We all know what a good cup of tea tastes like. It’s light and refreshing, yet complex and confident. But how does a cup of tea become good? What happens to the tea leaf that it produces such wonderful flavors? The numerous factors that go into making a good cup of tea can be simplified to five basic factors, which I’ll list below.
As the saying goes, “We are a product of our environment.” Connoisseurs specializing in everything from wine to tequila know the importance of terroir in creating their beverage. Terroir is what gives the plant the extra nutrients and compounds to take it from normal to amazing.
So the question is, what makes a terroir good? The main aspect is soil. I have asked many of my farming friends and they always name soil as the number one factor in terroir.
Tea grows best in an orange, rocky soil known as rotten clay. You can tell this soil by its orange color and by the fact that if you pick up a rock on the ground it easily breaks apart, almost like it’s rotten. This is the best soil for tea for a few reasons. One, it’s very loose, and water drains through it very quickly. A plant that has to fight for water, fight to stay alive, produces good tea. Another and lesser known reason is that the soil has negatively charged ions, and nutrients such as magnesium and calcium are positively charged, therefore they stick to the soil.
Other factors in terroir are the amount of shade a tea tree gets, the amount of other non-Camellia sinensis plants around it, and the elevation. All of these factors come together to create a perfect environment for growing tea.
Even the best terroir can be ruined by bad weather. You hear this sort of thing a lot from wine drinkers: “1964 had great weather and produced some of the best wines.” The weather has a strong effect on the plant’s growing cycle, and thus the beverage the plant produces. This has been especially evident in the last few years, as global warming has made the weather very sporadic and unpredictable. In 2017, for example, the weather was cold much later than usual, causing the tea trees to take longer to finally produce their first bud. On the one hand, this is good because this meant the plant had a few extra days to gain nutrients from the soil, which usually leads to a better flavor — but this also leads to an overall smaller yield, and thus higher prices for the tea.
Oolong is especially subject to weather because of the long drying process it undergoes. This step cannot be done in the rain, and the last two years have been very rainy. Plants react to the weather, and the science of good tea is so specific that any small change in a plant’s behavior can radically change the final flavor of the tea. While the farmer can have control over almost every other aspect of the tea production, when it comes to weather, all he can do is pray.
This is a pretty simple one to understand. Even though there is one tea plant, Camellia sinensis, there are many breeds of that plant. It is most easily equated to dogs. A German Shepard and a beagle are both dogs, but they are two different types of dogs, both with there own characteristics and strengths. And just as how some dogs are better at some things than others — a greyhound is better at running than a pug, for example — some tea cultivars are better made into some teas than others.
Take the cultivar Chu Ye. Chu Ye is known best for producing Qimen red tea. As a red tea, it is soft and sweet, with a wonderful aroma. If you take that same cultivar though and try to make it into green tea, it tastes pretty weird. The molecules and nutrients inside the Chu Ye leaf yields a much more delicious flavor as a red tea instead of a green.
The age of the tree has been more and more talked about due to the recent popularity of pu er. Pu er trees are known to be hundreds and hundreds of years old, I personally have tasted a tea from a tree that was 500-700 years old. The older a tree is, the farther down the roots grow, and the more nutrients the plant is able to pull up from the soil. This allows for the tea’s flavor to be deeper, richer, and more confident.
It is kind of like when you are talking to people. A person who is 30 years old will be able to tell you a lot more than someone who is 11. But also, just like people, the tree can be too old. A tree can reach an age where the leaves are no longer strong, or it sometimes stops producing tea. On the flip side, it is also good to note that older is not always better. In the case of Tie Guan Yin, a Fujianese oolong, the plant is usually ripped up after 5-10 years in order to keep the flavor light and aromatic, the way Tie Guan Yin is preferred. It is all about how the tree affects the leaves.
After all four of the previous factors have come together, you have a fresh tea leaf. Now it is important to know what to do with it.
A good tea maker can take a good tea leaf and make amazing tea, or he can take a bad tea leaf and bring out the good characteristics while minimizing the bad. It all depends.
The best example of the difference is in the question of machine vs handmade. For example, when you cut vegetables by hand, you can customize the size of the pieces. Likewise, it is important in tea making to be able to make small adjustments depending on the batch you have in front of you.
The ability to take a tea leaf and turn it into delicious tea is the only skill that can earn you the title of “tea master.”
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