Tea tasting: location, location, location!

Tea estate. Photo: FreePhotosBank.com

Temperature and season affect the flavor, color and aroma of tea, but so does location. As with wine grapes and terroir, the location of the spot where the tea was grown helps create the flavor and aroma of the finished tea. Not only the country of origin, but the garden of origin makes a difference; each tea-growing area produces tea with subtle flavor, aroma and visual factors that are different from the teas grown in other regions of the world. Tea from the oldest and most respected tea gardens has highly prized flavor and aroma, and commands the highest prices at auction and from tea vendors.

The most famous tea regions include Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri and Sikkim in India; Anhui, Fujian and Yunnan in China; Kenya and Malawi in Africa; Taiwan, known to the tea world as Formosa; Uva and Nuwara Eliya in Ceylon, or Sri Lanka; Uji and Shizuoka in Japan and Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. The tea that grows in these regions is planted at individual plantations within the region, also known as gardens or estates. Some of the most celebrated tea comes from Kenilworth, Dimbula and Lover’s Leap estates in Sri Lanka, Glenmorgan and Margaret’s Hope estates in India, Longjing and Maofeng in China.

The growing conditions of these tea estates give the tea additional flavor and aroma profiles! (These will be discussed in further articles.)

That is not to say that tea grown in other places in the world is no good! South America, North America, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and other parts of Asia are producing tea that is beginning to catch international attention, but the newer plantations are producing tea in imitation of the harvests from the most famous estates. When you read a tea vendor’s catalog, you may see the above regional names, as well as any of the following terms, in description of particular teas. This information helps customers understand what the tea will taste and smell like without having to buy a sample first. Here is a run-down of the most common terms having to do with general location of a tea plant:

Estate – A property of holding, which may comprise more than one garden or plantation under the same management or ownership.
Garden – Used interchangeably with “plantation” in some tea countries (India and Sri Lanka particularly), but usually referring to an estate unit.
Garden Mark – The mark put on the tea chest by the estate to identify its particular product.

The best estates do all the harvesting and most of the processing by hand, using trained tea pluckers, mostly women, who are detail-oriented and agile enough to pick only certain leaves from the bushes. If the tea is harvested too early or too late, or is crushed or ripped too much by harsh handling, the finished product will be affected, and won’t be sold at a good price! This is another reason why the tea from certain estates is more favored: the workers at that estate know what they’re doing and consistently produce good-tasting, aromatic tea that is true to grade and type, and processed properly.

So don’t be afraid of those long-winded tea catalogs. Read the descriptions, think about the flavors you already know that you like, and buy the smallest sample you can get; most tea companies sell small samples for $5 or less, so the financial investment is low if you don’t happen to like the tea. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t like it!

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach

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Filed under Glossary & Terminology, History, Tea Tasting, Vendors and Shops

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