White tea can be a real treat, offering delicate and subtle taste, beautiful appearance, and creamy pale yellow liquor. It is produced from the buds and young leaves of the camellia sinensis plant and only lightly processed before steeping in your cup. The sign of a truly fine white tea is the presence of lots of fine white (downy) hairs on the leaf, like the bud-only, Bai Hao Silver Needle. There are also white teas made of bud and one to three of the young leaves. The white hair is where its name comes from. To preserve these hairs, the tea is handled very carefully. The tea is hand plucked. It is withered in the sun to dry and then is further dried in the air, sun, or mechanically to stop oxidation. It is not pan fried, steamed, roasted, or rolled since those methods would destroy the fine hairs.
Delicate Hairs For Self Defense
The camellia sinensis plant typically produces the most hairs on its first buds and new leaves of the season. It is not unusual for plants to have hairy leaves or buds as the hairs serve multiple defense functions for the plant like protecting the buds from sunburn and insects (Evert, 2006). As the leaves get bigger, the hairs fall off. So there is a very small window at the start of the growing season to pick the buds with the most hairs. This means there are very limited quantities of true white tea, and if weather interferes there could be seasons with little to no white tea available.
Origin of White Tea
There is no definitive answer as to when the first white teas were produced. The name silver pekoe starts to appear in the mid-1800’s in English publications referring to a fine black tea with silver hairs. Back in the 1800’s, teas were either black or green. If the tea was steamed, it was green and all other teas were black (Hanson, 1878). Most of these silver pekoe teas came from the Fujian and Zhejang provinces of China. Those provinces are still considered home to the finest of Chinese white tea. China, however, does not have a monopoly on white tea. India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Kenya also produce white teas. As tea farms take hold in Hawaii, they too are making white teas.
White Tea Preparation
White Tea – The bud-only style of Bai Hao Silver Needle and creamy pale yellow liquor.
When preparing white tea, be careful to prepare gently, in the spirit in which it was produced. Boiling water should never be poured on a white tea since it will produce a very bitter brew. It is best to allow the boiling water to cool to between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit or even cooler before introducing the tea leaves. White tea is also only brewed between 1-3 minutes though it depends on the origin and variety. The flavors of various white teas range from floral to fruity to nutty with all brews being smooth. Most white teas can be infused 3-6 times and not lose their flavor. Since this tea has the lowest amount of oxidation, it brews a very pale yellow cup.
White tea is a variety well worth exploring.
Evert, R. F. (2006). Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Hanson, R. (1878). A Short Account of Tea and the Tea Trade. London: Whitehead, Morris and Lowe.
Bud and Two Leaf – Desired Pluck and Highest in Caffeine – By Mandeep Singh, CC-BY-SA-3.0
We recently wrote about the caffeine in tea, specifically looking into claims that caffeine in tea was somehow different than caffeine found in coffee, soda, or other products. We found that the jury was still out on the topic, with some studies showing that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine was less jolting. However, these studies used much greater quantities of L-theanine than is normally found in tea. This brings us to the next topic around how much caffeine is in tea. A search of web pages reveals a wide variety of information with many charts showing black tea as having the most caffeine followed by oolong, green, and white in descending order. We went searching to learn more about what things impact the amount of caffeine in tea and what ends up in your cup.
The Role of Caffeine in Tea
First lets set the stage a bit. Caffeine is found in true tea from the camellia sinensis plant. It is not found in herbals and tisanes like products featuring rooibos, honeybush, or other herbs. Many plants including both coffee and tea naturally produce caffeine as a way to protect themselves. Caffeine, like other compounds including nicotine and morphine, is a bitter tasting alkeloid, a feature which helps ward off many insects that would otherwise feast on plant leaves. It also tends to inhibit the growth of fungus thereby further protecting the plant. (Freeman and Beattie)
Recent research also suggests that there may also be another reason for caffeine in plants; to attract honeybees. Specifically, researchers have suggested that in low doses, having caffeine in pollen helps honeybees better identify the scent of a given flower providing a bit of reproductive advantage. (Wright, Baker, et all).
Caffeine and Types of Tea
Understanding that the presence of caffeine in tea is a self defense mechanism and that new growth is most vulnerable to insect attack, it should come as no surprise that the most desired part of the tea plant also has the highest caffeine. Specifically the bud and newest leaves, which are highly regarded for many types of tea, provide more caffeine than older growth. However, this isn’t the end of the story. The tea plant, c. Sinensis has evolved naturally over time into many varieties to suit the area in which they are grown. The sinensis and assamica varieties are the most notable but not the only varieties. Additionally, many countries including Japan, China, India, and Kenya actively work on producing specialized clones more suited to specific growing conditions, desired tastes, and leaf appearance. Each variety of plant differs in the amount of caffeine it produces and even the specific season of growth and available nutrients all impact caffeine production.
All types of tea, including green, black, white, and oolong, come from the same plant. The drying, rolling, and oxidization to achieve finished product does vary from type to type but the varieties still come from the same basic plant. Nothing in the standard production process extracts or otherwise removes caffeine from the leaves.
So what does this mean? Unless producers and retailers are sampling large volumes of leaf, for each and every product they offer, its really impossible to make specific claims about the amount of caffeine in any type of tea. It will fluctuate wildly within a very wide range; white, black, green, or otherwise. One might be able to avoid high amounts of caffeine by avoiding teas that are all tips but even this is no guarantee.
An alternative for many is to look for decaffeinated tea which theoretically allows enjoyment of tea without the caffeine. There are two general methods used in the decaffeination process of tea today; ethyl acetate (also known as “naturally decaffeinated”) and CO2. In the first case, ethyl acetate, which occurs naturally in the tea plant, is used to wash the tea leaves removing caffeine (as well as many other beneficial substances and flavor compounds) from the product. The washed tea leaves are then dried and repackaged. In the case of CO2, the leaves are also washed. This is done under more than 60 lbs of pressure per square inch (psi) at which point CO2 becomes a liquid. After washing the tea in liquid CO2 the leaves return to normal pressure at which point the remaining liquid CO2 simply evaporates. Both decaffeination processes are expensive, time consuming, and remove more than just the caffeine resulting in some compromise in taste and other compunds found in tea.
Aside from the impact on taste and other compounds, the process of decaffeination does remove most of the caffeine found in tea. If you live in the European Union and you buy decaf tea then you are in great shape. To meet EU standards a decaf product must have 99.9% of the caffeine removed. In the United States we aren’t quite as exacting, requiring only 97% removal. So if we assume that the amount of caffeine in any given tea sample may vary widely then so too might the amount of caffeine in your decaf tea.
Adirondack Berries – A Rooibos Based Tisane
Its worth noting that there is a myth floating about that you can eliminate most of the caffeine in tea by doing a quick initial steep, tossing the liquor, and re-steeping. Unfortunately the data under controlled conditions doesn’t support this myth at all. To eliminate the caffeine you would need to steep for 10-15 minutes, toss the liquor, and then steep again but who would want to drink that? For a much more in-depth look at caffeine and tea have a look at Caffeine and Tea: Myth and Reality by Nigel Melican which is one of the best reviews we have seen to date on the subject.
In summary, while the amount of caffeine in any given sample can be measured by a lab, as far as we can tell its really impossible to make sweeping claims about the amount of caffeine in any specific type of tea, much less one specific tea product. When we want to skip the caffeine we’ll have a a tisane or herbal tea.
Freeman, B.C. and G.A. Beattie. 2008. An Overview of Plant Defenses against Pathogens and Herbivores. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-I-2008-0226-01, http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/topics/Pages/OverviewOfPlantDiseases.aspx
G.A. Wright, D.D. Baker, M.J.Palmer, J.A. Mustard, E. F. Power, A. M Borland, P.C. Stevenson. Caffeine in floral nectar enhances a pollinator’s memory of reward. Science. Doi 10.1126. Science., http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/bees-get-a-buzz-from-caffeine
Tea traveled to America with the colonists who arrived from all European countries, with some colonies like New Amsterdam (modern day New York) being heavier tea drinkers than all of England at the time (Smith & Kraig, 2013). The British implemented a mercantile system, as with its other colonies, which focused on trade to increase its wealth. With this system London based businesses were protected through the use of trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies but it also required the British government to fight smuggling and illegal trading with other countries, especially by American merchants.
Early American Tea Experience
American Tea consumption is tied tightly to the early ship building in the colonies. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were both major ship building colonies, where craftsman took advantage of the abundance of local resources, craftsman, and cheap labor to build more and faster clipper ships than the British. Many of these clipper ships were put into use by the American merchants to trade directly with other countries, bypassing the British government. Smuggling was extremely common in the American colonies and tea was high on the list of illegal goods.
Small Yixing Teapot
The colonists adopted many of the British customs like tea drinking both at home and in public coffeehouses (Yes, coffeehouses did exist 300 years before Starbucks). It should be noted that much of the tea consumed in the colonies and Britain was green tea (Smith & Kraig, 2013). The social demand for tea, and the additional taxes levied on tea from the British East India Company made smuggled tea a very common commodity in the colonies, most coming from the Dutch East India Company. The loss of revenue by the British East India Company did not go unnoticed and in 1767 the tea tax was levied. This tax became one of many levied on the colonists in the ten years leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. As Joseph M. Walsh noted in 1892, “The birth of the greatest nation of all time due to a three-penny tax on tea!” (Walsh, 1892)
After the revolution, American merchants used their clipper ships to go direct to China for trade, bringing tea and other goods legally into the United States without British involvement. These merchants became the first of the American millionaires, with tea being a dominant contributor to their wealth. This wealth was later used to give loans to the fledgling American government to purchase arms for the War of 1812 other ventures necessary to stabilize and expand the country.
American Industry and Tea
Tea consumption thrived in the United States through the 1800’s with farmers experimenting with growing tea plants in the country. The US Department of Agriculture even published a study about using tea as a commercial crop in 1897. There is still a commercial tea plantation in South Carolina, new tea farms in Hawaii, and the US League of Tea Growers working to increase the growth of tea in America.
It was in the early 1900’s that America made perhaps its largest contribution to modern tea culture, first through the large scale introduction of iced tea and then through the invention of the tea bag. While iced tea has been documented in American cookbooks dating back to 1870’s, it was at the World’s Fair in 1904 that iced tea was introduced in a big way to the public. With the warmer US climates, iced tea still remains the most consumed tea in the US. The second was the accidental invention of the tea bag by an American, Thomas Sullivan, who sent small samples of his tea in silk bags to his clients in 1908. Those clients went on to ask Thomas to send their tea in bags going forward and since silk was expensive he created his bags out of paper.
American Tea Consumption and World Wars
American tea consumption saw significant declines around World War I (1914-1919) and then again around World War II (1939-1945) because of significant disruption in trade with China and Japan.. Trade with China did not resume after WWII until 1971. As green tea was produced predominantly in China and Japan, this left black tea from India to satisfy the US market. Current tea consumption in the United States is 85% iced tea and still overwhelmingly black.
As loose leaf tea becomes easier for the US consumer to get and consumer awareness of options increases, the growth in the specialty loose leaf market will mirror that of coffee and wine bringing a large variety of tea to market. I am looking forward to having more options in the high quality tea market, are you?
As we noted in an earlier blog about where tea is grown, tea comes from a large number of countries around the world, though only a relatively small number including China, India, Japan, and Kenya produce it in large scale. But we were curious, how does the tea actually get into our hands for consumption?
Tea, of course, starts with the plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea plants begin life as cuttings in a nursery before being planted in fields for commercial growing. These fields may be corporately owned or those of smallholders which makeup a substantial, if not the majority of growers around the world. (United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012). After a flush of new growth appears, pluckers will pick leaves ranging from a bud only to a bud and two or three leaves, collecting the leaves in a basket or other container. While manual labor is used for most plucking, some tea is harvested by mechanical means.
After plucking, tea immediately begins to loose moisture and begin oxidation and must quickly get to a manufacturing plant. So the farm and the manufacturing plant must be close enough to allow raw leaves to be delivered immediately. Farmers rarely own manufacturing facilities themselves, so after tea is picked in the field it is carried to a factory on foot, car, truck, bicycle, or motorcycle depending on what happens to be at hand. This may be done by the farmer or by middlemen who purchase the raw tea leaves and transport it to the factory for processing.
Tea Chests by Flickr user mikecogh, CC BY-SA-2.0
Once at a factory the tea leaves are processed and turned into one of the major types of teas. This may be done using CTC or Orthodox methods, ultimately resulting in a finished tea product that is ready for packaging and sale. At this stage tea is packaged in large containers made of a variety of types including polypropylene, jute (vegetable fiber spun into threads), or paper sacks or in tea chests. Tea chests are made of plywood lined with aluminum foil and parchment paper to ensure they resist absorption of other aromas and, when full, may weigh 75-160 lbs while foil lined tea sacks may weigh 55-130 lbs. (TIS-GDV, 2013)
Depending on country and local arrangement, tea may be sold directly to distributors and wholesalers or may go through auction. There are well established auction houses in Colombo, Mombasa, Calcutta, and cities in other major tea producing countries of the world. In some cases the tea is actually packaged and leaving port before money has traded hands!
Shipping Containers by Flicker user wirralwater, CC BY-2.0
Packaged tea is shipped in a variety of methods although excessive handling is not desired as sacks and chests are easily damaged resulting in loss of the tea within. It is normally placed on pallets and then moved by forklift into a shipping container to be shipped around the world. When it gets to the destination port this container may be emptied and the contents re-shipped, or the container itself may be forwarded on to the end buyer.
Upon reaching the distributor or wholesaler the shipment of tea is then split up, sold in existing packaging, or repackaged into smaller sizes for purchase by retailers and in some cases direct to consumer. At this point some tea may become the base of a blended tea or may remain as is. Finally, the retailer will repackage the finished product into sizes that are manageable for consumers and sold directly or sold to other retailers, tea houses, or hospitality establishments.
Since tea does have a shelf life it is important to get the tea to retailers and consumers quickly. Some aspects of shipping can be done faster, especially with air shipping and consumer purchase direct from the grower. However, these are generally niche solutions with low volume, appropriate for specialty teas and buyers who really know what they want and are willing to deal with some added risk of placing orders with a company overseas.
So where do you buy your tea? Physical tea store, on-line retailer, farmers market, other?
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United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization. (2012). Contribution of Smallholders to the tea sub-sector and policies required to enhance their livelihood. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Intergovernmental Group on Tea.
Tea Plucker in Assam by Diganta Talukdar CC-BY-2.0
For centuries the only way to harvest tea leaves was to hand pluck them, and in many countries that is still the primary means of harvest. This may be intentional or may be due to the lack of capital necessary to purchase the equipment. For those farms who chose to use modern agricultural equipment there are multiple options from which to choose that can be implemented at various points in the harvesting season. For example, in Japan, some farmers choose to hand pluck the first flush of a season and use mechanical means for subsequent harvests.
Tea does have a harvesting season, though the length and number of flushes varies widely. In China it is typically in the spring and fall. As mentioned in our earlier blog Camellia Sinensis, season is effected by water, location and temperature. During a harvesting season the tea is usually picked once every week to two weeks. In places where harvesting can occur year round, during the peak season, the tea can be picked multiple times during a week.
As you can imagine plucking tea by hand is very labor intensive work where typically, the bud and first two leaves are plucked. In regions of China, on top of plucking the tea leaves, the pluckers are hiking up and down mountainous terrain to get to the leaves. In some of the oldest farms, the pluckers are also climbing into the old ungroomed tea trees to pluck. Pluckers will carry some kind of means to collect leaves as they pluck, often a bag or bamboo basket. They will add leaves as they pluck and when full they carry their harvest back to the farm before returning to the fields to keep plucking. In many countries women make up the predominant portion of the plucking workforce. In China, this is driven by the belief that women have just the right touch in plucking leaves, not leaving the tea tree brushed or damaged at the breaking point. This is extremely important for future harvests, because the tea tree will not continue to produce leaves on a branch where it is bruised or damaged.
Tea Harvesting by Machine by Oli Studholme CC-BY-2.0
Knowing that the tea tree is sensitive to where the plucking occurs, it is hard to imagine how big farm trackers or automatic pruners could to the same job. However, the Japanese have implemented laser technology to allow their automatic pruning machines to be hand-pulled over the tea trees with cuttings sucked into either bags or shoots that go back to the main staging area for the plucked tea. This laser guidance allows the pruners to cut at just the right place and angle so the tree continues to grow from the same branch. Since oxidation begins immediately after harvest it is critical, especially for green tea, to start the manufacturing process as soon as possible and this system allows much faster transport of leaves to processing facilities. I imagine that other countries, like Sri Lanka, which are experiencing labor shortages on their tea farms as younger generations leave the farm for jobs in the cities, will eventually turn to this technology to allow harvesting to continue.
While many countries still utilize substantial labor to harvest tea, Argentina plantations almost exclusively use large elevated tractors that drive above the tea trees to harvest tea leaves. Machine harvested leaves don’t usually have the bud and two leaf combination but individual leaves instead, some with and some without stems. Given that the plantations in Argentina are able to harvest year round, it is not a surprise that they use equipment.
Mechanically harvested tea is not always destined to tea bags. Quality loose leaf tea can be harvested by machine, you will just not see a bud and two leaves in the tea. Instead you will find single leaves and buds and in some cases no stems on the leaves with an almost perfectly straight edge at the base of the leaf. As for whether plucking by hand or machine effects the quality of the end product, it is hard to imagine that it does. Of course, I am just an American that is accustomed to John Deere tractors harvesting everything from oranges to wheat, so why not tea?