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What is Tea? – Origins and Categorization of Camellia Sinensis

All true tea is made with leaves harvested from a single plant species called Camellia sinensis. Colloquially, the word “tea” is often used to refer to many herbs and botanicals that are brewed with hot water, although these plants are not technically tea. The actual tea plant is an evergreen tree native to the part of Southeast Asia where China’s Yunnan Province meets India’s Nagaland region and the northern areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

From this one species stems two main varieties known as Camellia sinensis var. assamica, and a third lesser known variety called cambodiensis. The assamica or “broad leaf” variety most closely resembles the original tea plant, where as the sinensis or “small leaf” variety evolved as the tea plant was carried from its subtropical homeland to more temperate climates. Under each of these varieties fall hundreds of sub-varieties known as cultivars (cultivated variety). New cultivars are developed when tea farmers selectively breed tea plants that demonstrate preferred qualities such as a stellar aromatic complexity or the tenacity to thrive in periods of frost or drought.

Menghai Broad Leaf cultivar taken by Rishi in Yunnan, China
First flush being harvested at a waist high plucking table in Hubei, China.

Left in its natural state, Camellia sinensis grows into a tree that reaches about six feet tall for small leaf varieties, to over 50 feet tall for the ancient broad leaf trees growing in Yunnan. Cultivated tea gardens are managed by pruning tea trees into bushy rows, making it easier to pick young leaves that sprout up on top of the “plucking table.” To this day, most tea is picked by hand.

Hand picking tea leaves Chiangdao, Thailand.

In the northern hemisphere, the harvest season begins in late February or March and runs through September or October. Throughout the growing season, tea plants sprout tender new leaf buds in a series of growth surges called flushes. Most tea regions experience three or four distinct flushes within each crop year. During the winter months, the plants go dormant and their energy and nutrients are stored within the roots. In the springtime, these nutrients are drawn up and become concentrated in the new growth. For this reason, the spring harvest or “first flush” is typically the most prized of the year.

The Six Categories of Tea

The modern tea world recognizes six categories of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark (Pu’er). The main attribute by which a tea is put into one of the six categories is its degree of polyphenolic oxidation. This natural oxidation is an enzymatic reaction that is similar to the browning of a sliced apple or freshly chopped basil leaves. For tea, it is the biochemical process that changes freshly picked leaves from green to yellow, amber to red, and finally brown. The art of making tea involves skillfully facilitating tea leaf oxidation, and dehydration, through a series of intricate steps to achieve a desired flavor and aroma. Within each of the six categories, hundreds of traditional styles of tea are differentiated by factors including growing region, cultivar, harvest time, and crafting technique.

The astounding variety of teas available today, and the vast geography where tea is grown, is all the more amazing given tea’s early roots. Anthropological research indicates that tea was originally wild-harvested and consumed as a bitter vegetable that was cooked into nourishing soups and as a folk medicine prepared as a vitality tonic. It is believed that these foundational uses of tea date back some four or five thousand years, making tea about as ancient as the primitive styles of wine and beer. It is humbling to reflect on that and realize that the more we learn about tea, the more we find there is yet to learn.

Tea is a journey that offers a lifetime of learning — join us, starting your journey with Rishi Tea & Botanicals

Popular Tea Profiles

As you begin to find your favorite types of tea, consider the type of tea and its level of oxidation. We’ve included several recommendations for you to explore below. 

Earl Grey Supreme

A special reserve for Earl Grey lovers, we infuse our top grades of Yunnan Dianhong black tea with the essential oil pressed from real bergamot citrus fruits grown in Calabria, Italy to yield our Earl Grey Supreme blend. We select only bergamot oil made during the first pressing of the year, around November-December, which has the most fragrant perfume and floral aromatic complexity.

Jade Cloud

Three different styles of green tea (steamed, oven-baked and roasted) are combined to make a deliciously smooth everyday green tea inspired by the classic Chinese green tea known as Wulu. Savory notes from steamed tea leaves are expertly balanced with the toasted chestnut flavor and flowery aromas of baked and roasted lots.

Silver Needle

Widely esteemed for its delicate appearance, elegant sweetness and noble character, Silver Needle tea is comprised of pure, individually plucked tea buds harvested only in the early springtime. Our Silver Needle is unique in that it is sourced from Menghai and Mengku broad leaf varietal ancient tea tree groves in the remote, mountainous Yunnan Province of China.

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