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[Part1]Tastes change as Britain discovers green, oolong tea


HOW TASTE DEVELOPED


Britons acquired a taste for tea in the 17th century, when green tea was first imported in significant amounts from Asia. It was reputed to be a wonder drink that could cure sickness and it acquired prestigious status, one which showed the drinker was from the upper crust.


Green tea teabags currently account for only 3 percent of tea sales in Britain; black tea commands a near-90 percent share.


However, at the Twinings tea company, director of corporate relations Stephen Twining, 49, says even that small market share is a positive trend.


"It's very encouraging for me to see people drinking more green teas. One of my affections for tea comes from the wonderful variety," he says.


Twining represents the 10th generation to be associated with the eponymous company founded by an ancestor more than 300 years ago.


"We need to continue to expand and offer new experiences," he says.


Something else that has changed is the British tradition of afternoon tea. Steward recalls that hotel tea lounges were "almost deserted" during the 1990s, but says they have recently regained popularity.


One such place is the tea lounge of The Langham Hotel, a five-star establishment in central London. The lounge is full of chattering businessmen in suits.


The menu here offers not only black tea but also varieties such as "Hojicha" and "Taiwan Dong Ding."


"Up until a few years ago our customers were mostly women, but these days we are seeing more male customers who come here for business meetings," says the manager.


A GOOD PICK


There are three general varieties of tea: green, black and oolong tea. All are made from the leaves and stems of an evergreen belonging to the Theaceae family of flowering plants.


When tea leaves are picked, enzymes inside them cause oxidation, a form of fermentation, and they begin to wither. The leaves are heated to slow or arrest the fermentation by denaturing the enzymes. Different levels of fermentation determines whether any given leaves become green, black or oolong tea.


Green tea is unfermented and requires heating soon after harvest to prevent the enzymes from starting their work. Later, the leaves are kneaded and dried.


In Japan, the heating is usually done by steaming them, whereas in China they are roasted in a pot. The two methods produce a different fragrance.


Around 65 percent of green tea produced in Japan is sencha. Its name is thought to come from the verb senjiru (to brew), as until the Edo Period (1603-1867) tea was made not by pouring hot water on tea leaves but by boiling them to extract the flavor.


The highest quality green tea is gyokuro, which comes from tea plants that have been shaded from the sun for a certain period. Bancha, a more down-to-earth variety, mostly uses the tough leaves and stems left after harvesting the younger leaves. Hojicha is made by roasting sencha and bancha and possesses a distinct aroma. Matcha is powdered tencha, which is made from buds.


On the other hand, black tea is made from fully fermented tea leaves, kneaded to increase the amount of fermentation within.


With oolong tea, the fermentation process is arrested part of the way through. Chinese white tea is another partially fermented tea for which the fermentation process is halted soon after it begins. Pu-erh tea is green tea that is later fermented using agents such as malted rice. This produces what is known in Japanese as "after-fermentation tea."


Black tea accounts for 60 percent of global tea production, green tea 30 percent. Other kinds make up the remaining 10 percent.


There are many varieties of tea plant, each of which has its own taste additional to the variation created by the heating and kneading.


Tea was first drunk in China as green tea, but it became promoted around the world via Britain as black tea. This is why nations such as China, Japan and Taiwan concentrate on production of green tea and oolong tea for consumption in East Asia, and black tea tends to be popular in Britain, Russia and the Middle East.


But tea-style infusions can be made from a wide variety of ingredients. Mugicha comes from barley, kombucha from seaweed, mate from the leaves of the South American mate plant, and herbal teas from ingredients such as mint and lemongrass. These are often omitted from statistical surveys of tea consumption.


And blended teas such as Jurokucha and Sokenbicha--sold in plastic bottles in Japan--offer a cocktail of many more ingredients than just traditional tea.


By NAOATSU AOYAMA and NORIKO AKIYAMA/ Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at http://ajw.asahi.com/category/globe/feature/.




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