Most people don’t know that all tea comes from the same plant. It is called the Camellia sinensis, and it is grown across the world to produce many different types of teas. While the processing of the tea leaves is what determines what type of tea the leaves will become (black, green, white, oolong, etc.), growing location also plays a major role in the flavor of tea. Terroir is the reason that you can have two different cups of black tea that taste dramatically different!
Terroir describes the different environmental factors that contribute to the flavor and character of a product. The term was originally used by French winemakers, and comes from the french “terre” meaning land. While it was originally used to describe wine, the term has been adopted into the tea, coffee, cheese, and chocolate industries now.
The first factor that affects the taste of tea is climate. Tea plants can only grow in places with warm, humid climates. But, if the weather in the region has no variation at all, the tea grown there will taste too simple and flat. Some climatic variation is essential in the development of complex tasting notes that make each tea unique. This is because climatic stress triggers the release of something called secondary metabolites in the leaves, and these create unique and interesting flavors.
Similarly to climate, altitude can trigger stress responses in tea plants. This is because higher altitudes are exposed to higher amounts of UV radiation, as well as more dramatic variation in temperature, which triggers secondary metabolites in tea.
The soil that tea is grown in can vary dramatically, and depends on the bedrock beneath the land. The mineral content of soil is reflected in the tea, and minerality in tea is a trait that is sought after. The nutrients in soil are also carried directly into the tea plant through the roots, so teas grown in nutrient-rich soils will provide extra health benefits!
Finally, latitude (distance from the equator) determines how many flushes of tea there are in a year. Teas grown on the equator can be harvested all year, since there are no changes of season at the equator. Teas grown further North or South can go through a dormant phase where they go through intense climatic stress. This produces a lot of secondary metabolites. The teas that are produced right after the dormant phase at the beginning of spring are called first flush teas, and can be the most coveted and most expensive teas in the world!
Two tea plants with the same exact genetic material can produce dramatically different cups of tea depending on where they are grown! Next time you are enjoying a cup of tea, take a minute to think about where it was grown, and see if you can taste the distinction that it makes. You don’t have to be a tea expert to taste the complexities and flavors of teas from around the world!