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Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-95), tiger screen

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Black, oolong, green or white ?
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Tea comes from the evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis, and is manufactured into black, green, oolong or white tea, depending on how it is processed. The terroir – climate, soil and topography – are key in winemaking and similar conditions are essential in tea growing, too. Just like wine, the quality of the leaves depends on when and where they were picked, the climate, the soil conditions and the altitude of the plants. For the tea plant to flourish it needs temperatures of between 10-27⁰C, and up to 2 ⅟4 metres of rainfall per year, combined with elevations of between 300 – 2000 metres above sea level, slightly acidic soil and good drainage. The main tea producers are countries that offer these ideal growing conditions, including China, which produces a mixture of green and black tea; India, which cultivates mainly black tea; Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), which produces mainly black tea; Japan for green and Taiwan (Formosa) for green and oolong, a semi fermented or partially oxidised tea.

Fortnum & Mason offers a range of both large-leaf blended teas as well as a selection of the finest Single Estate Teas from around the world. A Single Estate Tea is a tea grown from one plantation only – not a mixture or blend of teas grown on several plantations. Many Single Estate Teas are classified as rare when they are either produced from only a very small number of bushes (some are over one hundred years old) or when only a very small amount of a particular quality is produced annually.

To produce black tea, once the leaf is picked it is taken to a factory where it is spread out on trays in very warm conditions (around 25 - 30⁰C) to wither. The withered leaf is then rolled to release the chemicals within the leaf that produce the flavor and colour of the drink, and set aside toabsorb oxygen to complete the fermentation process. The leaf is ready for the next stage when it has turned a reach, golden, russet colour, when it is dried or fired to stop the natural decomposition process. It is at this point that the leaf turns black and is then sorted and graded.

Oolong teas are semi-fermented leaves, and as such they are left to ferment for a much shorter time. There are many types of oolong, some are very lightly shaken to bruise the edges of the leaf and initiate a type of fermentation. The leaves are then rolled either into tight little knots or into long strands of tea. The delicate flavor comes from the soil, altitude and the care in processing.

Green teas follow the same harvesting and withering process, but once withered, they do not undergo a fermentation process and are instead steamed or roasted to soften the leaves then rolled (many still by hand). This process is repeated and the leaves are left to dry.

White tea is the least processed of all teas. The leaves are picked before new buds open and they are spread out, usually to solar wither, before being dried. In the mid 1880s growers started to select specific varietals of tea bushes to make “Silver Needles” and other white teas. The large, fleshy buds of the “Big White”, “Small White” and “Narcissus” tea bushes were selected to make white teas and these are (mostly) still used today as the raw material for the production of white tea.

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