A rundown of tea and its types by a professional tea tasterTeas other than CTC are slowly but surely gaining popularity, but here’s what you need to know before you experiment.
It is safe to say that Nepalis love their tea. Groups of people gathered around roadside vendors and restaurants, sipping tea and chatting away is a common sight. But, despite the popularity of tea, many Nepalis are still not aware of the varieties that the beverage has to offer. Tea in Nepal is synonymous with CTC (cut, tear and curl), which refers to the processing method for black tea.
But most tea enthusiasts would argue that CTC tea is not for those who want to have an authentic experience. One such person is John Taylor, a professional tea taster, who many would argue is the go-to-person for anything tea-related in Nepal.
“On the basis of processing methods, Nepali teas can be categorised into three types: CTC, orthodox, and speciality,” says Taylor. “All these teas come from the same plant—Camellia sinensis. Speciality and orthodox tea leaves are plucked from shrubs that grow in higher altitudes, like Ilam, while CTC tea leaves come from the assamica variety of the plant which grows in the lower altitudes, primarily in Jhapa district. The only difference is they are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.”
CTC tea, with its distinct astringent flavour, produces a dark, strong liquor, which makes it a perfect pairing with milk. The process for this tea is relatively industrial, they are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that cut, tear and curl the tea into the hard pellets ubiquitous in Nepali households—this tea accounts for 95 percent of the domestic consumption in the country, according to All Nepalese Tea & Coffee Center.
“In CTC, we look for strength,” says Taylor. “During the processing, the machine breaks up the leaves’ cells, creating strong liquor and a trace of mild bitterness.”
Orthodox tea, on the other hand, is named after the orthodox way of manufacturing tea, which is withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. The whole-leaf tea, which produces lighter liquor than CTC, has a slightly acidic aroma, gives a woody, burnt taste, and has little patches of brown—a sign that the leaves underwent fermentation.
“The more you ferment, the stronger the tea is. Green tea leaves are not fermented, so they produce a light liquor and has a grassy freshness to them,” Taylor says, placing a batch of tea on a piece of white paper and inspecting the contents.
Any other tea that does not follow the pattern of orthodox and CTC tea processing methods becomes speciality teas, like white tea, green tea and oolong tea, says Taylor.
“Speciality teas are all about aroma. The leaves undergo less processing than CTC and orthodox, so they are light and have more nutrients,” he says.
White tea is among the least processed of them all and can fetch more on the international market. The leaves, which are whitish in colour, are sought after for their health benefits and their subtle sweet and strawy flavour. A lot of effort is put into the plucking of white tea leaves, so tea estates can only produce a limited amount of tea, unlike CTC and orthodox tea.
“A kg of white tea sells for a minimum of 30 euros in the international market. The demand for the tea far outweighs its production,” says Taylor, who, as the marketing manager for the Himalayan Tea Producers Cooperative, also sells and promotes Nepali tea in the international market. “But most people in Nepal do not know about white tea.”
However, a tea’s character cannot be controlled by manufacturers and tasters; it depends on the environment it grows in and what time of year. Teas are manufactured every day from April to November. Leaves harvested at the end of March are called the first flush. The second flush comes around mid-May, and the third and fourth are in monsoon and autumn. There is no tea production in winter because the soil temperature is too low for tea plants to grow.
“Teas from different flushes have different characters. First flush teas are greenish and give light liquors. In second flush, you start fermenting leaves so they’re darker and create a mellower tea. The third—monsoon—flush has less flavour because of the huge amount of water content in the leaves,” Taylor says.
Because of the many health benefits of white and green teas, a growing number of health-conscious youngsters have started drinking them these days. Taylor admits that despite the near-monopoly that CTC seems to enjoy in Nepal, other types of teas are slowly but surely gaining popularity. While CTC will be around forever, it seems, there’s no discounting the fact that supermarket shelves are being filled with plenty of other varieties.
“Nepali tea has become quite famous in the international market, particularly because of the speciality tea,” Taylor says. “I hope more Nepalis would show the same kind of interest in other types of tea that Nepal has to offer besides CTC.”