Tea 101

[ka-mee-li-a  cy-nen-sis]

Camellia sinensis is the botanical name for tea, an evergreen plant, indigenous to southeast Asia, whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce Chinese tea.  The name 'Camellia' derives from the Latinized name of Reverend Georg Kamel, S. J. (1661-1706), a Czech-born Jesuit priest who became a well known botanist.  'Sinensis' is Latin for 'Chinese'.  There are 82 different species of Camellia, of which tea is the most complex, with 2 major varieties and almost 500 recognized cultivars. The most commonly recognized varieties of Camellia sinensis used for tea are C. sinensis var. sinensis (China bush or Chinese Tea) and C. sinensis var. assamica (Assam bush or Assam Tea).

Growing at altitudes from sea level to 7000 feet, Camellia sinensis prefers a warm, humid climate with plenty of rainfall ( i.e. 50 inches per year) and long sunny days. Soil conditions range from sandy loam to heavy clay, as long as it is well drained.  It grows as far north as Washington state in the U.S. and as far south as Argentina.  

If allowed to grow wild, a tea shrub can grow into a tree towering 25 feet in height.  The leaves of Camellia sinensis are dark green with a ridged, leather-like appearance.  The flower is white or rose-colored and the fruit is small and hard-shelled similar to a hazelnut.  Most of the tea grown in the world today is cultivated on estates, or as they are sometimes called, tea gardens.  These may range in size from a quarter acre farmed by a single family to giant plantations with hundreds of acres and hundreds of workers.  In order to produce tea on a commercial level, saplings are planted close to each other, resulting in anywhere between 1,500 to 5,500 plants per acre.  The rows are generally about four feet apart and may be terraced, depending on the contour of the land.  Each tea plant that is planted reaches maturity in five to seven years and can be cultivated for more than 100 years.  An acre of tea can yield 800 to 3,600 pounds of made tea each year.  One pound of made tea requires 4.5 pounds of fresh picked tea or 2 to 3 thousand shoots.  One to two thousand pounds per acre is considered a high yield. 

There are five traditional countries of origin of specialty tea. They are China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Taiwan (Formosa). Tea is now grown commercially in over 30 countries around the world. Some of these countries, in addition to the five traditional countries of origin are Argentina, Brazil, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Turkey and small sections of the United States (Hawaii, Washington, and South Carolina).



Specialty tea is defined by the “two leaves and a bud” that are plucked during the tea harvest.  This is the upper leaf bud and the next two leaves, the youngest ones of a sprout.  The young light green leaves have short white hairs on the underside. Older leaves are deeper green.  Different leaf ages will produce teas of different qualities because the chemical compositions are different.

The harvesting time has a significant influence on the quantity of the tea. The plucking of tea requires a great deal of care as well as skill.  Most often the harvesting is done by women. The plucking order is determined by the plantation owner or production manager for each day.  To determine the pluck, the manager considers both the condition of the plant as well as the finished leaf product he wants to produce.  On average, the plucking capacity is approximately 16-24kg (35-52lb) of green tea leaves per day.  This amount yields 4-6kg (8-13lb) of finished tea.   




All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The different categories or types of tea are the result of different ways of processing the leaf once it is plucked.  Upon arrival at the factory, located on the various tea plantations, the green, fresh leaves are still entirely neutral in scent and first have to be treated in the tea factory, passing through various production steps (withering, crushing or rolling, oxidation, firing and sorting) in order to create aromatic tea.  Once the plucked leaf has withered (dehydrated) enough to be pliable, it is ready for processing.

There are two types of manufacturing processes:

Orthodox Manufacturing: Traditional method of tea manufacture by machines which mimic by-hand methods employed in old China.  In this process each batch of leaf is withered and then put into rollers which bruise and shape it prior to oxidation.  Following oxidation the leaf is fired to arrest further chemical change and preserve it free of moisture. It is then graded by leaf size.  All of the world’s great black teas are produced by orthodox manufacture which strives to preserve the integrity and unique flavor of the full leaf throughout the stages of processing.  It is expensive and time-consuming compared to CTC manufacture.

CTC Manufacturing: Also known as “Crush-Tear-Curl”.  This type of manufacturing is a continuous machine process that shreds the leaf into uniform particles and achieves quick, complete oxidation before firing.  CTC process denigrates the inherent quality of the leaf, but is less time and energy intensive than orthodox manufacture and results in a higher cup-per-pound yield.  Compared to the traditional orthodox tea, it is stronger tasting and is the higher caffeine dark teas typically found in tea bags.  This type of manufacturing accounts for most India black tea widely used in tea bags.  Not all CTC is necessarily low-grade tea, but it does provide a much more intensely flavored cup than the more delicate whole-leaf teas. 

No matter how much equipment may be utilized in the making of tea, much like in the making of wine, the process is entirely natural leading us to the understanding that it is as much an art as a science.



Leaf grading is the final step in the manufacture of black tea in which made tea is passed through sieves of progressively smaller mesh sizes to separate the leaves into different sizes called grades.  Various grading machines have been invented, but all use the basic principal of shaking screens with varying mesh sizes.  There is not a universal grading system for tea due to diverse cultural and individual differences that involve diversity of taste and preference for tea.

In some countries, tea is graded into two broad categories: leaf style and tip count. Leaf style defines the size of the manufactured leaf once it goes through processing. The tip count defines whether a leaf style contains golden tips. Those leaf styles with golden tips are called 'tippy teas'.

Grading Black Teas From India

This system uses the first letter of words that describe the physical characteristics of the leaves. It starts at the center point of Orange Pekoe.  Orange Pekoe is not a flavor and has no oranges added. Orange Pekoe (OP) teas are whole leaf teas with no tippiness.  During the harvesting of the top two leaves and bud, some plucks may have a leaf bud that develops a golden hue during processings - hence the name 'Golden.'  'Flowery' typically connotes a slightly more open or broader leaf than OP with a crimped appearance that reminds one of a crushed flower petal.  Some examples follow:

SFTGFOP -1 = S (Super) F (Fine) T (Tippy) G (Golden) F (Flowery) O (Orange) P (Pekoe) - Grade 1

TGFOP = T (Tippy) G (Golden) F (Flowery) O (Orange) P (Pekoe)

FOP = F (Flowery) O (Orange) P (Pekoe)

FBOP = F (Flowery) B (Broken) O (Orange) P (Pekoe)

BOPFB (Broken) O (Orange) P (Pekoe) F (Fannings)

BOPD = B (Broken) O (Orange) P (Pekoe) D (Dust)


Grading Black Teas for Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

Sri Lanka produces a wide range of black teas that are characterized by their size and growing region. The grading system used in Sri Lanka for Ceylon teas is similar to that used in India for Leaf Grades and Broken Grades.  They are often classified  and marketed by the elevation of the estate at which it was grown. The three main categories are:

  • Low Grown - from sea level to 600 meters. The leaf style is often long and twisted.
  • Mid Grown - 600 to 1200 meters. The medium grown teas provide a thick colory tea.
  • High Grown - above 1200 meters. High grown teas offer unique seasonal characteristics and are widely used in many quality blends particularly for the German and Japanese markets.

Grading Standards for Chinese Teas

Today there are at least 18 provinces in China that produce tea, hundreds, if not thousands of tea gardens and in some areas, each tea garden produces its own tea. In other areas, teas are collected and taken to centralized processing centers.  Teas will vary from one season to the next, one province to another.  Teas with the same name indicate only the similarity of the tea leaf appearance (the leaf style), but not necessarily the same taste or quality of tea in the cup.  For instance, 'mao feng' is the name of a leaf style (the visible shape of the leaf) for a finished tea.  It does not tell you whether the tea is a green or black tea.  It does not indicate a place of origin nor the quality of the tea.  The name 'Huang Shan' (Yellow Mountain) tells us the region or origin.  'Before the Rains' indicates a season of plucking. Many names of Chinese teas are poetic and could have been chosen and given to the tea by the producer, the wholesaler, the importer or the retailer.  Common poetic descriptors include words like Jade, Imperial and Plum Blossom.  Lung Ching (Dragon Well) is an actual well in China.  The Chinese assign Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, etc to their teas. Grade 1 always indicates what the seller considers to be his top grade, but it does not guarantee that will be the best value, though it will most likely be the most expensive tea of that kind that is offered.  The only way to determine desirability is to taste the tea. Then the taste can be weighed against the cost to determine value.

Examples of Chinese Tea Vocabulary:

  • Mei - eyebrow
  • Mao - hair or down
  • Feng - peak
  • Qichiang - flagged spear
  • Gua pian - pumpkin or melon seed
  • Jian - tip or point

Grading Standards for Japanese Teas

Japan produces almost exclusively green tea.  They are graded by the specific region of origin within the country, season and production style.  In descending order they are:

  • Extra Choicest
  • Choicest
  • Choice
  • Finest Fine
  • Good Medium
  • Medium
  • Good Common
  • Common
  • Nubs
  • Dust
  •  Fannings

Grading Standards for Taiwanese Oolongs

Taiwan oolongs have a grading system to characterize the quality of teas. The market also recognizes some intermediary gradings.  The evaluation standards for Oolong Teas are as follows:

  • Appearance (20%)
  • Liquor Color (20%)
  • Aroma and Taste (60%)

Aroma and Taste (60%) - Aroma should be fragrant and characteristic of the type of oolong. Taste must be soothing and fresh, luscious and delightful as is typical for that type of oolong.  After-taste is essential for most oolongs.



As previously outlined, the type of tea that will result is based upon the manufacturing process once the leaf is plucked. 

The differences in taste and quality not only depend upon the plant itself, but also on the cultivation region, its climatic conditions and the diligent plucking and processing of the tea leaves.

WHITE TEA (Baicha / Bai Cha) – A white downy tea processed in two steps only, withering and drying. The commercial production of Bai Cha, which is a little over 200 years old, began with Yinzhen production in 1796 in the last year of the Emperor Qianlong. This tea has the lightest liquor ranging from almost clear to pale amber.

GREEN TEA – Green teas are not oxidized. China greens are pan fired and undergo three treatments: roasting, rolling and firing.  Roasting kills off the enzyme responsible for oxidation and involves heating the leaf to around 100 degrees Celsius, at which point the leaves become ready for rolling.  The leaf may be rolled into various shapes: sticks, balls, twists or into the form of a leaf (such as Long jing).  Japan greens are manufactured by steaming rather than pan firing.  Green tea is an excellent thirst-quencher. Nearly all green teas come from China and Japan.

OOLONG TEA – Oolong tea falls between the green and black tea categories, with degrees of oxidation ranging from 7% to 70%.  It undergoes a multi-step process after harvest of withering, rolling, oxidation and firing.  Oolong tea’s enzymes are partially oxidated to create a liquor that ranges from reddish-brown to green to pale yellow.  Oolong has been produced since the end of the Ming Dynasty. China’s principal production areas included Minbei (North Fujian), Minnan (South Fujian), Guangdong and Taiwan.

BLACK TEA – Black tea is made from the leaf that has been fully oxidized, producing a hearty deep rich flavor in an amber colored liquor.  It is the oxidation process, oxygen coming into contact with the enzymes in the tea leaf, that creates black tea. Black teas have a fuller and richer flavor than unprocessed green teas.

PU-ERH (poo-err)– Pu-erh teas are very unique and are the only tea designed and processed to age. Literally like a wine, Pu-erh's chemistry, flavor and aroma changes over time. The exact complete processes on how Pu-erh is made, even today, is still a guarded secret that only a few Chinese tea producers know.  Pu-erh tea originates from the Yunnan province near the city after its namesake. The musky, spicy and earthy complex flavor of Pu-erh is distinct and similar to a very robust straight Cabernet.  Pu-erh is made from green or black tea, which is then sprayed with an unknown bacterium and allowed to undergo a sort of fermentation. Typically it is compressed into many shapes or it can be left loose.  It improves with increasing age and so does its rarity and price.

Not True Teas Because They Do Not Contain Camellia sinensis:

FRUIT TEA – Also known as a Fruit Infusion or Tisane are delicious concoctions made without Camellia sinensis and are caffeine and tannin free.  Many are blended on a base of hibiscus, rose hips and various other fruits, berries and flowers. They are enjoyed hot or cold and as an iced infusion with summer fruits and may have ginger, almond or cinnamon added. Fruit infusions are ideal for those who are caffeine intolerant.  Once steeped they are full-bodied, satisfying drinks that come in a vast range of bright, fresh flavors with sweet fruit aromas.

HERBAL TEA – Also known as an Herbal Infusion or Tisane.  Herbals are not derived from the Camellia sinensis.  Herb “teas” are prized and recommended for their beneficial effects on the nerves and internal organs since antiquity, but they are often less than divine in terms of taste.  An herbal compound must be palatable and also must have a balancing effect in order to be safely drunk over long periods.



Pratt, James Norwood, The Tea Dictionary

Tea Association of the USA, Inc.