Having recently traveled to different regions in the United States, I noticed that all air is not the same. Various air particles and altitude levels affected my body differently. I saw a correlation between air, and changes in my body and the air that a tea plant is exposed to and changes that occur within the tea plant.
The Air I Inhale
I have been making an effort to increase my deep breathing. Breathing in deeply, fully inhaling and expanding my ribs as I intake air. One day, while I was practicing my deep breathing, I found myself thinking of the different types of air I had breathed in the last few months. The air felt different at each location, the ocean and high desert mountains, that I visited. The air I inhaled in different climates, altitudes, and temperatures did affect my body. Air is not the same in different geographical regions. It was this train of thought that I made a connection to tea. I saw a correlation between the air I breathed and how it affects my body and the air that a tea plant grows in could affect the tea plant.
Camellia sinensis tea plants thrive in sub tropical environments. They can grow in regions that have hot days and cooler nights. The plants need moist, humid air to flourish. An ideal climate includes an annual rainfall measured in feet, not inches. The plants need clean air, pollution-free air, for maximum production of new shoots, stems, and leaves. Camellia sinensis plants are not subject to seasonal allergies, like us humans. What does affect the growth of the plants is the type of air exposure. A dry versus wet climate, pollution, the amount of sunlight the plants are exposed to, and the altitude that the plants are growing in can all have an effect on the tea plants. In fact, the altitude the plants are grown can be an integral part in the outcome of the tea flavor profile.
Tea plants can grow from sea level to over 7,000 feet above sea level. The altitude that tea is grown in can have an effect on the flavor profile of tea in the cup. The higher the altitude tea is grown in is not necessarily better, right, or correct. It is simply a different altitude. With each varied altitude, different chemical reactions in the leaf can be exhibited in the cup. Numerous chemical components can be found in tea leaves. There are essential oils, polyphenols, minerals, carbohydrates, and a family of alkaloids called methylxanthines that caffeine is in, just to name a few, that are found in tea leaves. It is two polyphenol compounds and a specific amino acid that will be the primary focus of tea leaf affectation due to altitude in this article.
New and larger polyphenolic compounds develop when smaller polyphenols and oxygen combine during the oxidation process in tea leaves. These two polyphenols, or antioxidants, are called theaflavins and thearubigins. They are products of enzymatic browning due to the oxidation process of manufacturing tea leaves. The theaflavins and thearubigins are what gives black tea its black tea flavor and color characteristics. These polyphenolic compounds can be directly correlated to altitude levels the tea plants were grown in.
Generally speaking, the higher the altitude the plant grows in, the increased amount of theaflavins develop in the leaf during the oxidation stage of processing. An increase in theaflavins usually leads to a sweeter, bright red and gold color in the liquor, more aromatic tea and more flavor notes in a cup of tea. The decrease in altitude of where the tea plant grows yields an increase of thearubigins in the leaf during the oxidation stage of leaf processing. More thearubigins yields a stronger tasting cup of tea with a darker brownish black color in the cup.
Interestingly, the longer tea leaves are left to oxidize, some theaflavins will eventually form into thearubigins during the oxidation process. This is why oxidation of tea leaves is closely monitored. Depending on what chemical compounds, theaflavins or thearubigins, the tea master wants to emphasize in the leaf, will help determine the rate and length of oxidation the leaf will undergo.
In addition, higher mountain teas are frequently exposed to cooler mists, clouds, and possible fog, which can all decrease leaf exposure to sunlight. The reduction in sunlight slows the growth of the leaves and lends to softer, thicker, and denser leaves with more concentrated flavors in the leaves. These softer and thicker leaves are altered chemically as well as in appearance. These higher grown, and slower growing tea leaves can create a smoother, less astringent and sweeter tea thanks to a specific amino acid, called L-Theanine, in the leaf.
For example, in the Nantou region of Taiwan known for Ali Shan Oolongs, where mountains are over 3,000 feet, the leaves used are chemically changed due to their exposure to higher altitudes and all that this entailed. The leaves have an increase in the amino acid L-theanine, and also a decrease in the amount of polyphenols. A decrease in polyphenols typically lead to a less astringent tasting tea. The increase in the amino acid L-Theanine, creates a smoother and sweeter mouth feel in the cup.
Teas prized related to altitude growth
Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is a country that has seven distinct tea growing regions on the island. The tea from these regions are categorized by the specific altitude they were growing in. Teas from Sri Lanka are referred to as low grown tea, mid grown tea, and high grown tea. Low grown teas are teas that have been grown in altitudes from sea level to 2,000 feet. Mid grown teas have been grown in altitudes of 2,000 to roughly 4,000 feet. The teas from Dimbula, Nuwara Eliya and Uva regions are considered high grown teas, grown in altitudes above 4,000 feet. These teas have a characteristic clear and golden colored liquor, aromatic and flavorful profiles.
India has a unique tea growing region that produces some of the most prized teas globally. Darjeeling tea is a distinctive tea with a muscatel taste and grape and floral aroma. This tea can only obtain the label, Darjeeling tea, if it is produced from tea leaves plucked from the specific Darjeeling region. Similarly, champagne can only be called champagne when it is produced from grapes plucked in the Champagne region in France, located near Paris. The approximately eighty Darjeeling tea gardens can lie in areas that are upwards of 7,000 feet altitude. They are often shrouded in cool misty air that lends in creating what the tea industry has nicknamed “the champagne of teas”.
Yunnan Golden Tips black tea and Pu’Erh tea are from the Yunnan region in southeast China. These teas are crafted using tea grown in high altitudes. The name “Yunnan” can be translated to mean “south of the clouds”. This region of China is considered to be the home of the world’s original and oldest mother tea trees that are still growing in the wild. The elevation in this region can range from 3,000 to around 7, 000 feet in altitude. The mist and cloud covered, high altitude mountains are factors in creating these world reknown teas.
Altitude can play a prominent factor in some of the world’s most sought after teas. High altitude can yield highly flavorful, and highly prized teas. Air does matter, not just the air we breath but also the air that tea plants grow in. So much goes into the cup of tea we drink. Unique geographical microclimates around the world help supply us with some of the world’s most wonderful teas. Let’s help support, nourish and care for these, and all, unique microclimatic growing regions.
Happy Belated Earth Day,
Lovelace, Virginia Utermohlen.Tea: A Bird’s Eye View.VU Books, 2020. Specialty Tea Institute Certification Program. www.stitea.org
Sri Lanka Tea Board. www.pureceylontea.com
World Tea Academy. www.worldteaacademy.com
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!