There are three factors that determine the taste of a tea: the plant variety, the terroir and the manufacturing process.
Today we’ll explore the first of these factors, the plant variety, in a bit more detail – don’t worry, we’ll keep things simple!
As you can see we have created an infographic for this post, but if you would like to know things in a bit more detail we suggest you read the article below the infographic.
We’ll spare you a deeper explanation of the plant kingdom’s taxonomy as it can get pretty complicated. But so you’re aware, there are more than 300 varieties of the Camellia genus (the family group). Think of all the magnificent camellia shrubs and trees that are part of some of the UK’s spring floral landscapes. These are the same plant as the tea plant, but of a different variety.
From the 300+ varieties of Camellia, only two can be used to produce tea: the Camellia sinensis sinensis, and the Camellia sinensis assamica. They are the two varieties we will describe further now, but it’s worth knowing that in reality many teas are made from cultivated varieties (so called “cultivars”) of the Camellia sinensis plant.
Cultivars are variations of the Camellia sinensis plant that have usually been created through hybridisation to create and maintain certain desirable aspect, such as a particular flavour profile or better drought resistance, for example.
But let’s focus on the two main Camellia sinensis varieties for now.
Camellia sinensis sinensis
The Camellia sinensis sinensis is native to China (sinensis means “Chinese” in Latin) and is characterised by smaller leaves.
It enjoys cool temperatures and grows well on steep mountain slopes above 2,800m. The plant usually grows between 1.5m and 4.5m tall. Because of the colder climate, the growing season doesn’t last longer than six months, during which the plant can be plucked around 5 times.
However, what the Chinese variety lacks in quantity it makes up in quality. Its leaves tend to give a much sweeter, less astringent cup (in case you wonder what astringency is, it’s that puckery feeling you get in your mouth, a bit like when you eat spinach).
Camellia sinensis sinensis leaves are usually used to make green and white teas, although also some black and oolong teas are made using this variety.
Camellia sinensis assamica
On the other hand, the Camellia sinensis assamica originates from – you guessed it – the Assam region in northern India.
Here the conditions are very humid and warm, resulting in a much bigger plant that, if left uncontrolled, can grow up to 20m high and produce much larger leaves than its Chinese counterpart.
In a good year, the assamica variety can be plucked every one to two weeks throughout the entire year, making it a far more productive plant than the sinensis variety. This makes it the preferred variety not just in India but also in Sri Lanka and throughout Africa.
The assamica leaf produces strong, malty teas and is typically used for black teas. But it can also be used for oolong and pu-erh teas where a bigger, more robust leaf is often required to resist the lengthier and more intense manufacturing process.
Now, that’s all the theoretical aspect but to really understand what a difference the plant variety creates in a tea, you need to taste it!
That’s why at Taste for Tea we are developing an innovative and fun subscription programme, to get you to engage better with tea and understand it in all its fascinating nuances.
Pre-register at tastefortea.com so we can let you know when we go live. We’re currently offering a 15% early-bird discount, so what are you waiting for?