The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

Yes, it’s called dust. Unflattering, I know. care for a cuppa dust, my dear? I have some nicely bagged fannings in the cupboard…

One of those things you learn as you read. Wikipedia tells us:

When crushed to make bagged teas, the tea is referred to as “broken”, as in “broken orange pekoe” (BOP). These lower grades include fannings and dust, which are tiny remnants created in the sorting and crushing processes.

Wikipedia further expounds on fannings:

Fannings are small pieces of tea that are left over after higher grades of tea are gathered to be sold. Traditionally these were treated as the rejects of the manufacturing process in making high quality leaf tea like the orange pekoe. Fannings with extremely small particles are sometimes called dusts.

Fannings and dusts are considered the lowest grades of tea, separated from broken-leaf teas which have larger pieces of the leaves. However, the fannings of expensive teas can still be more expensive and more flavorful than whole leaves of cheaper teas.

This traditionally low quality tea has however experienced a huge demand in the developing world in the last century as the practice of tea drinking became popular. Tea stalls in India and the South Asian sub-continent, and Africa prefer dust tea because it is cheap and also produces a very strong brew – consequently more cups are obtained per measure of tea dust.

Because of the small size of the particles, a tea infuser is typically used to brew fannings. Fannings are also typically used in most tea bags, although some companies sell tea bags containing whole-leaf tea.

Some exporters focus primarily on broken leaf teas, fannings, and dusts.

Which is to say that most bagged tea is not the best quality – even though some of it seems pretty damned good to my as-yet uneducated palate. At 6 a.m., I’m not sure I am up to critical examination of my cuppa and simply want the hot, modestly-caffeinated drink to course though my veins, dust notwithstanding.

I expect it’s a lot like wine or tequila: there are many subtleties and complexities that are not evident on the store shelf, or to the average consumer (a tea aficionado in the grocery store is akin to a tequila aficionado in the LCBO, I expect… over-educated for the thin selection of mostly sub-par products). One must be educated to appreciate the finer points of imbibing.

I’m sure there are courses in tea, like in wine and tequila, but I am at present merely an autodidact without a local source of product to support my burgeoning knowledge. Books, I rely on books.

So, I wonder, those “premium” editions of grocery store brands – Lipton Yellow Label and Tetley Bold for example – are they better quality fannings? Or simply more flavourful blends of the same quality dust? What differentiates Red Rose from Yorkshire Gold or Barry’s tea? Or should I eschew these common brands and focus instead on whole leaf teas purchased at specialty shops?

Tea Enthusiasts' HandbookDust, as a terminology, is not very attractive, but then I never thought the confusing term “orange pekoe” was either. Until I read about what it means and its curious etymology. What exactly is orange pekoe (OP) that is on every box of tea bags?

I have learned it’s a term used in tea grading of black teas (not green or other teas) and refers to the unopened bud.

OP may be an Anglicized form of a Chinese phrase describing the light down of the emerging tea bud. Why orange? Possibly for the Dutch (House of Orange) connection, possibly for the colour. Experts disagree.

Orange pekoe whole leaf can be further subdivided into more subtle gradations:

  • Flowery orange pekoe (FOP)
  • Golden flowery orange pekoe (GFOP)
  • Tippy golden flowery orange pekoe (TGFOP)
  • Finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe (FTGFOP)
  • Special finest tippy golden flowery orange pekoe (SFTGFOP)

As well as OP, OP1, OPA and other categories.

Broken leaf grades, fannings and dust, too, have their own nomenclature, as do regional teas, which I suspect no one out of the tea industry has ever encountered. Broken leaf:

  • BT—Broken Tea;
  • BP—Broken Pekoe;
  • BPS—Broken Pekoe Souchong;
  • FP—Flowery Pekoe;
  • BOP—Broken Orange Pekoe;
  • F BOP—Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe;
  • F BOP F—Finest Broken Orange Pekoe Flowery;
  • G BOP—Golden Broken Orange Pekoe;
  • GF BOP1—Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1;
  • TGF BOP1—Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1.

Fannings:

  • PF—Pekoe Fannings;
  • OF—Orange Fannings;
  • FOF—Flowery Orange Fannings;
  • GFOF—Golden Flowery Orange Fannings;
  • TGFOF—Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings.
  • BOPF—Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings;
  • BMF—Broken Mixed Fannings.

Dust grades:

  • D1—Dust 1;
  • PD—Pekoe Dust;
  • PD1—Pekoe Dust 1;
  • RD—Pekoe Dust/Red Dust;
  • FD—Fine Dust;
  • GD—Golden Dust;
  • SRD—Super Red Dust;
  • SFD—Super Fine Dust.

And, as Wikipedia reminds us, there are yet other terms, few if any I have encountered on my box of Tetley or PG Tips. But maybe I never really looked (and will start paying much closer attention in future). (Well, having just checked a box, I have found nothing on it to indicate quality or grade, but other brands may offer more…)

All 3,000 types of tea produced globally come from one plant, Camellia Sinensis, although there are varieties of that plant in different regions. There are six major kinds of tea:

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Oolong (or wulong, sometimes called blue-green)
  • Black (sometimes confusing called ‘red’ but not to be confused with rooibos and other herbal infusions which are not teas)
  • Pu-erh

Some of these categories have sub-categories – green and black wulongs; sheng and shu pu-ehr, for example. Mostly the differences are in two areas: harvesting and production. The time of harvest, the amount/size of bud harvested and the type of production (drying, oxidation ad fermentation methods) define the type of tea. Also the growing region comes into play when naming a tea (Longjing, Darjeeling, Assam, etc.).

I have had (and have on my own shelves at present) five of these six kinds, but never yellow tea (where would one find it?). I suspect the teas I have sampled in all categories have not been the higher calibre of that type, too. Partly because I have not known (and am still ambivalent) about choosing teas. PArtly because my access to tea shops is somewhat limited.

One can only hope these details are listed somewhere on a package for the consumer to appreciate, but in examining my boxes of pu-erh, for example, I cannot tell if the tea is sheng or shou (and it was purchased in an English tea shop!). My Dragon Well teas do not identify the plantation, harvesting season or even region (at least in English; some, like my recently-purchased Ten Ren Longjing, may note more detail in Chinese, although even that is rather short). None of the oolongs I have mention if they are a black or green state.

Knowledge/learning is an addictive thing. I crave it like a child craves sweets. But do I have the time, the patience and the stamina to really get a good (albeit basic) knowledge of tea? And even if I do, where will I be able to use that knowledge? Can I really afford to stock my shelves with more books on a somewhat narrow subject when there are so many other topics I am interested in learning?

I am not so naive to think that a reading a few books will give me more than an ouvre; an opening, into the subject.

“Quid pro qui, and quid pro quo,” as the character said in Yellow Submarine. “So little time; so much to know.”

I suppose that, at least for the nonce I will continue down this rabbit hole to learn more about the fascinating world of tea by reading books about it.

~~~~~

* Along with the superb coffee-table book (an ironic description for a book about tea), The Tea Sommelier, (an excellent book on Chinese, Indian and Japanese teas, but oddly silent on Korean and African teas), I wrote about in a previous post, these three new books on tea arrived from Chapters/Indigo last week:

  • Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, 2nd edn, by The Camellia Sinensis Tea House (Firefly Books, New York; 2014). A good-sized guide with interesting chemical analysis at the back. Rich in detail, lots of cultural and historical notes, but skims African and Sri Lankan teas, and has no mention of Korean teas.
  • 4 World-Famous Chinese Green Teas:, A Tea Lover’s Travel Diary, by Jason Chen (Tea Master Book, Taiwan; 2012). A bilingual travelogue about visits to four tea production areas in mainland China, with personal notes that accompany the descriptions and photos. Full of information about growing and production.
  • The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas, by Mary Lou Heiss & Robert Heiss (10 Speed Press, New York; 2010). Small, almost pocket-size and very handy. Includes brief material on Korean, African and Sri Lankan teas, as well.

Plus another arrived from Bookcloseouts:

  • A Taste of Tea, by Brian Glover (Ryland Peters & Small, London; 2007) – a rather simple and undetailled introduction that you might give as a gift with some tea or a teapot.

Any other books you, my gentle readers, might recommend, I will appreciate.

** Tea being “an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis,” as Wikipedia defines it. Not the infusion of herbs and spices incorrectly labelled “herbal tea.” These are no more “teas” than Coke is a coffee. To be properly called a tea, a drink should have tea leaves in it.

*** Milk to reduce the oxalic acid effect in tea. Oxalates contribute to the formation of kidney stones. Many common foods have high oxalate levels: spinach, rhubarb, beets, miso, nuts, chocolate, wheat bran and strawberries and peanuts for example. See the article Bioavailability of soluble oxalate from tea and the effect of consuming milk with the tea, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003. It concludes:

…consuming black tea on a daily basis will lead to a moderate intake of soluble oxalate each day, however the consumption of tea with milk on a regular basis will result in the absorption of very little oxalate from tea.

Iced tea, however, has no milk and therefore can be problematic for people prone to kidney stones.