What is Tea?
For one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world, there is quite a bit of confusion and misconception when it comes to the actual definition of tea. Though there are dozens and dozens of different varieties of tea that grace the shelves of your local supermarket, to be completely factual, in order for a beverage to be factually referred to as tea, it must contain harvested product from the Camellia Sinensis plant. The many different flavors of tea available can be created by adding different things in with the cured leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant or by the method in which the leaves themselves are harvested, fermented, roasted and prepared for sale.
Tea has been grown, harvested and enjoyed for thousands of years in the very same manner in which we enjoy it today. The three most commonly seen varieties of tea are white, green and black and all come from the very same plant - the white are non fermented and produce the most light and delicate flavor; the black are heavily fermented and produce a very strong flavor and the green lay somewhere in the middle in terms of fermentation and depth of flavor.
The Camellia Sinensis plant itself is commonly referred to as a tea plant and though most people are aware of the fact that the tea plant flourishes in China, it can actually be reasonably easy to grow in any environment that can mimic the ideal conditions. The Camellia Sinensis plant prefers a warm, humid climate with plenty of rain and grows best in soil with good drainage in reasonably high elevation. With patience, dedication and attention Camellia Sinensis plants can be grown in your own home, regardless of the area you live in, if you are capable of producing a close proximity to the environmental conditions in which it flourishes.
Camellia Sinensis plants can take up to two years to produce the high quality and harvestable leaves which are roasted, packaged and made available for sale and consumption, but caring for and cultivating your very own tea that you can experiment with to produce your own unique flavors is well worth that long wait for many tea enthusiasts. If tea plants are left unattended they can actually grow to in excess of two meters in height, but this could produce difficulties in terms of space for many home growers and make the harvest very difficult for both home and commercial growers - as a result, many of the tea plants that we see are kept trimmed to about waist height to make harvesting easier.
The beverage itself is produced by submerging the harvested product from the tea plant into hot or boiling water and allowing it to steep until the desired strength has been reached, which usually takes no more than a few minutes. A number of different things can be added (blended) with the dried and roasted leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant to produce a multitude of different scent and flavor combinations - most commonly fruit, floral or sweet scents and flavors like orange, lavender or vanilla. Many tea drinkers also alter the flavor of this popular beverage by adding things after the tea has already steeped - sugar, milk, lemon, cinnamon and peppermint are all popular additives to steeped hot tea.
The "herbal teas" offered on the menus of many restaurants and on the shelves of many stores may be prepared and enjoyed in the very same way that we prepare and enjoy tea, but many are blends of tea and dried and harvested products from other plants that have been blended to create a new and unique flavor combination and some aren't even really tea at all. Regardless of what the packaging or menu may say, if the product contains no Camellia sinensis, it can't be really be referred to as tea.
Regardless of whether you have the time, environment and patience for cultivating, harvesting and preparing your own tea there is no question as to why tea is one of the world's most popular beverages. There is no other beverage that can be so relaxing at times, while so invigorating at others; that can be enjoyed either hot or cold and that is so very easy to prepare yet produces flavors that are so complex as the incredible beverage that is commonly referred to simply as tea.