What is a Tea Cultivar?
Among the many factors that go into creating a particular tea, one of the most important is the variety of the tea plant being used. Just as a Granny Smith apple is quite different from a Fuji apple, different varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant can vary in leaf size, shape, and chemical composition, which affects which environments it grows well in, how the leaves are crafted into finished tea, and ultimately how the finished tea tastes. Unlike most other plants, however, varieties of the tea plant are often called ‘cultivars’. Today, we’ll break down what makes a cultivar distinct from a variety, and how they impact tea flavor.
What is a Cultivar?
In fact, the word ‘cultivar’ is simply an abbreviation of the phrase “cultivated variety”. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is known to have at least two distinct natural varieties, developed through evolutionary chance to suit different climates. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is the variety of the tea plant originally grown in China, where it grows naturally in many environmental conditions, withstanding cold weather in the winter and flourishing in hot, humid summer months. In contrast, the variety discovered by the British in India, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, is better equipped to withstand high intensity sunlight and hot weather all year round.
From these two natural varieties, thousands of cultivars have been developed by farmers, either through careful breeding or sheer accidental luck. Each one is suited to the particular environmental conditions and seasonal weather of its native region, and in many cases are not grown outside a specific locality. Crafting techniques may be developed to fit a particular variety, or cultivars may be bred to have characteristics that make crafting easier. Over time, many styles have become defined by the cultivar used to make them, and today the concept of cultivar may carry more weight in forming the identity of a tea than terroir or crafting methods (which have more obvious impact on flavor). For example, the variety name tieguanyin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”) is now the primary way to define all teas made with this cultivar, regardless of oxidation levels or where they’re grown.
Why Does Cultivar Matter?
Because varieties can be different from one another on a molecular level, the cultivar of the source plants can have an impact on the flavor of the finished tea. However, it can be hard to distinguish these differences, since it is almost impossible to isolate cultivar as a flavor variable. Some styles place more emphasis on cultivar than others: Wuyi oolongs, for instance, are almost always named for the cultivar used, with each famed variety carrying expectations for specific tasting notes. Phoenix oolongs are another notable example of the importance of cultivars, since they are bred from old-grove cuttings to preserve and cultivate specific flavor notes. While each tea craftsman uses specific techniques to draw out the flavors they’re looking for, the basis for the distinct flavor differences in these categories is the cultivar of the plant.
In the case of white teas, the entire category is defined by cultivar - there are only two cultivars traditionally used to make white tea, and both are distinguishable by the prominence of downy white trichomes on the budding leaves, which are what give the category its name. While some farmers or craftsmen may experiment with using traditional white tea techniques on other cultivars, only leaves from the da bai (“big white”) or xiao bai (“small white”) plant varieties are recognized as true (or traditional) white teas.
How to Identify Cultivars
In categories where cultivar is treated as the primary distinguishing factor between two teas, the name of the cultivar is usually the name given to the finished tea. For instance, Phoenix oolongs are always named for the cultivar used, since the breeding process and lineage of the variety are considered the most important factor in the final flavor. Crafting techniques in this category are refined to bring out the natural flavors that exist within the leaf, rather than add or define flavors on their own.
In other cases, there may be many cultivars recognized as suitable choices for crafting a specific style of tea. Most green teas, for instance, are defined based on the way they’re crafted, while cultivar developments are focused on improving production rates or weather resistance. In these cases, cultivar may have less direct impact on flavor, but a reputable vendor with a direct relationship to the farm should still be able to identify the variety of most teas they carry.
How many tea cultivars can you name? Ask us your cultivar questions in the comments below!
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Comments on this post (3)
Why can’t I find any black tea, loose or bagged, that has the rose/dark berry finish that once was common in Assams?
— Laura L
Thanks for your question! While different cultivars do have different leaf characteristics, the differences can be subtle and difficult to discern in the finished dry tea. Sometimes it is possible to determine the cultivar after the leaves have been rehydrated, but most often cultivar corresponds to a region or style that is easier to identify. A reputable cultivar means little for quality without proper terroir and experienced craftsmanship, as can be seen in the huge range of tieguanyin teas, which all share a cultivar but vary widely in flavor quality.
While it might be worth your time to become familiar with the cultivars commonly used for a favorite style, it would be overwhelming and ultimately not that useful to learn the characteristics of every tea cultivar.
— Amy Covey
Great Article. It really answers a lot of the questions I had.
One more question to dig a little deeper:
As a consumer, how easy is it to determine a cultivar from just looking at the leaf? Is this a skill worth developing?
— Mervyn Clarke