During a dinner party last night, I was reminded how important it is to get back to the absolute basics from time to time. Building on our knowledge, we as humans tend to take the basics (in our area of interest) as granted and assume certain things to be ‘common knowledge’. But quite often, they really aren’t.
I was talking to someone I hadn’t met before and the conversation turned to tea. He asked a few very poignant questions and playfully challenged some of my views – specifically about my very tight definition of tea vs. herbal infusions and the likes of Mate and Roiboos. He didn’t know much about tea but was genuinely interested. When I explained that ‘proper’ tea had to be made from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis, he asked a question that inspired me to write this article.
His question was: “If all tea comes from the same plant, what is the difference between the teas that are sold as loose leaves in tea shops such as Ya-Ya – and which can be quite expensive – and the stuff in tea bags? Is it all in the processing or does it have to do with the raising of the plants themselves?”
Well, what a good question that is. The first answer that came to my mind was something like this: “You just have to try them. The flavour will be vastly different and good quality loose-leaf teas are much more refined.” Of course, that wouldn’t really answer his question. So I started to take a more complete perspective and looked into the individual elements that are important in creating the leaves that we are so fond of infusing. One of the biggest factors is how manual the process is. Carefully produced, artisan-level teas are always hand-processed. The plants are tended by hand, the leaves are harvested by hand and processed by hand. Labour is expensive and industrial-level productions have most of the processes automated and executed by machines.
Another point is size – or scale – of cultivation and production. While in the former British colonies, tea is usually produced in large tea estates, a lot of tea in China is still produced on smallholdings and on a family scale. But even in the larger Indian tea gardens, the best leaves are reserved for very small special editions like the Thurbo Tippy Musk Limited Edition I just received a couple of weeks back – only 30kg were produced of this tea! Very high quality doesn’t scale directly from average quality – it is much, much harder to achieve. But the results of this special treatment and care can be magical.
And, in the spirit of the increasing number of people who want to get to know the producers of the food they consume and shop at Farmer’s markets, a tea created by someone who deeply cares about his creation will be able to give much more to the person who is lucky enough to drink it.