Flush season and so called because the taste of the cup is very much like blackcurrant jam.
Full bodied strong teas.
Crush, tear and curl or what happens to the leaf after it is plucked and withered. This process creates tea leaves that impart a stronger infusion. CTC tea from Assam is highly regarded for its strength and body.
A liquour possessing depth of colour that sometimes also indicates full body or taste.
When left to cool a brewed gutty tea will look as though milk has been added.
The first picking season of the year, typically from March to April, when the luminescent first flowering of leaves less concentrated with natural chemical results in lighter cups with a fresh aroma.
One of the delicate and large sized leaf grades of Orthodox manufacture that is ideal for brewing in Samovars.
The finest leaves and buds picked during the second flush that result in the coloury and malty liquours of Orthodox tea from Assam.
The quality of tea not only depends on manufacturing expertise and the time it is brewed in the pot but also the time of year it is picked. Although good strength in Assam teas can be found throughout the year guts only comes during the second picking season when the finest quality of leaf and buds rich in natural chemicals (polyphenols) sprout.
Classic full bodied Orthodox teas.
A cup of tea - the liquid produced after steeping tea leaves in hot water.
A delicate and wafting aroma found in the First and Second Flush period from carefully selected buds that require special treatment.
A primary grade of small pieces of leaf from CTC processed tea used by international blenders worldwide and which brews quickly due to its small size giving out a rich and strong taste.
In this process tender leaves are withered, rolled and sorted. The liquours resulting from Orthodox teas are sought after for their delicate aroma and light and fragrant taste.
The second picking season typically between May and June that results in the strong and gutty cups rich in aroma for which Assam teas are famous.
Brisk, bright, fresh orthodox teas.
The delicate, immature buds picked during the first flush that result in the delicate bouquet of Assam Orthodox liquours.
Two & A Bud
The top two leaves with a new leaf bud at the tip of the stem typically plucked on the tea estates in Assam.