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About tea

 

True tea is the infusion made from the leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis shrub. It is, after water, the most widely consumed drink in the world, its consumption equalling all other manufactured drinks (including coffee, chocolate, soft drinks and alcohol) combined . From its earliest origins in China it has spread throughout the world, significantly changing every culture it has reached. How different, for example, would Britain, Japan, India, Turkey, Russia, Kuwait or Morocco be without tea and its daily rituals?

Principal varieties of tea

All true tea (and there are ten thousand different varieties) comes from the tea plant - Camellia sinensis. The plant is sub-divided into Camellia sinensis sinensis, originating in China, and Camellia sinensis assamica, a native of north-eastern India. Tea loves moisture and is therefore best grown at altitude (ideally 4000 to 6000 feet) in misty, humid regions. The sinensis variety is grown as a bush and tolerates cold, while the assamica variety (which untrimmed can grow into a full-sized tree) prefers heat and dampness.

As with wine, different varieties of tea vary enormously in terms of appearance and flavour, and this is reflected in their price (generally the better the tea, the higher the price). Sadly, many people tempted to try green tea because of its reported health benefits soon lose interest, unaware that the cheap, tasteless product they are drinking is the equivalent of trying to understand the delights of wine or chocolate by buying the very cheapest cooking varieties.

The main kinds of tea are green, black (called red tea in China), oolong, white and puerh. Yet within these categories there are many hundreds of varieties, in the same way that there are many Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, or Pinot Noirs, varying enormously in price and quality and grown on large, medium and small specialist estates.

Green (unoxidised) tea

After picking, green teas may (or may not, depending on variety) be withered by laying out on bamboo trays and exposed to sunlight or warm air for one to two hours. They are then heated by pan-firing, oven-firing or steaming to prevent oxidation and preserve freshness, and finally rolled and dried. The leaf may be left whole, rolled into a tightly curled ball, and will uncurl into its full size when brewed. Premium Artisan green teas are generally processed by hand (for example manually stirred in hot woks and manually rolled). Commercial teas are generally machine processed.

Black (oxidised) tea

Known as red tea in China, black teas are heavily oxidized which gives them their distinctive dark colour. The leaves are first withered for up to 18 hours, then either machine-rolled to break up the plant cells and start oxidation, or mechanically processed in a macerator or hammer mill to produce the much smaller and quicker-brewing leaf used in tea bags and some blended teas. This is followed by a further short period of oxidation and then drying (traditionally in a hot wok or oven) to arrest the process. Most commercial black tea is machine-processed but some fine Indian and Chinese teas will be processed by hand, keeping the entire leaf whole. Black tea from India is often drunk with milk, although most Chinese varieties are not.

Oolong (semi-oxidised) tea

Oolong teas lie somewhere between green and black teas. They vary greatly in their degree of oxidation - from 10 to 70 per cent - with the lightest kinds resembling green tea and the heaviest closer to black tea. The processing method varies according to the type of oolong desired.

White (unoxidised) tea

White tea is simply made from young leaves and immature tea buds, picked and sun-dried. The buds have a silvery appearance and are also known as Silver Tip.

Puerh (fermented) tea

The exact method of manufacture of puerh tea varies according to its different types, but all are made from oxidised green tea and it is the only tea that can be truly said to be microbially fermented. Puerh is the only tea that improves with age and is available in either raw or ripe forms. Raw puerh is usually pressed into discs or blocks and is greenish in colour. It is laid down to age, taking years – even decades – to reach a state of natural ripeness best suited for drinking. Because of the long timescales involved, a new process was invented in the 1970s which sped up the maturation process. This ripe puerh is dark brown and is also usually pressed into discs or blocks.

The high value placed on true aged puerh tea coinciding with the rapid rise in individual wealth led to a 'puerh tea bubble' in China in 2008, with the best teas selling at tens of thousands of pounds a kilo. That this passion for top-end puerh is unabated is reflected in the recent sale of a cake of puerh dating from the 1900s for just over one million pounds. This echoes the days when rare and imperial teas were so valuable they were escorted by armed guards.

Some sources suggest that puerh manufacture goes back to the time of the Han dynasty, the compressed cakes being the ideal way to transport tea while travelling or for trade.

Apart from Puerh, all teas deteriorate with age. They should be kept in airtight containers and away from the light.

Blended teas

Most commercial black tea is blended from a large number (up to 35) of different teas. This is usually done to ensure that despite variations in season and availability, the product always tastes the same. Blended teas may be medium range (for example English breakfast teas) or low range (cheaper tea bags).

 

Tea history

Tea drinking originated in China and it is the legendary Emperor, scholar and herbalist Shen Nong who is credited with its discovery. Shen Nong (known as the Divine Farmer) dates back to the third millennium BCE. He is known as the father of Chinese herbal medicine as well as of agriculture (inventing the plough and the rake, and sowing the five grains), thus ushering China from a hunter-gatherer towards a settled farming society . Renowned for his courage in the pursuit of medical knowledge, he is said to have personally tasted hundreds of different herbs. According to legend, Shen Nong always boiled his water before drinking it, and it was when leaves from a wild tea bush fell into the simmering pot that he discovered the delights and virtues of tea. He subsequently drank tea to counter the poisonous effects of any of the herbs he was testing, although he is said to have finally died of a toxic overdose.

Another popular story ascribes the discovery of tea to the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. In the seventh year of continuous meditation he fell asleep. He was so angry with this lapse that he cut off his eyelids and where they fell to the ground the stimulating, sleep-countering tea bush sprang up. Bodhidharma, however, is a real historical figure who lived during the fifth and sixth centuries, and tea consumption in China reliably predates this by several hundred years. The link between tea and Buddhism is a valid one, nevertheless, since both thrive in hills and mountains and Buddhist monks became so skilled at growing tea that its sale underpinned the economy of many of their temples . As we saw above, the legendary Emperor Shen Nong used tea to counteract the toxicity of the herbs he was testing, and tea's earliest use indeed appears to have been as a medicine, with records suggesting its consumption as far back as the Zhou dynasty (first millenium BCE). By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), however, tea was widely drunk for pleasure, indeed by then it had become the national drink of China and is considered one of the 'seven necessities' of Chinese life (along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar).

It was during the Tang that Lu Yu, known as the Sage of Tea and perhaps the only person in history to run away from a Buddhist monastery to join a circus, wrote the Tea Classic (Cha Jing). This - the most famous book on tea ever written - describes the history of tea, the tools needed to harvest and prepare it, the twenty-eight utensils required to brew it, the different kinds of water to make it with, and of course how to drink it - with an emphasis on mental preparation and the cultivation of tranquility. From Lu Yu’s time, tea drinking in some Chinese and Japanese traditions has been practised as an art form and a kind of active meditation. Such was the influence of Lu Yu that merchants had images of him inscribed on their kilns and worshipped him as the patron deity of tea" .

In the early days of tea drinking in China - during the Han dynasty (206 - 220 CE) - whole tea leaves were infused to make a medicinal brew, but by Lu Yu’s time it was being prepared by steaming, drying and compressing into easily-transportable cakes - to be crushed and powdered for tea making and often mixed with ingredients such as onions, salt and ginger peel. It was not until the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) that the fashion for loose leaf tea returned, which led to a great flowering of teapot and teaware design.

Tea-drinking had long spread from China to neighbouring countries such as Mongolia and Japan. The 18th century History of the Ming (dynasty) wrote of such 'barbarians' (i.e. non Han-Chinese), " … if they cannot obtain tea they fall ill. Therefore since Tang and Song [7th to 13th centuries CE] times we have traded tea for horses and so kept them under control ."

It was not until 1606, however, that the first European tea shipment arrived in Amsterdam. Despite a price that initially confined its consumption to the wealthy, tea drinking slowly spread through Europe over the next two hundred years, finding a particularly warm welcome in Britain and Russia.

Because its expansion into Europe coincided with the late Ming dynasty [14th to 17th centuries CE) transition to whole leaf tea brewed in teapots, this was the style that was adopted, and since black tea keeps and travels better than green tea, it was black tea that rapidly came to predominate.

During the early nineteenth century the first British tea plantations were established in Assam in India with the aim of breaking China's monopoly. Seeds were initially brought from China but this was soon followed by the discovery of native Indian tea plants. These were a variation of China's Camellia sinensis sinensis and were classified as Camellia sinensis assamica. This native plant was better suited to the hot conditions of Assam, while the Chinese variety thrived in cooler mountainous regions such as Darjeeling.

The success of this project improved ease of access to tea and reduced its price, resulting in the massive uptake of consumption in Britain and its colonies . The spread of tea drinking contributed to improved public health (because water that was frequently contaminated had to be boiled to make it), to greater temperance (because previously beer was the only reliably safe drink) and to technological advances in shipping as superfast tea clippers were developed to speed tea to its destination.

The esteem in which tea was held by the British and its vital role in the country's morale was reflected in the government taking control of tea supplies during the first and second world wars.