What's your cup of tea? Black? Green? Oolong?
Or something more exotic like pu-erh or white tea?
No matter which your preference, all tea comes from the same plant - Camellia sinensis. The major difference between all of these types of tea is how the leaves are processed after they are picked.
Even so, not all tea leaves are equal. Camellia is a genus of the family Theaceae. There are as many as 300 species of Camellia, but only one of them is used to make tea. The others are primarily used as flowering shrubs.
The "tea Camellia" (Camellia sinensis) has two varieties - Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China tea) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea or Indian tea). The sinensis variety has relatively small and narrow leaves and is more tolerant to cold. The assamica variety will grow to a larger plant than sinensis and has larger, thinner leaves.
As with most Camellias, Camellia sinensis is very easy to hybridize and this had led to the development of more than 3000 tea 'varietals'. Varietals have special characteristics that make them suitable for growing in a particular area or for producing a certain type of tea.
Varietals can be identified by leaf shape, coloring, leaf size, or other desirable characteristics. White tea, for example, is produced from a varietal that has an abundance of fine hairs on the young leaf shoots. Other varietals may have higher resistance to diseases which can affect the tea plant.
Many varietals are given names that describe the appearance or the use of the tea leaf. 'Da Bai' (big white) is a varietal used to make white tea, and true to its name is a large leaf tea bush. The 'Bancha' varietal is most often used to make the Japanese green tea of the same name.
Most varietals have come to be associated with a certain type of tea, but this does not mean that specific varietals cannot be used for other types. A varietal traditionally used for white tea could be processed into oolong tea, or a black tea varietal could be used to make green tea.
One of the reasons why tea is so interesting is because of its limitless possibilities. The taste of tea is affected by the soil, the climate, the season, the varietal, the variety, the processing method, the skill of the tea processor, the brewing method, and the brewing utensils.
All of these factors affect the flavor and quality of the tea. No wonder then that tea has been so popular for so many years - it's a taste of life.
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