The 2011 World Tea Expo was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center last weekend, June 24-26. I was excited about going, and here’s why.
Find a plant that contains caffeine and no doubt someone else has already tried making a beverage out of it. The popular ones in the USA are coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola. And then, I’ll never forget the time a Peruvian friend made some yerba mate, gently chiding me when, in my ignorance, I stirred the thick leafy brew with the bombilla. (That’s a no-no because then you get leaves in your mouth when you use the bombilla, which is a type of metal straw.)
All these drinks are deeply rooted in world culture to the extent that if suddenly they all disappeared, the collective outcry would be heard even in the remotest village. Each one has its adherents, each one its special niche. Coffee or espresso for a wakeup jolt; cola for a pick-me-up soft drink; hot cocoa on a cold day. And then there’s tea.
(At this point, if you are musically adventurous, you might listen to “Tea Song” by the Holy Modal Rounders, from their album Too Much Fun.)
Hot or iced, there’s black tea and green tea, and oolong in between. There’s tea from China and tea from India, from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and Taiwan (formerly Formosa). There’s even tea from Vietnam, from Kenya, and Nepal — more about Kenya and Nepal later. Even within a country, widely different teas are produced.
Tea is picked when new leaves sprout, called a “flush.” Typically, a bud and one or two leaves are picked. This picking is sometimes called “orange pekoe,” a term that applies to nearly all black tea. (For more detailed information see Jane Pettigrew‘s Tea House Times summary.) Picking tea is labor-intensive because it is done by hand. For black tea, the leaves are then wilted or bruised to allow a dark color and distinctive flavor to develop. This step allows the leaves to “ferment” or “oxidize.” (If the leaves are allowed to ferment only a short time, resulting in partial oxidation, the product is oolong tea.) The leaves may then be rolled and dried. This is the “orthodox” method of making black tea. In contrast, “CTC,” which stands for “cut, tear, curl,” is another popular method for manufacturing black tea. CTC tea leaves look granular and uniform, compared with orthodox tea that can have a wide variation in appearance.
Green tea results if the leaves are not oxidized, but heated instead (either steamed, or “pan-fired”) to destroy the enzymes that would otherwise cause the leaves to turn dark. “White” tea results if the bud and maybe a small leaf are minimally processed before drying.
Sometimes you’ll see claims that coffee might actually be good for you, or even chocolate (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a claim that cola soft drinks are good for you) but frankly, who cares? As long as you don’t have too much they’re probably not that bad. Tea, on the other hand, possess a growing list of scientific articles about arcane things like antioxidants, catechins, polyphenols, and flavinoids, in support of the notion that tea might in fact be a healthful drink. Okay, not everyone agrees, but most people have heard that the antioxidants in tea might be beneficial. Green tea gets special attention in this regard, but all tea contains compounds that many believe are good for you.
Of course I’m talking about Camilla sinensis var. sinensis and var. assamica, the Chinese tea plant and the Indian variety. Lots of different kinds of leaves and flowers can be brewed to make a hot drink, but if they aren’t leaves from Camilla sinensis, technically it’s a “tisane” and not true tea. Colloquially, people talk about “herbal tea,” but the word “tea” to be completely accurate refers specifically to the tea plant.
I’ve been a fan of tea for decades. Whether a delicate Jasmine, a hearty Assam, a Russian Caravan blend, a fine Formosa (now Taiwan) Oolong, a rare Japanese Green tea or a gourmet “muscatel” Darjeeling, I’ve enjoyed dozens of different kinds of tea, and I’ve only scratched the surface. That’s why I was enthusiastic about attending this year’s World Tea Expo. I was eager for the opportunity to learn from the experts.
The World Tea Expo had a lot to offer, including tea tastings, classes for those getting into the tea business, education for those already in the business, and technical discussions for scientists, executives and managers. I was fortunate enough to attend two tastings.
The first tasting was one held by Royal Tea of Kenya (RTK). RTK is a new company but its origins go back decades. Joy Njuguna, an owner and CEO of RTK, is from a family of coffee and tea farmers. In fact her grandfather, Arthur Njuguna Komo, is reportedly the oldest tea farmer in the world at the age of 111. I spoke to Joy at the Expo. When Joy was younger she did not think she wanted to be in the tea or coffee business. “I wanted to be a rock star,” she admits with a smile. But now she is passionate about tea and RTK. “This company is based on legacy, history, and struggle,” she said. “It’s about the small farmer in Kenya educating his children and being recognized as an integral part of the global economy.” Founding RTK was a tribute to the vision of her grandfather, and has been a voyage of self-discovery for Joy. There are over 550,000 small scale tea farmers in Kenya. RTK’s goal is to ensure that these tea farmers get competitive prices for their product, supporting sustainable employment for rural Kenyans.
I was surprised to learn that Kenya now exports more black tea than any other country, surpassing Sri Lanka a few years ago. Over 50% of the tea shipped to Great Britain now comes from Kenya, Joy said. Tea expert Jane Pettigrew was also on hand at the tasting to provide her insight. From the UK, Jane is the author of more than a dozen books about tea, has been the editor of the trade journal Tea International, and speaks at conferences globally.
There were five teas from RTK to sample: White Whisper, Royal Purple, Royal Tajiri, Rift Valley Green, and Grandpa’s Anytime Tea, a CTC tea. Jane Pettigrew gave favorable marks to all the teas. The Royal Tajiri “orthodox” black tea from RTK, Jane said, “is more flavorful than other Kenyan orthodox tea.” The White Whisper, with hardly any color, was subtle, delicate, smooth and sweet. In fact, all the teas had a sweetness and low tannin content that made them very pleasant to drink. The purple tea was from a new cultivar being developed. The leaf color is purple, and the color of the brew is purple at first but fades. Although it was said to be made like a black tea, it tasted more like an oolong. As it’s still under development it may be a while before it is commercially available.
Next: Nepal and more