Happy Hot Tea Month! In the speculiar (spectacular and peculiar) vein of niche holidays, I’ve discovered that January is hot tea month in Canada and the U.S. (maybe other places as well – the niche holiday Google queries were unclear).
According to legend, Emperor Shen Nong first discovered tea in China in 2,737 B.C. It’s said he was traveling when some leaves from a nearby bush blew into water he was boiling. When he drank the liquor, he was infused with energy. Thus, tea became a thing.
That bush was the camellia sinensis plant. In Mandarin the camellia sinensis plant is called cháhuā (茶花) which literally means tea flower.
All tea comes from one of the two varietals the camellia sinensis plant. It’s only the difference in processing that creates the six different types of tea.
This tea is really easy to spot because of its unique white hairs. White tea is covered in a fine fuzz. The leaves are plucked before they can open and as a result the tea flavours are milder with a sometimes light sweetness. You won’t find any vegetal or chlorophyll tastes here. You see white tea often given a lot of artifical flavour (ex: white blueberry), but try a Bai Mu Dan (white peony), Bai Hao Yin Zhen (white hair silver needle) or Shou Mei (longevity eyebrow) for some hallmark pure white tea.
How to brew: 70˚-80˚C water, steep anywhere from 2-5 minutes.
Very rare, this tea I’ve only had once. Chances are you won’t find it on the grocery aisle shelves. These teas are created in a process similar to green tea, except during the creation process the wet leaves are left to dry for longer and steamed under a damp cloth. Because of that they turn yellow and lose a lot of the grassy flavours that green teas have. Jun Shan Yin Zhen (silver needle yellow tea) is a famous Chinese yellow tea. China is also the only country that makes yellow tea.
How to brew: 80˚-85˚C water, quick 1-2 minute steep.
One of my favourites! Green tea is unoxidized tea. The leaves are picked and then either roasted in a pan or steam-heated to stop oxidization. Pan-firing is more common in Chinese practice and steaming is more common in Japanese. That’s why Chinese green teas like Dragonwell or Gunpowder have more of a smokey, nutty, toasty finish as opposed to Japanese greens like Sencha or Gyokuro. Steamed Japanese greens have more of a chlorophyll flavour that can sometimes almost taste like seaweed.
Matcha is also considered a green tea. It’s made of ground tencha. Tencha is actually made using the same process as Japanese gyokuro (jade dew) green tea, except instead of being rolled before drying, the leaves are laid out flat to dry. They then become crumbly, are de-veined and ground into bright green matcha powder.
How to brew: 80˚–85˚C water and don’t steep too long; 2 minutes will do. Here’s how to brew matcha.
This is the tea master’s tea. Oolong is semi-oxidized tea, in between green tea and black tea. The edges of the leaves are ‘bruised’ (often by tossing them in baskets) so that the border of the leaves oxidize faster than the middle. Oolong is anywhere from 10-80% oxidized. The more red/darker your leaves are, the more oxidized. It’s hard to tell when they’re dry and brittle, but after you steep your leaves it’s easy to uncurl them to see what they look like.
So, why the tea master’s tea? Good oolong takes a lot of artistry to produce. Chinese tea connoisseurs value a good oolong. The Chinese Gongfu tea ceremony was also largely created around oolong tea.
[white_box]Fun Fact: I’m a big fan of Taiwanese oolong. It has a unique taste and history. Oolong in Taiwan was started by labourers brought over from Fujian province (the home of oolong in China) to work for the Dutch when they were colonizing the island. About fifty years later the Fujianese immigrants kicked the Dutch out and oolong production continued to flourish on the island. Later oolong production was influenced by the arrival of Japanese technology, so today’s Taiwanese oolong production is a mix of Chinese and Japanese techniques.[/white_box]
How to brew: Depending on how oxidized your tea is, anywhere from 85˚-95˚C and I recommend multiple steepings. Your first steeping can be 2 minutes and then increase the length of steep by 10-20 seconds each time. Unlike most teas, oolong can be re-steeped many times and often improves with each steeping.
As you might have noticed, out teas have been getting dark/more oxidized as we go along. Black tea is fully oxidized tea leaves. It’s the most common kind of tea in the western hemisphere (although green is rapidly gaining popularity). Black tea is grown largely in India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania.
You can get quite a difference in flavour between the different regions, although generally a rich amber liquor is what we’re looking for. Often times black tea will be scented (ex: black tea with bergamot is a.k.a. Earl Grey). Most of the breakfast tea blends we’re familiar with in the western world is a combination of teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Famously, Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton started his tea empire in Sri Lanka.
How to brew: 95˚-99˚C. If you’re from the Maritimes people here dump about ten tea bags into a craft and leave it all day on the stove. If your palate can’t take strong astringency and tea that can strip the paint off the wall, try instead brewing for 6-7 minutes with one tea bag.
Fermented or aged tea, stored in square or flat circle cakes. Pu’erh started in the Yunnan province of China. Originally the cakes would be buried after they oxidize. It has a distinct, strong, earthy taste and (I’ve been told) goes well with liver. Food for thought.
How to brew: Water at a rolling boil. This is the only tea that really likes water this hot. Pu’erh is nice to drink in the same style as oolong. The first steep is 15-20 seconds long, then go to 20 seconds, 40 seconds, etc. For an easier western brew, steep for 2 minutes.
A Note on Infusions
There are a lot of infusions made of hot water and mint, ginseng, chamomile, rooibos, etc. often called tea. But unless there’s some camellia sinensis leaf in there, it’s not tea. It’s an infusion or tisane.
Sometimes people say herbal tea, but that’s always struck me as confusing because it mixes the meaning of tea with infusion.
So now that you know all what’s out there, over the month of January what about giving a new type of tea a try? English Breakfast is great, but have you ever tried Nepalese Black Tea? Or Frozen Summit Taiwanese Oolong?
There’s a whole world of teas out there! What about trying teas from different countries? Do you usually just drink Darjeeling from India, or Sencha from Japan? Try shaking it up with a Ruhuna from Sri Lanka or Bai Mu Dan from China.
I’m looking forward to writing more about tea for January. Speaking of, is there anything you’re interested in? Anything you’d like to know?
If you were looking for an excuse to fill that extra cup of tea, this month is it. Enjoy it, hot tea lovers.