Introduction to tea cultivars
'Cultivar' is one of those confusing words, which is sometimes incorrectly deployed and often misunderstood. What then, does 'cultivar' mean, and why is it important when it comes to tea?
The words 'variety', and 'cultivar' are occasionally used interchangeably, so its worth taking a quick look at the difference between the two, especially with regards to tea. A plant variety is simply a grouping below species and subspecies in the taxonomical ranking system. The species we're concerned with is Camellia Sinensis – an evergreen shrub used by millions of people worldwide to flavour hot water. There are four varieties of tea, but only two that really matter: sinensis and assamica. The latter is a variety native to Assam, which only reached a worldwide audience with the colonisation of India in the 19th century. Var. sinensis on the other hand, has been wildly cultivated for thousands of years in its native China. While sinensis grows to between 5 and 15 feet tall, and is often pruned to waist height, the large-leafed and more robust assamica thrives in warm and wet conditions, and can grow to between 30 and 60 feet tall if left unattended.
What is a tea cultivar?
There are only two main varieties of tea, but there are thousands of different cultivars, many of which are crosses between Chinese plants and the Indian variety. A 'cultivar' is simply a cultivated variety, bred by humans for certain characteristics. The process is actually a lengthy and complicated one, but simply put – you take the pollen from one plant with desirable characteristics, and apply it to the flowers of another.
But what does the choice of cultivar mean for the finished product? Although assamica is more often used for black tea than the Chinese variety, cultivar does not necessarily determine the type of tea you'll end up with. Whether your tea is green, white, black, or an oolong, is a question of processing. If the tea leaves are fired/steamed and dried soon after picking, you'll be drinking a green tea, but if the tea is crushed and allowed to oxidise, it will be black. However, some cultivars will suit certain styles of tea, and the connection between cup and cultivar is certainly worth exploring.
What is the best tea cultivar?
Generally, teas made from original cultivars tend to command higher prices, but farmers also like to experiment with new varieties. The choice between cultivars is an important decision for tea farmers, who will look for certain properties according to their specific needs and the demands of the market. But knowing the difference between common cultivars is also a useful exercise for tea drinkers, as different cultivars boast a variety of flavour profiles and unique characteristics. With that in mind, we've listed ten more noteworthy names in the business below.
1. Yabukita (Japan)
Yabukita was first bred in 1908 by Hikosaburo Sugiyama, in a testing field adjacent to a small bamboo grove (takeyabu in Japanese). A sample Hikosaburo had brought from the north (kita in Japanese) proved particularly successful, and he christened it Yabukita. Registered in 1956, and popularized due to its frost resistance and high yield, the Yabukita cultivar now accounts for three quarters of all tea plants in Japan. This successful cultivar is also popular for its strong umami flavour, making it perfect for matcha tea.
2. Qing Xin (Taiwan)
A small, dense tea bush, Qing Xin was once used in 40% of Taiwan's tea plantations. More disease prone than other Taiwanese cultivars, but famous for its light, orchid like aroma, it is a common parent in many of the cultivars created by Taiwan's Tea Research Extension Stations (TRES). Qing Xin, meaning 'green heart' in Chinese, also goes by the name of ruan zhi (soft stem), and is commonly processed into oolong or bao zhong tea.
3. Jin Xuan (Taiwan)
A remarkable tea developed by TRES in 1980, Jin Xuan is renowned for its light, creamy flavour, and is often marketed as 'milk oolong'. Jin Xuan can also be grown at higher altitudes than most Taiwanese cultivars, and has a typically higher yield.
4. Ruby #18 (Taiwan)
Another relatively recent cultivar from TRES (1999), Ruby #18 was in development for almost half a century. Definitely worth the wait, this cultivar makes a phenomenal black tea, and in a region with a preference for green teas, is becoming incredibly popular. A cross between an Assam and a wild Taiwanese plant, this cultivar is slightly sweet, with a pleasant fruity aroma and delicate notes of mint and spice.
5. Tie Guanyin (China)
Literally 'Iron Goddess of Mercy', Tie Guanyin is a premium Chinese cultivar with its origins in 19th century Fujian province. Making the quintessential oolong of the same name, this is a cultivar with a strongly associated style of processing. Not surprisingly for a tea supposedly gifted by the Bodhisattva of Compassion herself, the best Tie Guanyin teas can fetch a princely sum on the open market.
6. Qi Dan (China)
Another famous Chinese tea you might have heard of is Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), a prized rock oolong from the Wuyi mountains (pictured above) in Fujian province. The birthplace of oolong tea itself, Wuyi also plays host to six tea bushes that are estimated to be an uncommonly ancient 300 years old. Of these bushes, there are said to be three distinct varieties, of which one, is the Qi Dan that makes Qi Dan Da Hong Pao. Although the original Qi Dan is no longer harvested, cuttings from the original bush allow us to enjoy the incredibly subtle and complex oolongs that result form this particular cultivar.
7. Long Jing #43 (China)
Long Jing (dragon's well) tea is perhaps China's most famous tea, at home and abroad. Authentic Long Jing is grown around Hangzhou's West Lake in Zhejiang province, and like most well-known Chinese teas, its origins are shrouded in legend. There are various varieties and grades of this premium green tea, and there are likewise multiple cultivars that can be used for its production. Nowadays though, Long Jing #43 is pretty much dominant in the West Lake area. Its success is likely down to early budding and tolerance to cold weather, but it is also renowned for its light, fruity aroma.
8. Zhu Ye Zhong (China)
This is the main cultivar used in the production of Keemun, the Chinese black tea made popular in the 19th Century and still used in a number of classic blends. Uniquely containing an essential oil otherwise found in oil of Bay, and being particularly high in other essential oils, Zhu Ye Zhong is responsible for the renowned aromatic properties of Keemun.
9. AV2 (India)
AV2 is one of a growing number of clonal teas, a cultivar created using new processes in “vegetative propagation”, or the same cutting and cloning mechanism used for centuries with apples and roses. In India, many of the most elite Darjeeling producers are now using AV2, which is noted for its complexity and aromatic floral notes.
10. TRFK 306/1 (Kenya)
An exciting new Assam cultivar, TRFK 306/1 (pictured above) also goes by the slightly more approachable moniker, “purple tea”, owing to the slightly reddish hue of its leaves. 96% of Kenya's black tea exports are currently sold as low grade leaves for blending. Purple tea, developed by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (TRFK) for 25 years, represents an attempt to reverse this trend by increasing the value of Kenya's tea industry. More resistant and higher yielding than other strains, TRFK 306/1's is also rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. As well as giving purple tea it's beautiful colour, this antioxidant (also found in blueberries), is noted for its health benefits, further adding to the intrigue of this African cultivar.
Where can I buy these teas?
A few of these cultivars have made great teas found within the Tea in the City range. The Qing Xin is the basis of our Red Oolong, while Jin Xuan features in both our Jin Xuan and Gaba Oolong teas. The fantastic Ruby #18 is represented by Ruby Black tea. We truly have the Taiwanese hall of fame covered.
We should also note that our Red Guan Yin tea is based on the famous Tie Guan Yin cultivar, while the Indian AV2 has made it into our two fantastic Nepali teas. We hope you can now enjoy these teas knowing a little bit more about the plants that made them. We will introduce more famous tea cultivars in 2017.