Flavored tea is among the most popular choice among tea lovers. Tea purveyors offer black, oolong, green and white teas infused with a wide variety of tempting flavors that provide a delicious taste and aroma to a cup of brew.
The key to obtaining a delicious flavored tea is the quality of the tea base. Teas are grown in thousands of tea gardens worldwide, and some are better than others.
The best tea gardens are those that pay careful attention to the details of growing various types of tea. And, the best tea (including flavored tea) comes from the best tea gardens.
Varieties of tea differ primarily in how they are harvested and produced. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, but the variations in harvesting and processing the tea gives this one plant many different tastes.
Harvesting and Processing
Black tea, which is the most commonly consumed tea in the Western world, is fermented tea. The tea leaves are plucked, dried and then fermented to turn them a deep red.
Black tea is a very healthy beverage. However, the fermentation process that black tea undergoes changes the antioxidant levels in the tea leaves, and reduces some of their health benefits, particularly when you compare them to other tea varieties.
Green tea is left unfermented. The leaves are withered and dried and then graded and packaged. This simple processing keeps green tea in a very natural state. The leaves brew into a green or pale amber color and have a very natural, sometimes grassy, flavor. Green tea has been revered for its health benefits.
Because green tea undergoes so little processing, the tea's antioxidants are left in their natural state. These natural properties have been shown to be effective at preventing serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer -- and at slowing down the aging process.
White tea is also unfermented and has the same antioxidants and health benefits of green tea. However, white tea is different from green tea because it is harvested so early.
White tea leaves are harvested only in early spring, before the buds have even opened, and while they are still covered in a fine white hair. This early harvest gives the tea a very light, sweet and delicate flavor. White tea is harvested just once a year, making it the rarest of all teas.
Oolong tea is a semi-fermented tea, somewhere between a green and black tea. The fermentation time varies from country to country, but is significantly shorter than the fermentation period of black teas. Oolong teas also retain a large percentage of their natural anti-oxidants, making them a very healthy tea, as well. In particular, oolong tea is thought to be a very effective weight loss supplement.
Each of these teas has different processing requirements, but all must come from a carefully tended tea garden.
Tea Garden Tending
The first work of the tea gardener's year begins in February or March, when the tea plants are pruned. The time of pruning, as well as the time of the first plucking, varies by climate.
The first harvest begins as the tea plants are ready. The best tea gardens still pluck the leaves by hand, so that they can choose only the leaves that are truly ready for processing. The leaves are withered first, sometimes in the sun, and sometimes in sheds, depending upon the area. White teas are often withered right in the fields.
Next, the tea must be processed. This process can be very different depending upon the tea variety. Black teas are fermented at this point, where as green teas are steamed or fired next to prevent fermentation from occurring. Oolong teas are bruised to begin the fermentation process and then fashioned into a ball using a cloth sack.
They are shaken or tumbled regularly during the fermentation process and checked regularly so that they are allowed to ferment just the right amount of time. Once fermentation is complete, the leaves are steamed or fired to stop the fermentation process.
Steaming or drying the leaves must be handled carefully to produce the right flavor. Next the tea must be finished. This finishing process includes sorting the leaves according to grade and sometimes, firing them or roasting them one final time before they are sent off to be packaged.
Adding Flavors to Teas
For flavored teas, the flavorings are added at this point. Many tea gardeners make flavored teas only using flavors that they have access to in their area.
For example, much of the world's jasmine flavored tea is made in China, where the jasmine blossoms are the largest and most fragrant in the world.
The tea must be properly stored in order to maintain flavor. It is critical that tea leaves be stored in airtight containers so that no moisture is let in.
During the summer, green tea growers may produce a second, third, and even a fourth harvest. Tea gardens in some areas and producing some varieties will continue to harvest tea until frost.
However, it is the first harvest of the year that produces the finest quality green tea. Subsequent harvests will always be a lower grade of tea.
In the summer, the tea gardener will also do battle with weeds and insects. Since the best tea gardens are organic – meaning no herbicides or pesticides are used, keeping the gardens free of weeds and pests can be very labor intensive.
Autumn is when tea trees go through their heaviest period of growth. During this time, gardeners will amend and aerate the soil and fertilize the trees. By October, the tea trees will need to be pruned again before the winter comes. Pruning must be carefully timed to ensure that the spring buds will appear at just the right time.
During winter, tea gardeners must pay attention to their young tea trees, as many may need protection from the cold. In addition, many tea farmers will prepare new areas for gardening and plant new tea trees if the weather permits.
Quality tea gardens are labor intensive and require great skill to maintain. It is only the tea gardeners that have this skill, patience and tenacity that produce the finest tea, including flavored tea blends.
This article was written by tea expert Jon M. Stout, chairman of Golden Moon Tea Company. For more information, visit goldenmoontea.
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