It's undoubtedly amazing that even the same kind of tea leaves come with different appearance and features when grown in different areas or countries, different weather, or simply different soils. The answer lies in the tea terroir!
Let's take a look into what's a tea terroir and how does it bring out changes to the characteristics of the plant as well as the resulting tea.
"Terroir" is a French word that refers to everything that influences the flavor and character of a specific tea. Whether it's the tea plant's location, the climate, and weather, the altitude where it grows, the topography, the minerals and drainage of the soil, as well as the surrounding eco-system - tea terroir is everything that nature brings to each tea.
Each of the above factors making up a tea terroir adds to the overall character of different varieties of tea. Let's take a look at how the individual factors determine the end results.
To ensure that the tea plant gets all the minerals essential to its growth, the soil is perhaps, the most significant element on the list. When growing in the wild, the bush can reach over 30 feet, wherein the roots of a cultivated bush are about six feet deep. This calls for loose soil free from clay or limestone. The tea bush thrives well in several varieties of soil as long as its pH ranges from 4.5 to 5.5. The acidic nature of the soil allows for easier absorption of the nutrients..
The relief and height of the land determine how well the soil drains after rainfall. Tea plants call for a soil that's good in terms of moisture but don't retain too much of water or they will end up dying. That's why, sloping land works wonders for growing tea, while soils on a flat land trap water and make it almost impossible for the plant to thrive.
The aroma and taste of the tea are largely influenced by the minerals in the soil. In the Fujian mountains in eastern China, the rocky soil gives the leaves a specific mineral, which brings out a wet stone or petrichor’ touch to the tea. Volcanic soil features a rich mix of minerals, thereby enhancing the flavor of the tea.
Most commonly, tea grows just perfect in subtropical or tropical areas, while the changes in the climate bring out unique characteristics to the plant. The plant grows quickly in hot and wet weather while experiencing slow growth in cooler or dryer temperatures. Dry weather and cold areas, as well as mist or cloud develop light, delicate, and sweeter teas. On the other hand, heavy rains, clear skies, and high temperatures develop stronger flavors. In some specific varieties of tea, frost, and wind also contribute to the overall character of the leaves.
In the high mountain district in Uva, Sri Lanka, tea is picked during July and August, which gives it ha strong mouth-filling refreshing flavor. This happens because of the drying Cachan wind blowing there for about eight weeks. It results in certain chemical changes in the tea leaves to manage the lost moisture, thereby bringing out a unique wintergreen touch to the tea. However, climates that are too constant bring out simple tea characteristics.
As mentioned above, cooler temperatures lead to slow growth of the tea plant, that's why teas growing at high altitudes undergo a slower growth. The swirling clouds around mountain peaks also shield the tea leaves against the scorching heat of the sun, while also cutting out on the light. This makes the tea leaves rich in L-theanine, the sweet amino acid which provides the tea a sweeter and smoother character. In bright sunlight, those amino acids transform to bitter polyphenols, while reduced light leads to fewer amino acids getting transformed, thereby bringing out the sweet flavor to the tea.
The way the plant grows largely depends on its exact location on the globe. Plants that grow on the equator or near to it, experience slight changes in the weather, thereby growing throughout the year. On the other hand, the growth of the tea plant is influenced by the seasons when growing north or south of the equator.
During the winter months when the temperatures get too chilly, the tea plant doesn't grow at all. It will only develop new leaf shoots during the spring season when the soil turns a bit warm, and the first rains fall. The plant grows slowly in the colder and dryer seasons, so it has time to develop great subtle flavors to its leaves. Whereas, during the late spring and summer season, it grows quickly and brings out relatively plain flavors. On the arrival of autumn, the temperature and rainfall decrease, thereby slowing down the plant's growth and creating an interesting flavor in the leaves. In every geographical location where the tea plant grows, the above patterns may vary with each season, and that's why you get a whole lot of variations to the characteristics of tea.
The biotic environment of a tea terroir includes elements like animals, insects, worms, woodland, people, as well as the nearby plants. Each of these can be crucial to altering the aroma and flavor of the tea.
For example, the Chinese rose beetle weakens the plant by eating a lacy pattern into the leaves, which in turn, leads to less production of chlorophyll and less energy for new and tasty tea growth. If grown nearby, the bamboo plant can change the aroma and taste of the tea leaves through leaf litter around the plants which alter the composition of the soil.
Even humans are a part of the biotics - by picking up the tea leaves, they lead to the growth of new leaves. Picking at ten or thirty percent of the tea growth alters the aroma and flavor of the tea by altering the overall growth.
Seeking out new flavors and varieties to this great beverage seems to be so much more interesting when you have got a thorough idea of the tea terroirs. Also, you surely now know what all factors are responsible for bringing that wonderful cup of tea on your table.