What is Tea?

What Is Tea?

Andres Nava 
Tea enthusiast and owner of Tao Te Tea

The most basic understanding of tea is that it is a beverage made by introducing cured leaves, herbs, or fruit to water. It is astounding to consider that a million words covering thousands of facts and ideas can be expressed regarding tea, especially considering its humble 2 ingredients, cured leaves and water. 


It is said that tea originated in ancient China around the year 3000 BC. The legend explaining the origin of tea expresses wabi-wabi origins and reflects on the ideal of the “perfectly accidental” tea ceremony. As the legend goes, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung had his servant prepare boiled water. As the water began to boil, a single leaf blew into the emperor’s boiling pot. The Emperor rather than being upset with the servant, drank the water. Emperor Shen Nung found that the leaf improved the flavor of the water and also stimulated his mind and body.



There are a wide variety of teas available that may be organized into 7 general categories: white teayellow teagreen teaoolong teablack teapu’erh tea, and herbal tea. Of these 7 general categories, 6 are derived from the arbor tree, scientifically known as the Camellia sinensis plant.

The Camellia sinensis, pronounced cam-MEHL-ee-ah sin-INN-sis, also goes by the names tea plant, tea shrub, and tea tree, though not to be confused with the Melaleuca alternifolia plant where tea tree oil is derived from. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub tree that thrives in forest areas, primarily in cool high-altitude environments. The leaves are approximately 1.5-6 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. At first glance, one might mistake a tea leaf for a bay leaf.


There are four globally recognized varieties of Camellia sinensisC. sinensis sinensisC. sinensis assamicaC. sinensis pubilimba, and C. sinensis dehungensis.

The C. sinensis sinensis, and C. sinensis assamica are the varieties most commonly used for tea. It is no coincidence that the word “assam” can be clearly seen in the name C. sinensis assamica. That is because the C. sinensis assamica variety is used to make assam black tea.


How tea is made can become a rather complicated subject in and of itself. It can be expected that Volume II of The Way of Tea will include in-depth explanations regarding the tea making process for the different types of tea. As a brief introduction in Volume I, we will cover the general principals of tea production.

There are 2 general forms of tea production, the orthodox method and the crush-tear-curl method.


Orthodox Tea Production

In orthodox tea production, there are 5 general steps: PluckingWitheringRollingOxidation, and Firing. There are certain differences and nuances observed depending on the type of tea being produced.

First, the leaves are harvested by hand. It is necessary for harvesting to be done by hand because only certain parts of the plant are harvested depending on the type of tea to be produced. Generally, the top three leaves and the unopened bud are harvested. 

After being plucked, the leaves are laid out the wilt and wither for several hours. The wiltingprocess is important because it makes the rigid leaves more pliable, allowing the tea leaves to be folded, rolled, or shaped.

Now that the leaves have been sufficiently withered, skilled tea workers will “roll” the leaves, this is considered by many to be one of the most impactful processes in tea making. The objective of this step is to rupture the microscopic cell walls within the leaf, exposing the leaves’ cellular composition of enzymes to atmospheric oxygen, initiating the oxidation process. Each tea’s unique flavor is produced during the oxidation process. The varied degree of oxidation is also one of the key differences between the different types of tea. For example, a green tea is not allowed to oxidize to the degree that a black tea is oxidized before firing. In fact, a tea may be re-rolled to produce a deeper oxidization of the leaves.

Finally, after oxidation, the leaves undergo the firing process. During this process, the tea leaves are introduced to heat, reducing the moisture within the leaf by approximately 97%. Originally, tea was fired by means of fire generated heat using a large metal pan. Pan-firing by hand is still commonly practiced today, although tea is commonly fired in a mechanically rotated metal drum oven with electrically generated heat. The multitude of firing practices used today originated from two methods, pan-firing and basket-firing.

Crush-Tear-Curl Tea Production

As the old adage goes, “time is money.” This business-minded observation also applies to tea production. Tea produced using the crush-tear-curl method is undergoes similar steps to the orthodox, plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation and firing, but the rolling step is exchanged for a mechanical crushing and shredding. The crush-tear-curl, CTC, method is regularly used for large-production black teas, like the common-brand black tea sold in single-serving tea bags at your local grocery store. 

CTC allows a tea producer to be less selective with the leaves plucked and also mechanically crush and shred the tea leaves at a much faster rate than orthodox produced teas can be rolled. The outcome is a tea that is produced quickly at high volumes, but the trade off is a diminished quality and reduced variety of tea. In contrast, tea produced using the orthodox method is typically plucked more selectively and rolled or folded into a wide variety of shapes and sizes, each producing a unique flavor.


After production, tea is ready to be prepared and consumed. The preparation and consumption of tea tends to become overly complicated, especially to the tea initiate. There are countless brewing styles, serving styles, and even styles of consumption. Most cultures around the world have their own unique methods for brewing, serving, and consuming tea. Each culture’s method is commonly referred to as a tea ceremony. There are as many different tea ceremonies as there are cultures in our world.

The 3 “T”s of Tea

The best way to understand any tea ceremony is by first understanding the 3 basic principles of any brewing method. I call these principles the 3 “T”s of tea, they are temperature, time, and tea. The objective of brewing is to produce a pleasantly flavored tea. To meet this objective, one must find a harmonious equilibrium between the temperature of the water used, the time the tea is left to steep, and the amount of tea steeping in respect to the amount of water used.

The sun does not rush to rise, neither the leaf to awaken.


The length of time to be left steeping depends a lot on the tea leaves themselves. There are some teas that are extraordinarily delicate and require not only a suitable temperature but the ideal time to be steeped.

When you purchase tea from most places, there will be some sort of guideline as to the time to be steeped on the packaging. However, do not get stuck in the frame of mind that the time specified on the package is a golden rule written in stone. Over time, you may develop a "sense" for when tea is ready to be strained out of the water.


Do not fear experimentation when it comes to temperature, especially in the lower ranges. White tea is especially vulnerable to temperature. It can be easy to "burn" your tea, even by following the "recommendations" on the packaging. In truth, most of those "recommendations" are not written by a tea master who has developed a relationship with that particular tea. Most brewing recommendations are a copy-paste, cookie-cutter recommendation based on if the tea is white, green, black, or other.

I would recommend using the "guidelines" to establish an upper limit for water temperature, but experiment with cooler steeping temperatures and see how your tea responds. Remember, every tea is unique.

With experience, you may find that higher temperatures are acceptable to the tea during re-steepings. I tend to increase the temperature of my water as well as the time steeping when re-steeping tea.


Have you ever been to a performance and was unable to enjoy the show because the audience was too congested?

Tea can behave differently around friends. Some teas like to be brewed in large concentrations, others are less social.

Again, the "recommendations" may say to use a "teaspoon" of leaves for every cup of water, but the tea will speak for itself if one takes the time to listen. Make a few experimental brews with your tea to get to know it better. Don't be afraid to steep less tea, or more than the recommended amount. It's easy to get stuck in the same pattern of using the same number of teaspoons for every tea, but tea, like most maters of life, is never completely repetitious. Every minute is unique, every snowflake and fingerprint is different.

Let your nose guide you to how much tea to use. How does the tea smell? Is it potent with a heavy rich bouquet? Then try using less tea. If the tea is lightly fragrant, I would recommend experimenting with more.

A universal method to brewing tea does not exist. You may find a tool or method that work for a particular tea, but it will not translate across to all teas. The blooming point is attainable; when you find it, you will know it exactly. It may be weeks, or years, or just days before you experience another "perfect" tea, but if you become consciously aware of your tea brewing, you may appreciate that moment all the more deeply.

There is wisdom to be found in a cup of tea.

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