You’ve almost undoubtedly had tea before, but have you ever stopped to think about what, exactly, goes into that delicious brown brew in your cup?
Tea – whether it’s traditional black tea, green tea, white tea, or oolong – is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This evergreen shrub is cultivated in a number of tropical and subtropical regions; the character of the tea is typically associated with the region in which it’s grown. Some people like the strong, assertive character of Assam, while other prefer Ceylon tea, grown in Sri Lanka. Here at Tea Noir, we primarily use Yunnan tea, grown on a high plateau in southeastern China. The Yunnan region is historically considered the birthplace of tea, although one of our favourite stories for the origins of tea involve the leaves blowing accidentally into a pot of boiling water in the emperor’s gardens – he decided to sip the resulting brew, and a the world’s favourite drink was born.
Yunnan tea brews up into a rich, deep russet liquid, and has a flavour that’s both lightly sweet and slightly smoky. It’s a perfect base for adding natural flavours, like we do at Tea Noir. While our premium TGFOP Yunnan tea is delicious on its own, we love using it as a platform for creating unique, distinctive brews that you won’t find anywhere else.
Types of Tea
White tea is allowed to wilt, but isn’t oxidized. It has a very delicate flavour and light aroma.
Green tea is left unwilted and unoxidized, but is dried and steamed immediately after picking. Some green teas are tossed in baskets or rolled into small pellets, forming what’s called a “gunpowder green” that often has a slight smoky flavour. This is one of our favourite bases for green tea blends. Green tea is loaded with antioxidants, and is lower in caffeine than black tea.
Oolong tea is wilted and partially oxidized. It has a lighter flavour than black tea, and slightly less caffeine; it’s somewhere between a green tea and a black tea in terms of flavour and astringency.
Black tea is tea that has been fully oxidized. This is the full-bodied, caffeinated, astringent-tasting brew that most of us associate with “tea.”
Regardless of how it’s prepared, yerba mate contains a substance called mateine, which is chemically identical to caffeine. Mate is actually quite highly caffeinated, although many people find that they get a longer, gentler buzz from mate than they do from tea or coffee.
Traditionally, yerba mate is prepared in a gourd; you fill the gourd with the dry leaves, then pour in water somewhat off the boil (around 175F) and allow it to steep. Instead of straining the brew, as with tea, mate is drunk by inserting a special metal straw, called a bombilla, into the gourd. The straw has small holes in the end that allow you to suck liquid through without sucking up the leaves.
Mate is often resteeped several times – when you run out of brew, you just pour in more hot water and keep infusing it. In fact, these later steepings are considered much tastier than the first brewing, and are preferred among mate drinkers in the know.
Tea is graded according to the length or size of the leaves, the amount of “tip” or “flower” on the leaf, and how broken the leaves are. Very whole, unbroken leaves that are very young or “tippy” are considered the best – teas picked in the first “flush” of the season, when the leaves are small and young and tender, are prized by connoisseurs.
Tea grade names are strange things, and a little confusing. It’s probably best to not try to understand where the heck they come from, and to just remember that the more initials are in a grade name, the more desirable the tea.
From most prized blend to least, the common grades are:
SGTGFOP: Super Fine Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FTGFOP: Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP: Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
FOP: Flowery Orange Pekoe
OP: Orange Pekoe
BOP: Broken Orange Pekoe
Tea Noir uses whole-leaf tea for everything, including our bagged tea blends. Our black tea blends are based on Yunnan FOP or TGFOP leaves; our greens are primarily FOP or gunpowder greens; our oolongs are based on FOP or TGFOP leaves.
Quite frankly, this is all we’d use for flavoured brews – adding spices, herbs, or anything else to a really amazing FTGFOP or better leaf is almost sacrilegious. Artisan blends like ours need a wonderful base, and we’d certainly never use BOP or fannings in our tea, but super-premium first-flush single-estate teas should be enjoyed on their own merits!
Tea Noir does not currently offer organic tea. Why? Honestly, organic tea isn’t all that great. You see, tea bushes need time to grow to maturity, and to produce the best leaves; this can take well over a decade from the time of planting. Organic certification standards have only been in place for 8-10 years, in most cases – which means that most organic-certified tea plantations have bushes that are too young to produce top-quality tea. Some are just starting to come into their prime, and we’ll be keeping an eye on them in the future.
When we find some organic tea that meets our high standards for quality, we’ll be very interested. In the meantime, we’d rather produce a truly excellent cuppa than lower our standards for taste.
We do, however, use organic herbs, spices, and florals wherever possible, and we use all-natural flavourings in our blends – not strange chemicals with unpronounceable names.
Got tea questions? Drop us a line! We’d be happy to walk you through all things tea-related.