Clint Jones is a college administrator and chemist. He grew up in Georgia, so he’s “steeped” in the Southern sweet tea tradition. Four years ago, Jones was sipping plain ol’ grocery store iced tea when his curiosity started brewing. Now tea leaves are literally his cup of tea.
Jones began learning about tea’s long history. As a scientist, he knew tea was chock full of healthful nutrients. He began researching tea’s complex chemistry and how to craft many flavors from one plant. “It’s like working in a lab for me,” he says.
Soon Jones was taking courses in tea science, flavors, cultivation, evaluation, and everything one needs to know to become a certified tea sommelier—an elite expert who can talk about tea for hours.
Here’s a sampling of what Jones learned:
—All true teas come from the same plant: camellia sinensis, a.k.a. CS.
—Tea differences are due to different growing locales and methods of harvesting, drying, and oxidation.
—Oxidation involves chemical reactions that brown tea leaves and produce flavor and aroma.
—CS naturally contains caffeine.
—Loose leaf tea is less processed than bagged.
Jones also grew to recognize the five types of true tea:
White: After plucking, young tea buds (covered with white “hairs”) dry in the sun before packaging. White tea is pale yellow and produces a faint aftertaste. (Examples: Emperor’s, Imperial)
Green: Green tea is steamed or pan-fried to prevent too much oxidation. Brewed green tea is green, yellow, or light brown. Its flavor can be grassy and toasted (pan) or sweet and seaweed-like (steamed). (Examples: Sencha, Matcha)
Oolong: Oolong tea leaves are partially oxidized. Tea masters curl or roll leaves into strands or balls. This alters the aroma, color, and flavor of the tea, which tastes fresh or fermented. (Examples: Phoenix, High Mountain)
Black: For black tea, leaves must completely oxidize. This adds a fruity, earthy, or smoky flavor, depending on the tea. (Examples: Assam, English Breakfast)
Pu’erh: Growers age this tea in caves. That gives pu’erh a mushroom scent and flavor. Leaves are then compressed into tough bricks. Drinkers break off a piece to brew. In Asia, people drink pu’er to soothe upset stomachs.
Jones’ home has become a mini-museum of pots, trays, and tools. There tea-making resembles an experiment, complete with timed brews and water-temperature readings. It seems complicated. But Jones’ interest in tea began quite simply: “I just wanted to see if I could find some really good green tea.”