The Hatvala Guide To Making Your Cup Of Tea

Introduction

There are many factors that can affect the enjoyment of a cup of tea.  Where you are, who you are with, what your mood and expectations are can all play a part in the level of satisfaction.  However, at the center of everything is the tea itself and how well it has been prepared. Maybe it is impossible to ever achieve perfection but excellence is available to anyone prepared to devote the time and energy and who is willing to experiment.

Western Versus Eastern Brewing Method

Below we refer to western and eastern methods of making tea.  This is mainly for ease of reference rather than a hard and fast set of cultural rules.  For the eastern method we imagine tea made in a small pot for sharing with family or friends in small cups over many infusions.  The western method envisages making tea to drink in a larger cup or mug; perhaps to sip while you work or relax. 

There is no right or wrong way to enjoy tea – just whatever works best for you!

Make-Tea-1

The Things That You Will Need

Tea – explore the world and discover the incredible range of loose leaf teas that are available.  As with most products, there is a broad range of prices and qualities and price does not always equal quality.  Many vendors source teas only from large wholesale importers and miss out on the more unique and small batch products that are available.  If you can, try to find reliable vendors that specialize in teas from particular countries or areas. Always be curious, willing to try something new and to ensure that your tea is from a responsible and sustainable source.

Water – find the best practically available water that you can.  In some places this can be straight from the tap or faucet (preferably filtered).  If you prefer to use bottled water then spring water usually produces better results than mineral water (too hard/ mineral rich) or distilled water (too soft – making a flat tasting tea).

Brewing Vessel – the most suitable materials for your brewing vessel (e.g. tea pot or gaiwan) are porcelain, ceramic or glass – something that will retain heat well and not alter the taste of the tea. Ideally, you need as much tea and water to be combined as possible during brewing; enough room for the leaves to unfurl/ expand; and an ability to separate leaves from the tea completely once brewing is complete.  For convenience it is possible to make tea in a mug/ cup with a removable infuser provided that the infuser is large enough.  

Make-Tea-2

The Things That You Need To Do

There are three key variables in tea making: the amount of tea to water ratio; the temperature of the water used; and the time allowed for brewing.  It is important to take care about these but no need to be obsessive about it.  The table below can be used as a guide when making tea, but as we all have different tastes and preferences feel free to vary to suit your needs.

Tea Type

Temp

Western (300 ml water)

Eastern (200 ml water)

Weight

Time

Re-use

Weight

Time

Re-use

Green Tea

85C/195F

4g

2 min

x 4

5g

50 sec

x 4 – 5

White Tea

80C/186F

4g

2 – 3 min

x 3

4.5g

50 sec

x 3 – 4

Oolong Tea

95C/203F

6g

2 – 3 min

x 3

8g

1 min

x 4 – 5

Black Tea

100C/212F

4g

2 – 3 min

x 3

5g

1 min

x 4 – 5

Dark Tea

100C/212F

6g

2 – 3 min

x 5

8g

1 min

x 7

Flower Tea

85C/195F

4g

2 – 3 min

x 3

5g

50 sec

x 4 – 5

 Before starting it is recommended that all your pots, cups and utensils are clean and warm and that you give the tea leaves a quick rinse with hot water before brewing.

Amount of Tea – Loose leaf tea comes in all shapes and sizes making weight the only true guide – a teaspoon of oolong tea will be very different from a teaspoon of white tea!  Over time it is possible to judge how much of any particular tea provides the sufficient weight.

Temperature of Water – absolute precision is not required but the chances of creating a tea with too much bitterness or astringency are increased when using water that is too hot for the leaves e.g. white, green and oolong teas.  If you do not have a temperature controlled kettle then some simple observations are possible:

for white and green tea – when bubbles first start to appear on the water surface;
for oolong tea – when bubbles begin to break the water surface more vigorously;
for black tea – when water reaches a rolling boil.

If you have gone too far, don’t worry, just let the water stand for a few minutes to cool.  However, re-boiling the same water many times is not recommended as it depletes the oxygen content.

Time – this is self-explanatory and the easiest way to vary the strength of your tea.  With good leaves being able to provide multiple infusions it may be necessary to increase the brew time as you progress to maintain consistency.

Follow these simple steps with some care and you should make the most of your tea every time.  Happy Brewing!

Different Types of Tea

A Handful of Tea Leaves

A Handful of Tea Leaves

For the casual observer it is safe to assume that all types of tea are produced from a common source material, the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant family – although there are some minor variations to this if my understanding of current taxonomy beliefs is correct. The differences experienced between tea types being due to the either the standard of leaf harvesting or processing methods.

Teas are most often classified into 6 broad types:  Green, Black, Oolong, Yellow and Dark.  Probably the most significant difference between types is the degree to which leaves are allowed to oxidise during processing (as this is where the greatest chemical changes occur), but it does not tell the whole story.  In simple ‘elevator pitch’ terms (but not necessarily technically correct) green tea is un-oxidised, oolong tea is semi-oxidised and black tea is fully oxidised.  White, dark and yellow teas can be regarded as variations or extensions of these three types.

There are some who have very fixed views on whether individual teas belong to a particular category type or not often based on their own prejudice or expectations.  There are most definitely overlaps at the boundaries between each type.  Personally, I see it more as a guide to what you might expect and have never come across any prescriptive rules stating that a particular tea must be processed in a particular way.  I look at it in the same way as a movie being assigned to a specific genre.  If you went to see an Action movie and it had a touch of Romance then who cares.  But if you went to see a Sci-Fi and it turned out to be a Musical then something has gone very wrong.   I believe it is best to remain open-minded provided there is not an intention to misrepresent or mislead.  A tea should be judged on your overall experience rather than in comparison to a checklist of features.

Tea Leaf Styles

Tea Leaf Styles

Before continuing we will pause to consider some of the terminology used in tea circles, specifically in relation to ‘oxidation’.  Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs when harvested leaves come into contact with oxygen.  The more of the leaf structure that is exposed to oxygen the greater the degree of oxidation.  Oxidation can be prevented or stopped by heating the leaves at the desired time; a process known as kill-green, firing or denaturing.  In the early days of tea processing it was believed that this process was, in fact, fermentation and even now the words ‘oxidation’ and ‘fermentation’ are used interchangeably. To add more confusion is the fact that a more accurate description of the process should be ‘enzymatic browning’ rather than oxidation but as oxidation is the most commonly understood I will continue to use it here.

A final complexity is with dark teas which are typically referred to as post-fermented.  For these teas further chemical changes take place at the end of processing as a result of microbial action.  While fermented or post-fermented teas are the generally accepted ways of describing such teas it would be more accurate to describe it as microbial ripening

We will consider the detail and intricacies of Tea Processing at another time and for now content ourselves with a very brief introduction and overview to each type:

Green Tea (genre: Drama) – a short physical wither after which leaves are fired within a few hours of harvesting to deactivate the enzymes that cause oxidation and the chemical changes that this produces.  Firing can take the form of steaming, baking or frying.   The leaves are then generally rolled and dried but maintain much of their green colour. Tea flavours are typically grassy, vegetal or floral.

Black Tea (genre: Action) – subject to a prolonged controlled physical and chemical wither prior to a hard rolling (maceration) that breaks down the leaf cell walls to facilitate oxidation.  Once oxidation is complete the tea is dried, graded and sorted.  Black teas are often  brisk, full bodied with flavours tending typically towards malty and chocolate.  In China, black tea is referred to as red tea which is a better approximation to the colour of the brewed tea.

Oolong Tea (genre: Adventure) – undergo physical and chemical withering before being shaken/ bruised at the edges to promote oxidation.  The degree of oxidation in Oolongs can vary greatly and are typically quoted as being between 20% – 80%, which is often an estimate in any case.  The complexity and variety of flavours in Oolongs is vast and is further developed by the practice of roasting or ageing the finished tea.

White Tea (genre: Romance) – mainly just withered and dried although it is sometimes lightly rolled for shape.  Usually described as minimally processed, this is only true in terms of process steps rather than the time and degree of attention required.  Oxidation occurs during extended wither but is controlled through drying rather than firing.  Frequently but not always made from leaf buds only while the inclusion of young leaves delivers stronger flavour.

Yellow Tea (genre Sci-Fi) – a variation of green tea, yellow tea undergoes an additional step of moist heaping or smothering under cover after firing and before rolling.  The resulting tea is more mellow and without the grassy aroma of green tea.  It is the least common of tea types.

Dark Tea (genre: Epic) – aka post-fermented tea of which the most famous is Pu’erh tea.  Dark tea will usually start life as a simple green-like tea but allowed to ferment (microbial ripening) as a post processing activity.  A more recent development has seen accelerated ripening employed by heaping fired leaves under covers to promote microbe activity.  This is referred to as ‘cooked’ Pu’erh while the more traditional method (i.e. without accelerated ripening) is known as ‘raw’ Pu’erh.  Earthy and woody flavours are typically associated with post-fermented teas.

Flavoured Tea (genre: Musical) – not really a type of tea but an increasing trend is flavoured teas.  Tea leaves have a great capacity for absorbing flavour and there are a wide range of available, from the more traditional floral scents (e.g. jasmine) to more exotic and contemporary flavours.  Many purists turn up their noses at scented teas but they can be delightful.  The majority of modern flavoured teas, however, are artificially scented.

Blending Tea With Flowers

Blending Tea With Flowers

Here in Vietnam all types of tea are produced albeit in different quantities and qualities.  The exception is any yellow tea as described above although you will come across those who say they are making trà vàng (literally yellow tea), particularly in the wild tea growing areas.  This, though, is a very basic green tea (no smothering involved) that frequently goes across the border to China for further processing as dark tea.

Oolong tea production is a more recent phenomenon in Vietnam often in collaboration with Taiwanese businesses while dark tea production has long been undertaken but is having something of a renaissance due to increased worldwide interest.

Jasmine and lotus teas from Vietnam have become quite well known in overseas markets.

Where Tea Can Grow

All of the environmental factors – geography, topography, soil and climate – that affect the characteristics of an agricultural product are collectively known as terroir.  Wine snobbery has created a sense of pretentiousness around terroir but there is, unfortunately, no alternative term and terroir plays a fundamental role in determining a tea’s character, as it is for many other agriculture products such as coffee, chocolate and tobacco.

Tea has proved to be a versatile and adaptable plant that will grow in a variety of conditions although it is arguably best suited to those that match its native habitat.  Camellia sinensis is a subtropical plant; the subtropics are considered to lie between the tropics (23 degrees) and approximately 40 degrees from the equator.  Within these latitudes tea requires a humid subtropical climate where rainfall concentrated in the warmer months rather than dry summer months associated with a Mediterranean climate.  Subtropical climates can also be found within the tropics at higher altitudes.

Tea will grow in temperatures above 13C with the ideal range for photosynthesis between 16C and 28C.  It prefers small fluctuations in daily temperature and can withstand a frost but not a prolonged or heavy freezing. Typical rainfall in tea growing areas should be 1500 mm – 2500 mm (59 – 98 inches) but can be much higher.  Heavier rains will promote quicker growth and affect the chemical content of the leaf.  Teas from the dryer months tend to the most sought after for optimum flavour.

Tea-AreaTea can be grown at altitudes from sea-level to 2,500 metres (8,200 feet).  A rule of thumb classifies 0 – 600 metres as low grown, 600 – 1100 metres as mid grown and 1100 – 2500 metres as high grown.  Tea plants need sunlight but not too much direct sun; at lower altitudes shade trees are often planted to create shade and in some places plants are kept shaded in the weeks before harvest to increase the levels of chlorophyll in the leaf.  In higher altitudes with cooler temperatures and frequent mists the need to shade is less urgent.

Tea plants do not require dormancy during parts of the year but there appears to be a strong correlation with plants that are dormant during the dryer months and the highest quality of teas produced.  Dormancy is triggered by lower temperatures (below 13C) and shorter day length (less than 11.25 hours) and generally occurs at circa 18 degrees from the equator.

Tea favours a fertile, well drained and slightly acidic soil.  Roots are intolerant of waterlogged soil which is why tea is often found growing on sloping hillsides or when it is not large trenches are dug between rows.   Some of the most sought after (and expensive) teas in the world are grown in mineral rich rocky soils which results in lower yields but unique flavours.

As with all things meteorological there are uncertainties and micro-climates that defy the rules and the presence of mountain ranges can create a rain shadow (such as that found in Sri Lanka) or large bodies of water can create high humidity where it might not otherwise exist and generate a modifying effect that allows tea to be grown successfully; a great example of this is the coastal Rize Province in Turkey.

Tea-ProdTea is now grown in over 40 countries around the world with an annual production of over 5 million metric tonnes.  The largest tea producing countries in terms of volume are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey and Indonesia.  The last three are difficult to separate and often vary according to whose statistics are being used.  Taiwan production is usually included with China for the purposes of published data but would not feature in the top ten on its own with its focus on quality rather than quantity.  Likewise, Japan is famous for quality tea production but falls someway behind on quantity.

The above charts are based on the latest information published (2014) by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.  China and India continue to dominate producing 2,100 and 1,210 metric tonnes respectively.  More up to date information is available from other sources but is not as comprehensive as the FAO data.

Although volume production is generally confined to parts of Asia, Africa and South America small specialist farms are appearing all over the world with some notable developments reported in places such as the USA, New Zealand, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Vietnam RegionsIn Vietnam tea was originally native to the northernmost areas that form the border with China but is now grown in over half of the countries provinces.  The Northwest and Northeast of the country have the greatest concentration of tea cultivation although there is also significant production in parts of the Central Highlands (which is also the home for much of Vietnam’s coffee production.)

Areas of wild tea trees can still be found in Dien Bien, Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Yen Bai and Ha Giang provinces while the heart of commercial tea production is in Thai Nguyen province, just north of Hanoi.  The prize for most productive province, however, goes to Lam Dong in the Central Highlands where the area around Bao Loc is particularly notable.