Many people think that tea fans are elitist snobs, akin to wine and coffee lovers, because there are so many kinds of tea, and the differences between many teas are subtle rather than obvious. It is true that those with more educated palates are better able to distinguish and enjoy the nuances of flavor and aroma, especially with rare and expensive teas. However, while the tea world can be really complicated, the individual tea experience doesn’t need to be; the factors that distinguish one tea from another are basic and logical, and totally understandable. While most tea lovers don’t need or want to memorize every piece of tea-related information, a general knowledge of the influences that contribute to the varying flavors and aromas of different kinds of teas can help the average tea consumer in choosing a tea to enjoy.
Like many agricultural products, the tea plant is sensitive, and the flavor of the finished tea is formed by a combination of factors. These factors include the location in the world where the tea was grown, the time of year the tea was harvested, the position of the tea leaf on the branch, the amount of sunlight and rain the tea received while growing, and the methods used in processing the tea. This is the role that weather and season play in forming tea flavor and aroma: cool temperatures and gentle sunlight make the tea plants grow slowly and concentrates the flavor in the leaves. Makes sense, right?
Tea is ready for harvest when the tea plants are covered in new shoots that each have two leaves and a bud; this is called a flush. The tea bushes are sensitive to cold night temperatures; when the nights are consistently 50 degrees F. or higher, the buds begin to grow and put out new leaves, which grow slowly in the cool air and are ready for plucking, or harvesting, about 6 weeks later. In Asia, where most of the world’s tea is grown, this harvest is ready around March or April, and is known as first flush. The first flush harvest is smaller, and is characterized by delicate flavor and light color of the leaves and tea liquor, in comparison to tea from later harvests. About a month after the first harvest, a new crop of tea leaves is ready for the second plucking, called second flush. This harvest is more plentiful, and the flavor and color are more robust, but sometimes not as good quality. When the monsoons come during the summer, a third crop emerges and is harvested; this is called rains tea. While this harvest is large, the wet weather makes the leaves grow faster, makes the withering and drying processes more difficult, and if care isn’t taken, the extra handling required can make the tea taste “stewy” and be lower quality. A fourth and final crop is harvested after the rains are gone and the air is starting to cool down, called autumnal; this tea displays a brighter flavor and darker color than the tea from earlier harvests.
The flavor and aroma characteristics of each harvest, or flush, can be simplified thus: earlier harvest means cooler weather, slower growth on the tea plant, and more delicate flavor; later harvest means warmer weather, faster growth, and bolder flavor. While the first flush of most teas is more popular with tea experts, in the end, it all boils down to “what does each consumer think of this tea?” All the experts in the world can only advise you as to which tea you’re more likely to enjoy, by describing them in such detail; the final decision is made by the individual tea drinker and what appeals to his or her own palate (and pocketbook). You don’t have to have an educated palate to know whether or not you like the tea you’re drinking!
There are many reputable places on the Internet where you can buy loose-leaf tea, including Upton Tea Imports, Golden Moon Tea, the Imperial Tea Court, Mighty Leaf Tea, Adagio Teas, Harney & Sons Fine Teas, The Republic of Tea, and many others. We who live in San Jose and the Bay Area also have a collection of tea vendors in the area; check the sidebar to the right of this article for a partial list of them, including Teavana, Peet’s, and Lupicia. Enjoy your search for tasty loose tea!
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach
Nothing But Tea
“Tea Dictionary” from Bigelow Teas
“Tea tasting: a man’s art”, by Doug Spiers
“Dictionary of Tea Terms” from Upton Tea Imports
“Black Tea” Wikipedia article
“Asian tea shops in the San Jose area”
“Decoding loose tea labels: what do all those letters mean?”
“How to choose a tea to taste”
“Characteristics of good quality black tea”
“Characteristics of good quality oolong tea”
“Characteristics of good quality green tea”
“Characteristics of good quality pu-erh tea”
“Characteristics of good quality white tea”
“Intermediate tea tasting: what does good quality tea look like?