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The dried and cured leaves of a white-flowered evergreen known as Camellia sinensis are used to produce tea. In China tea has been produced for almost 3,000 years. There are hundreds of varieties of teas, but most fall into three main categories: black and green oolong. Tea is categorized by the method that is used in processing the leaves.

Black Tea

Black tea requires the most processing of the three main varieties. Traditionally, the fermentation process begins by placing the leaves on drying or withering shelves to remove the excess moisture. When they reach the desired stage they are then rolled in special machines. Once the leaves are rolled, they are moved to another room where the temperature and humidity is carefully controlled and they are left to ferment. Then the leaves are heated and fermented or oxidized. Some processors use machines to chop the leaves into small pieces before the drying stage in order to speed up the process.  It is this stage that produces the distinctively rich flavor and amber colored brew. Black tea varieties include Darjeeling, Ceylon and Assam. 

Green Tea

Green tea is withered and rolled but not fermented during processing. Thus the original color of the leaves is retained. The result is a fresh tasting tea that produces a pale green-yellow liquid that has a grassy flavor. All Japanese teas are green with names like gyokuro or sencha. Chinese teas include jasmine and the most famous and expensive green tea known as Dragon Well tea, grown in the hillsides of Hanghou. 

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea lies somewhere in the middle between green and black tea. It is fermented like black tea, but the process is stopped part way through. The crucial stage in the process is to stop the fermentation process at exactly the right time, and the best time to stop the fermentation is when the leaves are 30% red and 70% green. They are then 'rubbed' repeatedly to release the enzymes and juices necessary to produce good flavor, aroma, and texture. The next step is to heat the leaves. This method produces a unique balance between green tea's delicacy and black tea's depth. The tea master then grades the tea flavor and characteristics of each batch.  Formosa oolong from Taiwan is considered one of the finest oolong teas. 

White Tea

White tea is the rarest and least processed tea variety. It is steamed and dried and does not go through the withering or fermentation process. This rare (and very expensive) tea is picked as dawn breaks in four northeastern Chinese provinces. It contains buds that are covered with fine silvery hairs. They impart a whitish/gray color to the liquid, hence the name 'white tea'. It is sometimes called silvertip pekoe or white needle. When you brew white tea it is a pale yellow straw color. It has a slightly sweet flavor with none of the 'grassy' undertones often characteristic of green tea.

Scented and Spiced Teas

There is another category known as scented and spiced teas. Scented teas can be made naturally by mixing various flowers and petals with green or oolong teas. Jasmine tea is one of the best known of the scented types.  But, some scented or spiced teas can be flavored with just about anything--peach, vanilla, cherry, etc. Essentially these natural and artificial flavors are sprayed on the leaves. 

The spiced teas usually contain a mix of tea leaves and pieces of spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, and some include dried orange or lemon peel.


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