Tea drinking as a ceremonial activity has been in existence in Japan since the 9th century and in China before the 8th century. In these countries the preparation and consumption of tea is an art form, known as the Way of Tea, and highly respected as a ritual of peace and harmony. Other countries including India, Great Britain and parts of the Middle East are also very well known for their love of tea consumption and its role in social events and activities. Tea drinking as a hobby can include learning about the different cultures and how tea is used in those cultures as well as having the chance to try out teas from around the world.
Tea, at least in traditional form, is a combination of the leaves, internodes and buds of the Camellia sinensis plant. Most tea varieties require a tropical or subtropical climate to grow, however some varieties can grow outside of these conditions. Tea plants have to grow for at least four years and some up to twelve before they are able to produce seeds, however harvesting of the leaves can occur after about the three year mark for most varieties. The slower growing the plant the more flavor is contained in the leaves and those varieties that are slow to mature are the most prized in traditional Asian tea preparation.
There are several ways that the leaves and other parts of the plant can be prepared to produce a variety of different types of fragrant beverages. There are also herbal teas, which may include non tea plant ingredients that are consumed either in combination with tea or as a drink on their own.
There are six different types of categories of teas that are made from different types of the Camellia sinensis plant. They include post fermented teas, black tea, oolong, green, yellow and white tea. The strength of the tea and the flavors contained in the beverage once steeped are largely a part of the type of processing combined with the variety of the tea.
All tea is oxidized by enzymes to create fermentation in the leaves that produces the dark color and the flavors of the tea. Heating is used to stop the fermentation and preserve the tea leaves at the desired fermentation level. Drying is then completed either during or after heating to preserve the leaves and prevent the growth of fungi that will lead to contamination of the tea leaves.
White tea is the least processed of all teas and is typically only made from the very young leaves of tea plants. These leaves are wilted but not allowed to start the oxidization process before they are dried. This keeps the leaves very mild in flavor and white in coloration. Yellow teas, which are not common outside of Asia are allowed to yellow but are not wilted or oxidized, which means they are dried almost immediately after harvesting. Green teas are also an unwilted an unoxidized type of tea but they can include many different varieties of tea plant. Oolong teas are wilted and bruised to increase the fermentation but they are only allowed to partially oxidize. The black teas, which are most common in western culture, is wilted and bruised or crushed and fully oxidized for a high tannin content and full flavor. Rarely consumed outside of Asia are post-fermented teas which are green teas that have been left to dry in the air for months to up to years after harvesting. This long fermentation period produces rich yet very smooth types of teas that may be stored for up to 50 years without any decrease in flavor and quality.
Choosing a variety of teas to get started with a tea drinking hobby takes a bit of research and some careful consideration based on the types of teas you enjoy. Try finding an online or local tea shop that will provide information on the specific blends or types of teas that they sell. It is highly recommended that you start with small batches of each tea and gradually increase the amount that you order based on the types of teas you enjoy. Tea, like any type of ingredient, will lose flavor if kept for long periods of time. Smaller packaging with air tight containers in a cool, dark, dry place in the home is the best option for storage. Tea should never be stored in the fridge or freezer as this can dramatically affect the flavor of the tea. It also should not be stored in areas where there is a dramatic temperature change either becoming hot or cold.
Teas can be consumed with a variety of additives including milk and sugar or honey, which are the most common in western cultures. It is important to note that green, yellow and white teas are rarely if ever consumed with any type of additive. Black teas, which are known as red teas in Asian cultures, may be consumed with small amounts of lemon or citrus, especially those popular in India and Great Britain. Earl Gray Tea and Masala Chia tea may also have bergamot added to the tea to infuse additional flavors. Masala Chia is a popular blend of tea and several spices including pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom boiled with water, milk and sweetener.
Generally those that are passionate about tea and tea drinking do not select commercially available tea brands. They tend to avoid teas sold in bags or as instant teas since theses are often the lower quality leaves. High quality loose teas are really not expensive, especially if you purchase online, and just a very small amount of tea is all that is needed to produce an outstandingly fragrant and flavorful beverage.
The supplies required to get started with tea drinking as a hobby will vary based on the types of tea you are interested and in the specific ceremony that you may wish to have. There are, in some areas, classes on both the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies and there are online videos, books and DVDs that outline the specific steps in an authentic ceremony. In these cultures becoming the host of a tea ceremony can takes years of practice and perfection and it is truly an art form and a living piece of cultural history.
For those that want to enjoy teas from around the world and provide an opportunity for others to do the same the basic supplies needed for tea drinking are readily available. You will need to have an appropriately sized kettle for heating water. Some people use only distilled or purified water which is recommended over tap water. Tap water may contain chemicals and additives that can cause reactions with the flavors of the tea, or the additives can overpower the delicate notes of the tea flavors. If you live in an area where the tap water has an odor or taste, distilled or purified bottled water is highly recommended to give you the true tea flavor.
Kettles can be electric or designed to be heated on the stove, either is appropriate for preparing most types of tea. For very traditional tea ceremonies a ceramic or clay tea pot heated over coals is used. Copper, cast iron, enamel and stainless steel are the most common on the stove types of models. Keep in mind that some of these types of kettles do need special care to prevent rusting and discoloration. Water should not be stored in the tea kettle in between use as sediments and deposits from the water can build up over time and add impurities to the boiling water. Water for tea should be heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit and then cooled to the recommended temperature based on the type of tea you are brewing. Black teas should be brewed at 200 degrees while the more delicate green teas at 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
A tea pot or a set of tea cups and infusers or strainers are most common for loose tea preparations. The infusers, sometimes known as tea balls, are packed with the loose tea leaves and added to the heated water in the cup to steep. It is important to remember that different teas require different steeping times and the strength of the tea should not be controlled by steeping longer or shorter, it is controlled by the amount of tea added to the ball or infuser.
Tea pots for loose leaf tea may have strainers in the neck of the pot to prevent the leaves from being poured out with the tea. These are a good option but remember that the remaining tea will continue to steep in the leaves, resulting in a bitter second cup. A better option would be a larger tea ball or straining the tea into a second pot for only a short period of time. Tea is always best when freshly prepared and not allowed to sit for longer than the recommended steeping time. All teas will have various quantities or tea that are recommended for an eight ounce cup of water. For most teas the ratio will be one to two teaspoons of loose tea per eight ounce cup with steeping times from less than 30 seconds to up to 10 minutes.
Tea cups are really a personal choice. Traditionally tea has been served in fine china cups for special ceremonies, including the British tradition of high tea, in most countries. The cups used in tea ceremonies are very specific in Japanese and Chinese cultures and are small bowels rather than cups as westerners understand the term. Mugs are typically not recommended for tea as they hold the heat into the water and can cause the tea to become stronger over the time it takes to consume the beverage. China cups allow the heat to naturally dissipate and prevent continued steeping in the container.
Tea drinking as a hobby is both healthy as well as delicious. It provides an opportunity to learn about different countries, different cultures and even different traditions. With online tea stores now offering a huge range of pure and blended teas in small sized containers it is also a very low cost hobby to start at any time.
For more information on tea varieties, tea ceremonies and tea drinking traditions check out the internet, your public library or talk to individuals at your local tea store for ideas on teas to try out. Tea drinking is always a social event, so be sure to invite your friends and family to get involved in the hobby, you just never know what you will discover about your own tastes and what you like.