Teas of the World
"The best quality tea must have creases like the leather boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like a fine earth newly swept by rain." So wrote Lu Yu in his Ch'a Ching, which was written in the 9th Century and is considered the first book of of tea.
Bringing this into a more contemporary setting, without question the best tasting teas available to the contemporary drinker are loose leaf, unblended single estate organic Fairtrade teas. Even if the tea leaf is not large, it should be well-graded and consistent in size. Such single-estate organic Fairtrade teas will never be the same each time because of seasonal changes, and much of the excitement just as in wines comes from experiencing and understanding the differences. For second choice, choose loose, small tea leaves, pre-packed organic Fairtrade teas, preferably labelled by country of origin rather than their "house" name. If all this fails, go for the convenience of tea bags, which generally contain mass-blended small leaf tea.
India is the world's largest producer of tea, but most is drunk in the local market, with Sri Lanka being the largest exporter. Most of the quality tea from Assam and Darjeeling is exported to Europe (especially Germany) and Japan.
The turbulent Brahmaputra River runs through Assam. This is where Indian tea was born - Robert Bruce found the tea plant growing wild here in 1823. Assam is naturally gifted. A tropical climate, and fertile alluvial soil, makes it ideal for tea cultivation. When Assam tea first appeared, picked from China Jat grown in Bengal, north of Calcutta, it was affected by the soil and growing conditions and tasted entirely different from the China tea people in Europe were used to. Soon afterwards, tea from newly-discovered Assam Jat took over.
The new Empire Tea was altogether more robust with a heavy malty character and a rich dark liquor. These days the best large tea leaf Special Finest Tippy Orange Pekoe tea is only produced on a few tea estates. The more common leaf tea is Golden Broken Orange Pekoe grade, a neat square dark brown leaf with a pale tip, which is good and strong with a flinty, light malty character. Broken Orange Pekoe tea is most generally available as a popular, strong, everyday brew.
The Assam tea season starts in March with a small quantity of First Flush, which is green and astringent. The Second Flush begins at the end of April and lasts until the August monsoon season. Late season Autumnal tea is good about one year in ever four, the rest of the time it is rather brown. Assam is a solid, strong organic tea and should be made with care - too powerful a brew can fur up one's teeth.
The smaller grades - blacker leafed, neater Orange Pekoe Tea Fannings - are perfect for the notorious Sergeant Major's Tea or Workman's brew or Builder's Tea or Irish Breakfast tea, in which you can stand your spoon. Sadly for the pure organic tea lover, much of Assam's production is targeted to CTC production for tea bags and the local marketplace, where it provides wonderful strength and fullness but always in a blend.
Darjeeling, nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas, produces a high-grown organic tea that benefits from steady rainfall, light soil and the cool atmosphere of the hills. This organic tea has an aroma all its own. A mysterious mix of the mountain peaks, soft Himalayan soil and the misty air that the tea leaves breathe.
A good standard tea fetches twice the price of any other and for the best Second Flush Darjeeling Tea the sky is the limit. In our opinion, Darjeeling is simply the best organic Fairtrade tea in the world. It has everything the tea drinker wants and a heavenly, luxurious flavour as well. Some of the older estates still have areas of China Jat, cuttings from bushes which must have been planted 150 years ago, and which still retain a heady sweetness.
Dramatic seasonal changes show up in the taste: First Flush Darjeeling tea appears as soon as the snow melts, and in some areas the rush is on to pick the tender new shoots as early as February. The flavour of the First Flush tea is light and subtle, because the world famous organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea taste has not yet been fully developed. Main crop organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea, picked from April onwards, has unbeatable taste. The best of these Second Flush Teas have the classic flavour of muscatel - an almost meadowy fragrance of newly mown fresh hay.
At Steenbergs, we prefer these Second Flush organic Fairtrade teas to the (usually) more highly valued First Flush organic teas - they just have more flavour together with the fragrance of blackcurrant or mango sneaking through.
Towards the end of the season, in October and November, the Autumnal organic teas can be fruity and mellow.
Organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea is a relatively scarce and flavoursome organic tea and so, like a great Bordeaux wine, is expensive. It is a false economy to buy a cheap leaf or a blended Darjeeling tea; you wouldn't buy a cheap champagne or an imitation designer suit, so you should buy the best and enjoy the luxury of it.
Whatever its grade, an organic Darjeeling tea would never be termed strong. The best are grandly titled Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe grade; a large leaf organic Darjeeling tea, manufactured in the orthodox way with plenty of pale tip and the remaining leaf green or brown in colour. Nor should it be made strong - 2 teaspoons of organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea per six cup pot with 5 minutes to brew. Overbrewing will bring out the astringency of the green leaf. Standard FOP tea can be drunk with milk, but the fancy grades are better drunk lightly brewed.
The south western highlands of Sri Lanka offer the perfect growing conditions for organic tea, with each side of the range benefiting from the annual monsoon at different times of the year. As there is no real winter, tea picking is continuous, which means less tip from new spring growth. Orange Pekoe accounts for less than 2% of production and is medium grown at 610m - 910m (2000ft - 3000ft). These leaves are up to 20mm long and have a clean, smooth and almost oaky flavour. 80% of Ceylon teas are BOP and BOPF, noticeably smaller than similar grades of Assam tea, but clean, neat and dust-free, with less tannin.
The rolling hillsides south of the historic town of Kandy are covered with tea. At 610m - 910m (2000ft - 3000ft) in altitude, Kandy teas are classic medium-grown, producing a delicious smooth brew with good colour and strength.
70km from Kandy, nestling between peaks of up to 9000ft, are the valley and town of Nuwara Eliya (pronounced nuraylia). This is one of the most beautiful tea-growing areas - tea gardens cling to the steep slopes and are irrigated by mountain streams. It produces what is known locally as "the Champagne of Ceylon Teas" with great flavour and a light, clean style. The liquor is not as dark as Kandy or as coppery as Dimbula, but the teas are bright, crisp and brisk and retain a clear colour even when left to brew.
The Uva district, near the town of Badulla, lies at 910m - 1520m (3000ft - 5000ft) above sea level. Its teas are much favoured by the Japanese, who consider it the best of all Ceylon organic teas; it's also our favourite place for organic Fairtrade Ceylon tea. Despite a liquor which is pale in colour, its flavour is astringent enough to be almost bitter and is pleasantly softened with milk.
Dimbula South east of Nuwara Eliya at about 1800m (6000ft), the Dimbula region lies along the Nanu Oya river and produces huge quantities of tea. This is another favourite tea - it has a classic bright taste with a hint of oakiness but without the astringency of Uva. Dimbula has a good coppery red colour which takes milk well.
The market for China tea is small in Britain, because of our love of strong Indian, Ceylon and African teas swamped with milk, thickened by sugar and gulped by the mugful. Nevertheless, this is where the world's love affair with teas began and there is still a vast choice of carefully-graded, large leaf China teas to suit all tastes. All light China teas are best brewed Chinese-style, made and drunk in a bowl topped up regularly with boiling water, an incredibly economical way to extract the fullest flavour. Organic black China tea is brewed like any regular organic tea.
The tea leaves are quite simply picked, rolled and immediately dried in hot air dryers or giant woks before they start to go brown. Organic green teas are believed to have health properties, ranging from dietary through to relieving heart disease. In our view, Chinese green teas are sometimes a little too astringent for our tastes and we have selected some lighter Chinese green teas and a Green Darjeeling, as well as an organic jasmine tea.
One of the original green teas seen by European traders, Gunpowder is rolled into dark green balls that reminded them of explosives. Darkening has not occurred because fermentation has not taken place, so the liquor is transparent and straw-coloured with a dry, mildly astringent taste. We have a wonderful organic green gunpowder tea from China.
For a very short period at the beginning of the picking season, there is an abundance of new tea shoots. These tea shoots are carefully picked and steam dried immediately. These beautiful, highly prized silver tips of unopened leaf contain virtually no caffeine, so make an ideal evening tea or light digestif.
There are as many varieties of this pale, delicate green tea as there are Commune Wines in Bordeaux. The best standard is 9301, an even-sized leaf with wonderful whole blossoms. Jasmine has some of the characteristics of green tea, but is lightly fermented. It is often served in Chinese restaurants to help digestion and cleanse the palette.
The special teas include Chung Hao and Chung Feng, both with long twists of leaf, and Pearl, giant balls of individually-rolled leaf that unfurl dramatically when brewed. All are flavoured with young jasmine blossoms, picked when they are closed and put in with the tea as they open in the evening. At Steenbergs, we have found a beautifully delicate organic Chinese jasmine tea.
The fermentation process is stopped by drying the leaves as they begin to turn brown, so strengthening the delicate character of a green tea but avoiding any astringency or tannic strength. As a result, a rich flavour develops, similar to the smell of a peach skin; to add milk would be sacrilege.
Strictly speaking, there are 2 kinds: lightly fermented (called bohea by English tea merchants) and around 60% fermented (called oolong by English tea merchants).
Oolong is to China teas what Darjeeling is to Indian Teas and flower names are frequently used to signify high quality. The smoothest, sweetest and most subtle Oolong comes from Formosa (Taiwan) and ranges from standard Black Dragon (alias Peony), which is the strongest, with a unique, almost woody dry taste, through to Peach Blossom, the best quality of all, which retains its superb whole tip and bud even after packing and shipping halfway around the world.
China Oolong is drier and less effervescent than Formosa, tending to be rolled with a more twisted leaf that is greying brown in colour. Among the best is Dragon Well, picked in the spring before the rainy season and always offered as a mark of respect to political leaders in Beijing. Then there is the legendary Ti Kuang Ying - this is dry, delicate and strangely tantalising, originally picked by trained monkeys on otherwise inaccessible mountainsides. Today this Yencha (Cliff Tea) is specially picked 4 times a year.
Whether from China or Formosa, Oolong Teas require just a few leaves in a bowl, infused for at least 6 minutes and topped up regularly. At Steenbergs, Axel's bowl of Oolong lasts for over 30 minutes!
Black teas (called red in China) Keemun
Châ'n, known as Keemun Tea in the United Kingdom, comes from Anhui Province, which lies farther to the North than other important Chinese tea-producing areas. They are some of the best China black teas. Its large, grey-black leaves have a sweetness and fragrance that can be compared to Darjeeling, through its beautiful aroma is more like an orchid, and in the 18th century was known as English Breakfast Tea. A fine Keemun tea can be drunk lightly brewed on its own, or with lemon, or stronger with milk.
Regional black teas
The Chinese produce many other Black Teas and the most famous are from the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Yunnan has the appearance of Assam - long curled leaves and plenty of Tip - and some of its maltiness, but none of its astringency. No China Black Teas have the strong tannin taste of Assam or the brightness of Ceylon. Sichuan teas have a flinty, earthy character with a touch of China sweetness. Like the Yunnan teas, it can be drunk lightly brewed on its own, or stronger with milk.
REST OF THE WORLD
Outside Darjeeling, there are areas of the Himalayas where good soil in south facing slopes allows tea to be grown. Tough conditions can produce some excellent teas, but the problem is consistency as extremes of weather at this altitude have dramatic effects on the crop.
Africa is one of the largest tea producers and the UK tea trade depends on the small, dark CTC tea leaf for many blends. The best African tea comes from Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe, where there is no specific monsoon and high elevations produce tea with good colour and strength throughout the year.
Russia and Turkey
Russian tea comes from Georgia and is grouped with Turkey as their teas have similar characteristics. They are pleasant, black and light in tannin and are more like a Nilgiri or strong Keemun that an Assam. Russian Caravan Tea scoops the award for the most confusing title! Early traders brought China Tea across Russia in their caravans of silk and spices - the origin of the name Caravan China Tea - as well as coming on some Russian caravans and over time these earned the title of Russian Caravan Tea. Whatever the origin, it is a China tea and now comes by boat!
Indonesia and Malaysia
Teas are grown in areas of Java and Sumatra. These teas are soft black teas with less astringency and flavour than Assam or Ceylon and they are used by major packers as the base for many blends.
Argentinian teas are neutral in taste and do not cloud when poured over ice, so they are great for blending and perfect for iced tea. As a result, most of its tea is exported into the USA. Tea is grown in the North in 2 regions - North Corrientes and Misiones.
Japan grows a small amount of green tea. Gyokuro is Japan's finest green tea. During the picking season, the gardens are shaded to increase the bright green colour of the leaves. Gyokuro has a bright green colour, an intense vegetal flavour and high levels of caffeine. Sencha tea is a clear, bright green tea with low levels of caffeine. It is believed to have health benefits.
Flavoured teas have been around for ever in one form or another. The Chinese add jasmine, rose and chrysanthemum petals to their teas and Indians add cardamom and other spices to make chai. In the UK, Earl Grey developed his famous blend from a recipe he was given in China which adds bergamot oil to give a distinctly smoky flavour. Traditionally, Earl Grey tea is a blend of 4 teas from China and India infused with bergamot oil. We use an organic Fairtrade tea from the Uva Highlands in Sri Lanka together with organic bergamot oil to create our organic Fairtrade Earl Grey tea.
Another popular British tea is Lapsang Souchong, which is an unusual China tea with large leaves that have a smoky flavour. The smokiness should come from the hand-fired drying method that is traditionally used in China, but is often added artificially nowadays. It is a much loved tea with an intense smoky flavour. Moroccan mint tea is popular in Morocco. It is a green tea that has been blended with aromatic peppermint leaves, producing a brisk green tea. It is served with sugar in Morocco.
HERBAL TEAS OR TISANES
Chamomile: Egypt produces the finest chamomile. Only the flower heads are used in the tisane. Often referred to as sleepy-time tea, it is a tisane with a definite body, a fresh scent and a flavour that hints of ripe green apples like the ones we grow in our garden.
Peppermint: a brisk drink made from dried peppermint leaves - it's a great stomach settler. We drink a cup every night before we take the kids upstairs to bed.
Rooibos: this is a fantastic herbal tea that comes from South Africa. Rooibos or redbush is a natural herbal resource, which is often collected by the Khoi-San. It is a favourite among real tea drinkers because it has a lot of body like black tea, yet is low in tannin, contains natural sweeteners and is rich in essential oils.
Lemon verbena (Verveine odorante): a traditional French tisane. Lemon verbena consists of green leaves that produce a full-bodied herbal tea with a lemony aroma that is perfect after dinner.