We’ve written up a rough guide to some of the tea terminology that you might encounter on the website. Hopefully it is helpful to you!
Astringency refers to the puckering, drying sensation in the mouth and mucous membranes. This comes from foods that contain plant metabolites (called polyphenols) that are used as a defense mechanism against biting and sap-sucking insects. The most common foods where you might encounter astringency would be unripe fruits, raw grains, spices, berries, cacao and of course, tea.
Of the polyphenols in tea, it is the catechin (a type of flavanol) that is most responsible for astringency.
In the context of Japanese tea, Bancha refers to mature or late-harvested tea leaves that is often collected from lower on the tea bush. This distinction is made because green teas such as sencha and gyokuro, which are produced from early season, tender new growth.
With its large and somewhat comparatively fibrous leaves, Bancha is often served as a more robust tea in its own right, or is integrated into a blend such as genmaicha, or roasted to create hojicha.
Generically speaking, a blend is comprised of material from one or more origins that have been brought together to create a composite product.
Blending can also address seasonal shortages, or bring together material from different growing regions to produce a enhanced or marketable final product. English Breakfast tea is an example of a blended tea, which often integrates tea of multiple origin.
An art form in its own right, a blend can also describe a product that aspires for synergy between ingredients by creating an enhanced or even more complex flavour profile, or to show an enhanced appearance with fruits, florals and/or botanicals.
Though sometimes maligned, one way to think of tea blending is as thus: just as a wine maker would select grapes to create the best vintage, so would a tea master select raw material to present a favourable blend according to a desired outcome, or market demand.
The leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis, an evergreen native to East Asia, are used to produce tea. Not to be mistaken for the Camellia garden flowering variety (var. Japonica), nor the genus Melaleuca used to produce tea tree oil. The two main varieties grown today are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. Assamica.
Left to its own devices, the tea bush will grow into a veritable tree, though it is common for commercial plantations to regularly trim to waist height. Parts of China are renowned for ancient tea trees, which produce a small annual volume of extremely high quality leaf tea.
The seeds, flowers, buds, leaves, stems and stalks are each agricultural products that either become ‘tea’, or are used as a derivative ingredient, such as cooking oil, compost or biofuel.
Cultivar is a portmanteau of ‘cultivated variety’, a plant that has been asexually replicated by scion (from cutting) because it has one or more desirable genetic characteristics. This might mean improved drought resistance, increased yield, or even enhanced tasting notes.
Originally, a cultivar would have been isolated from a plant discovered in the wild, which had adapted through natural selection. These days though, most cultivars are selectively bred in the nursery of a plantation, or raised in a research centre. In either case, a new tea bush is made by taking a cutting from the mother bush. The offspring is thus a 1:1 genetic clone of the original. If a new disease afflicted this cultivar, an entire plantation of clones would also be susceptible.
As the earliest possible batch of tea, a first harvest is tea that is typically in high demand and comparatively low supply. This young tea is prized for its minimal astringency, concentration of aromas and freshness that rapidly diminishes with the remaining flushes of the year.
In the context of Japanese green tea, the term shincha represents tea plucked from the first flush of the year, and is a phrase often used interchangeably with ichibancha, or 'first harvest'.
Within the western world of tea, the ‘shincha’ equivalent would be the known as the ‘first flush’.
Shading, also called the Ooishita ('delicious') method involves the use of vinyl, bamboo or other physical shading material, used to cover tea bushes intended to become gyokuro, kabuse sencha, matcha and sometimes high grade sencha.
Under shade, certain chemical changes occur within the leaf. Firstly, chlorophyll accumulates, amino acids such as L-theanine become concentrated, and the lack of sunshine slows the conversion of amino acids into polyphenols such as astringent-tasting catechins.
Ultimately, shading leads to a distinctly darker, sweeter and less astringent processed tea, with a more pronounced umami, or broth-like flavour from the leaf.
When producing tea, oxidation is a natural chemical reaction that occurs as soon as the tea leaf is plucked from the bush. The process is accelerated once the cell walls are ruptured, either accidentally (in transport) or intentionally with the aid of rolling machines, human hands or by tossing in baskets. The naturally occuring leaf enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, is primarily responsible for oxidation.
The consensus is that complete (100%) oxidation is necessary to create a black tea; without it, there would be no full-bodied flavour and uniform colour in the leaf or liquor. For green teas however, the intention is to maintain the verdant colour and fresh flavour, so oxidation is halted by steaming, pan-firing and/or baking.
Sencha is a popular style of steamed green tea. Although history records this tea as first originating in China, sencha is most commonly associated with Japan. Sencha is also produced in other countries such as India and Australia. Japanese-grown sencha is the most common tea produced and consumed within the archipelago itself, though international interest is steadily increasing.
Sencha is made from spring harvests of unshaded tea bushes, though some artisan styles include brief shading. Once plucked, the tea leaves are steamed, rolled, shaped and dried. As a finished product, sencha is long and needle-like in shape, with a deep green colour and signature fresh, vegetal fragrance and astringency.
A semi-formal, traditional tea brewing method intended to concentrate the aromas and flavours of higher-grade sencha and gyokuro. This style originated in Japan many centuries ago, with historians describing it as being delivered by early Buddhist influence.
Although the precise rituals and the austerity of the ceremony may differ, at its core Senchado involves several successive infusions of the same leaves to tease out the nuances that are found in the tea.
Steaming is the predominant form of processing tea in Japanese style. The use of steam deactivates the enzymes in the tea leaf, which cause unwanted oxidation of the green leaf.
Asamushi, or light steaming, lasts up to 30 seconds and produces a large leaf tea with light colour and body, and delicate vegetal flavours. In contrast, the futsumushi or normal steaming style is most commonly used today. The leaves are more delicate, but stronger and more intense in flavour compared to asamushi.
Tea or tisane
Tea is an agricultural product that is derived from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to East and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian subcontinent.
There are six processing styles of tea: black, green, yellow, oolong, white and dark/pu'erh. All of the forementioned are derived from the same plant. Tea bushes will grow into a veritable tree if left undisturbed, therefore most of the world's tea is grown in managed plantations and kept at waist height to assist in plucking.
By definition, a tisane [ti-sahn] is any product of herb, spice botanical and/or fruit that is consumed in a similar way to tea, but does not contain any actual tea ingredient (i.e. leaf, stem or stalk from the Camellia sinensis plant).
Chamomile, rooibos, roasted dandelion root and Yerba mate are examples of tisanes that are commonly labelled as tea. A tisane may have caffeine containing ingredients.
Tencha is an intermediary stage green tea. It is shade-grown, steamed, destemmed and deveined to be made into matcha. Unlike other Japanese green teas, it is not commonly sold as-is for brewing. As a rolled tea and heavily processed tea, it is less suitable for brewing; the delicate flakes float on the surface of the water and comparatively don’t impart as much flavour until ground into powder.
Terroir refers to the collection of natural (non-human induced) elements that exert an influence over the genetic expression of a plant. Bordeaux wine and Darjeeling tea are two examples of unique terroir, imparting flavour profiles that are endemic to their region of origin. The four most commonly referenced aspects of terroir are altitude (e.g. high mountain grown), rainfall (e.g. monsoonal), soil type (e.g. limestone) and geomorphology (e.g. alluvial).
Yabukita is an an ideal cultivar for steamed green tea because it produces less astringency (fewer tannins), yields higher amino acids (for umami) and is well suited to deep cold, relative humidity and varying soil types. Discovered by Sugiyama Hikosaburō and officially registered in 1953, the Yabukita cultivar suits Japanese tea farmer's needs precisely, hence why it now represents 70-80% of plantations in Japan.
The Yabukita cultivar is also distinct in that it produces a flush of young shoots that bolt upright, and at the correct time corresponding to the season, make mechanical harvesting simpler.
Also known as the fifth and most elusive taste to describe. It sits alongside sweet, bitter, sour and salty. Umami is present in food that is rich in savoury-tasting compounds known as glutamates, such as cooked tomato, dried shiitake mushroom, nori seaweed, soy sauce and parmesan cheese.
Some teas, particularly Japanese steamed green teas naturally contain L-theanine, an amino acid with a particularly savoury, umami-rich flavour. This attribute is enhanced with shading prior to harvest.
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