What's In A (Tea) Name?
All varietals and flavors of tea come from diverse cultures with specific traditions, languages, and lenses. Tea names, and the stories behind them, are similarly varied and fascinating. While some names are literal, others come from elaborate legendary tales. But, what's in a name?
In Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, the "true name" holds power over an individual or object. All individuals, therefore, have "use-names," or nicknames, to protect themselves from magic. What magic can we uncover when we reveal the mystery behind the names of our favorite steeps? Let's find out!
The Eye Of The Beholder
Like a Rorschach inkblot, many teas were named based on the interpretation of similarity in appearance between the leaves and other relevant objects. Silver Needle White Tea leaf is an obvious example of this! It looks like a lightly colored, silver-haired miniature sword (or an itsy bitsy pale banana.)
Perhaps not quite as obvious, we have Golden Monkey Black Tea leaves, which were said to resemble a monkey claw. Hand-rolled Gunpowder Green Tea resembles gunpowder. Names like these allow the drinker to escape for a little tea journey in the realms of fiction and imagination.
Japanese teas are named much more pragmatically. Most Japanese teas end with "-cha" which translates to "tea." The everyday household green tea called sencha means "decocted tea."
A decoction is an extract of leaves and roots through the process of boiling. It can't get much more literal than that! All of the varieties are named similarly. "Kukicha" is "twig tea," and "Genmaicha" is "brown rice tea."
Gyokuro is slightly different -- (no "-cha"!) -- this name translates to "jade dew." Its name perfectly describes the tea, highlighting the deep vegetal flavor and full, dewy body.
When people refer to matcha as "matcha powder," it's a bit redundant. The translation for matcha is "fine powder tea."
Lost in Translation
China is the largest tea producer in the world. Considering this, it's only natural that the selection of Chinese teas is quite expansive. Their tea-naming is equally diverse. A popular super-smoky black tea from China called Lapsang Souchong is named "the small leaf cultivar smoked by pine wood." The smoky taste is reminiscent of a summer campfire.
One tea that became an extraordinarily popular misnomer is "chai tea" from India. Chai (similar to "cha") means "tea" in India. So, calling it "chai tea" is essentially saying "tea tea."
The proper name is "Chai Masala," which means "tea spice" and illustrates what is within the blend. Chai, as we call it, is typically a black tea with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and other sweet spices.
Some teas are grown in specific regions with particular cultivars and can't grow elsewhere. These teas are generally prized for their exceptional quality and named for the region from which they hail. Two specific tea-growing areas in India are famed for their varieties.
The state of Assam in India is the single largest global tea-growing region. Teas from Assam are called "Assam" and have a specific composition due to climate and weather conditions.
Many teas are grown at high elevations and cool temperatures, but the Assam region has a tropical monsoon rainforest climate and a low elevation (almost sea level.) The cultivar Camellia sinensis var. assamica is an offspring of this climate. Due to heavy rainfall and temperate conditions, its leaves have adapted to be large and smooth. The tea is renowned for having a robust body and a malty sweetness.
Darjeeling is another famous tea-growing region in India with a very different climate and elevation than the state of Assam. As part of the lesser Himalayas, Darjeeling offers views of the highest peak on the globe, Mt. Everest. The tea varietal is different as well, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. This is a smaller, more tender leaf than its tropical counterpart. The resulting brew has an incredible tonality that is famed worldwide for its buttery, rich, and floral notes.
The (Tea) Time Of The Season!
The weather has a significant impact on the way the final steep will taste! In tea lingo, a "flush" is a particular harvesting season. Assams and Darjeelings are labeled by flush to identify what flavors will be prominent in the leaf.
The first flush is picked in March, during the Spring rains. The flavor is usually very light and floral. These teas are coveted for their delicate nature. The second flush is picked in June and offers a fuller body and a fruity sweetness. There are also monsoon and Autumnal flushes, which are not typically exported.
Oolong tea is a partially oxidized leaf categorized somewhere between green and black tea. Oolong tea is growing in popularity in the States but has been a tea of choice in China, Taiwan, and Thailand since ancient times.
The most well-known variety of Oolong is called Ti Kuan Yin, or Tieguanyin. Her name means "Goddess of Mercy," and she is "the one who hears the cries of the world." Guanyin is a Bodhisattva, a Buddhist with so much compassion that she decides to stay on Earth to help others instead of going to Nirvana.
Lung Ching, which translates to "Dragon Well," has a name rooted in a legend. During a drought, a monk summoned a dragon to fill the well so they could nourish their crops. He provided, and the tea flourished! This is a delicious, flat-leaf, pan-fired green tea with a chestnut flavor and a super buttery body. Thanks, Dragon!
The Name Game
With a seemingly endless catalog of fascinating teas to choose from, we could discuss the etymology of their names for ages. Whether your favorite tea received its name due to flavor, legend, or appearance, it's fun to know the cultural background behind the leaf.
Who doesn't want to drink a monkey claw, a cup full of needles, or a tea watered by dragon magic? :)