Ella Takalainen //
// 24.1.2020

Barista's Dictionary to the World of Tea

For many of us word barista is very closely related to coffee but I feel there is much more to know if one really wants to be a great barista. We have talked a lot about milk, water and spices used in recipes and coffee brewing. But one thing we should talk a lot more is tea. Tea culture is something we should bring to next level in our coffee shops as there is more and more people bouncing between these two beautiful drinks. Also global trends are leading towards healthy drinks and tea definitely is seen healthy as well as tasty. And not to forget tea is fifty billion dollar business yearly. I met a Finnish tea pro Nina Lindgren from Théhuone tea room to talk a bit more tea and how a barista can perfect their tea skills.

What is this tea that you are talking about?

According encyclopedia Britannica, tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is bred into two principal varieties, a small-leaved China plant (C. sinensis sinensis) and the large-leaved Assam plant (C. sinensis assamica). Hybrids of these two varieties are also widely grown. Teas are classified according to growing region of origin for example China, Sri Lanka, Japan, Indonesia or by smaller district like Darjeeling or Assam. Teas can also be classified by the size of the processed leaf. Yet the most important classification is done by the processing method, meaning the four categories most of us know: fermented (black), unfermented (green), semifermented (oolong or pouchong), and only dried (white).

Nina Lindgren adds that difference between wild tea and commercial tea varietals vary a lot on the ways they are harvested. Wild tea plants can grow into a larger trees and from those only the second leaves are harvested, when in the commercial plans the first soft and delicate leaf are most wanted ones. 

Tea is always grown in subtropical areas but in warmer regions the harvesting season is always on and the regions located on areas with changing seasons, such as Japan, the tea plant produce leaves only during summer season.

tea growing region

In coffee business Q-graders define the quality of coffee and this qualification tells something about coffee value as well. In tea business teas are normally traded in auctions, which varies the price on yearly basis. But for the casual tea sipper the price forms from certificates, quality, harvesting method and region. Normally the first leaves after winter are the most precious ones. The price of tea varies a lot, but Nina Lindgren says that the sweeter the tea is the better and also normally more expensive.

Processing the leaves

tea bushes and tea leaves
Tea leaves in a tea bush.

As it is surprising for many, all of the tea variants come from the same plant, it is during the processing that the differences pop up. In the tea processing, the leaf goes through some or all of the stages of withering, rolling, fermentation, and drying. The process has two purposes; firstly to dry the leaf and secondly to allow the chemical compounds of the leaf to produce the character to each tea type. After the harvesting white teas are only dried. Green teas are steamed and after rolled and then dried or fermented. Black teas are different as their processing is much more complex and it also produces more intense aroma and flavor. In processing of black tea, the tea is first treated similar to green tea and then placed in temperature controlled chambers where it is fermented for different time periods.

How to brew the perfect cup of tea?

The basic flavor in tea is similar to coffee as one can find sweetness, bitterness, umami and acidity in tea. But the flavor changes a lot according to growing region. Especially Japanese teas are specially umamish. Puritanists don't add any extra flavoring into their teas but adding fruits, herbs or spices is completely fine. To find your  favorite tea, best way is to start tasting a lot of different ones, just as in coffees.

brewing a perfect cup of tea
Brewing a perfect cup of green tea.

When making a cup or a pot one needs to know few things. Black tea requires boiling water to give pleasant aroma, for the white teas optimal brewing temperature is about 80°C, for Japanese green tea 70°C and Chinese green tea 75°C. Good amount of tea per cup is 3-5g per cup (2dl cup). If you put too much it makes the flavor stuffy, bitter and over-extracted. Also remember to control your brew time as too long brew time highlights the unpleasant aromas in your tea. The perfect brew time is completely up to your personal preference, but normally it is between 2-5 mins. Pro tip! For some teas the flavor gets better after the second brew, so give it a try!

How to maintain your equipment and storage your precious tea?

For tea brewing you don’t need fancy equipment. Hot water, tea strainer and a cup is enough. Oh, and of course tea. Tea brewing should not be all about fancy gear but there is a lot of those is you are into having special filters or pots. Tea does not include fat in the same way as coffee so for cleaning the regular dish washing soap is the best and even rinsing is enough.

cool tea brewing pot
Cool tea brewing pot.

Dry tea leaves should always be kept in airtight container in a cool, dark and well-ventilated space, this preserves the flavors best, as teas worst enemies are warmth, light and air. Black tea is almost everlasting, but green teas are best consumed within year of harvesting. The small flavor nuances are the ones that normally are gone from the teas past their best before-date. Exception is Pu´er teas from Yunna region, China, that can be preserved for very long times and are consider to be at its best aged.

pure darjeeling tea packages
Darjeeling tea packages in Théhuone.

Few fun facts about tea

- Sencha is Japanese and means literally steamed tea
- And more about Japan, Japanese are also the only ones mainly using mechanical harvesting, which totally makes sense considering them being the most tech savvy country ever
- Pu´er tea is better the older it get
- The most expensive teas can cost over 1400 dollars per gram