If you are a fragrance enthusiast, even a brief introduction to tea will reveal that the line between fragrance and tea is a fine one. The enjoyment of tea begins before you even take a sip. As you inhale the aromas rising above a steaming cup, you can imagine the taste: smoky, leafy, fruity, leathery or even floral. When I recently wrote about white teas, many of you mentioned in the comments that you were interested in learning more about tea, but weren’t sure where to start. Today I’m happy to present the first installment in a series of articles about tea. In this tea primer, I’ll detail types of tea, selecting and brewing tea, and other information about enjoying tea to its fullest. For all of those who are seasoned tea enthusiasts, I hope to offer some new insights and to learn from all that you have to share.
Tea is the second most-consumed beverage in the world after water–it’s simple to make, and the taste is refreshing. Tea originated in China over 4,000 years ago, and today it is easier than ever to find high quality tea from around the world. There are various types of tea, but all share a common origin, coming from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Where the Camellia sinensis leaves are grown and how they are processed determines the differences between the various types of tea produced from this plant. I will start by describing the scent and taste differences between different teas by focusing on the dark and rich varieties–black and oolong.
When tea made its way to the western world in the 16th century, it was black tea that became famous as a mainstay. Black tea was easier to ship, and it was less sensitive to the sorts of unfavorable conditions that might make it lose flavor during long sea journeys. It continues to be one of the most easily recognizable types of tea, and is a good starting point for those new to the world of tea. Of all types of tea, black tea also undergoes the most intense processing; after the fresh tea leaves are picked, they are allowed to wilt before being crushed and then allowed to sit and fully oxidize.
“Oxidization” is a term you encounter frequently in literature on tea. What does it mean? Oxidization for tea leaves is very similar to what happens when a slice of apple turns brown after being left to sit in the air–this is called enzymatic browning. It is the oxidization process that gives black tea its rich, dark aroma, flavor, and color. Once the tea leaves have fully oxidized, they are rolled into a more compact shape before being dried, at which point the tea is ready for consumption.
Black teas are primarily produced in China, Sri Lanka, and India. Black teas are characterized by a dark-colored infusion with a full, roasted, woodsy flavor and an astringent quality brought about by tannins, bitter-tasting compounds that form during the oxidization process. In perfume, black tea notes, or rather the accords inspired by tea, are used for their roasted, smoky accent. You can discover in L’Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two, Comme des Garçons Tea, Bulgari Black, and with a light touch in Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan.
Some of my favorite black teas: Assam, Keemun Hao Ya (I love all Keemun teas), Art of Tea Biodynamic Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong Superior, Le Palais des Thés Grand Yunnan Imperial.
For me, oolong teas carry a certain poetry that is unmatched by other teas; watching the twisted leaves unfurl and dance as the tea infuses into hot water is both mesmerizing and makes me feel as if the leaves are revealing some sort of deep, hidden secret. The real secret of oolong lies in its production; after picking, the leaves are allowed to wilt and are lightly bruised before sitting and oxidizing. The leaves are not, however, allowed to fully oxidize so they are often considered only “semi-oxidized.” In order to halt the oxidation process, the leaves are baked, and then rolled, and finally dried. The partially oxidized state of oolong leaves puts them somewhere in between a black tea and a green tea, and since the amount of oxidization varies from tea to tea (usually from about 10-80% oxidized), the flavor is also highly variable. Oolongs that are less oxidized tend to have a brighter, fresher flavor, like a green tea, while oolongs that are more oxidized have a dark, woody flavor more similar to a black tea.
Oolongs are mostly cultivated in China and Taiwan. These varieties exhibit some of the most interesting flavor subtleties of all types of tea—fruity and floral notes of peach, plum, lilac, orchid, and pear are typical of many oolongs and make each tea a unique flavorful journey. If you’re interested to try oolong on your skin, Atelier Cologne Oolang Infini and Providence Perfume Co Osmanthus Oolong offer elegant renditions on this note in perfume.
Some of my favorite oolong teas: Art of Tea Jasmine Ancient Beauty and Orchid Oolong, Ten Ren Alishan Oolong, Rishi Tea Wuyi Rare Orchid.
Do you have favorite black teas or fragrances with tea notes?
Photography by Andy Gerber (top photo by Bois de Jasmin)