All About Tea!


No one knows when tea was first discovered, but one legend places this event to almost 5,000 years ago and the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung.

Having learned that those who boiled their drinking water suffered from fewer ailments than those who drank it directly from their springs or wells, he followed suit. One day, there accidentally fell leaves from a nearby tree into his water. He liked the flavor and gave it its name, “Ch'a”, which means “it is”.

India and Japan also have their legends, but it was the Chinese people who elevated tea drinking into an art, and in Japan it took on the form of a mystical ceremony.

Both countries viewed it as a symbolic link with the elements of nature. In China, the boiling water is compared with a landscape painting, depicting floating clouds, mountain mists and rippling waters. The Zen Buddhist priests describe three stages in heating the water, first they liken the tiny bubbles with the eyes of fish, then with falling beads of crystal, and, finally, as it boils, the water becomes billowing torrents and surging seas.

The study of tea is a source of endless fascination, for its flavors are infinitely complex, and its history is the history of man, his institutions and his emergence from the ancient to the modern world.

All legend aside, historians have established that the purposeful cultivation of tea began in Szechuan, China around the year 350 AD. By the year 780, the Chinese government had imposed the first known tea tax, so we know that it must certainly have proliferated quickly and become an important cash crop. It was so important to the economy that they even used it as money.

In 800 AD, tea was introduced into Japan and slowly to the rest of the world. Marco Polo, the Crusades, and all the wars that occurred between Arabs and Europeans helped to spur trade and the gradual import of tea by European countries.

By the early 1600's, tea had become very popular in England. It had been touted as a cure-all and the public was sold on it. England thus became, and has remained, the largest market for tea.

Early Dutch settlers are credited for bringing tea to America, probably around the mid 1600's. By the mid 1700's, it had become so important as a commodity that King George III chose it as a source of tax revenue and started considerably more than a storm in a tea cup. And we know all about the Boston Tea Party!

Tea bags are the invention of a New York tea and coffee merchant, who, in 1904, sent samples of tea to his special customers that had been sewn by hand into silk bags. He decided it was less costly than using the tin boxes that were popular at that time. To his surprise, the orders started coming in for tea in these special bags. His customers had found that it was much easier and faster to pour boiling water over the bag than to prepare it for loose tea. This unintentional piece of advertising resulted in the filter paper bag that we know of today.

Iced tea was another case of necessity being the mother of invention. At the St. Louis World’s Fair, at the beginning of this century, an Englishman, hired to help promote tea could find no takers. The tea was hot, and everyone there preferred cold beverages. So he added some ice to his drink and it became an instant success.

Origins and Cultivation
Tea originally came from the dried leaves of evergreen trees that grew wild in the tropical and subtropical climates of China, Tibet, India and Burma.

Most of our tea now comes from Sri Lanka and from India, where tea is very important to their economics. We import almost 200 million pounds of tea per year, and England more than twice that amount.

The rest comes from the African nations of Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique, and from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Japan, Formosa and Argentina.

The finest of all teas come from trees that grow 30 to 40 feet in height. The bushes grown from these seeds are pruned so that they only grow about waist high, so that pickers can easily reach them. It takes 3 to 5 years to produce trees from which tea leaves can be cultivated. Only the two top leaves and an unopened bud are picked from each branch of these trees. An experienced picker can pluck forty pounds of leaves a day, enough to make ten pounds of tea. 

Tea undergoes several processes before it becomes ready for drinking:

Withering.This is a drying and leaf preserving process that takes up to two days.

Rolling. The green leaves are rolled and twisted under pressure to break up the cellular structure of the leaves for the purpose of releasing the juices and enzymes that give tea its characteristic flavor.

Roll-breaking. After rolling, the tea leaves become pressed into clumps that are broken up to separate the fine from the coarse leaves. Then the coarse leaves are rolled again. This process begins oxidation in the leaves from the heat that is generated.

Fermentation. During this 8 hour process, the leaves, spread on a cement, glass or tile floor, turn a bright copper color. And it is at this stage that tannin, which affects the strength, body, pungency and color of tea, is developed. A short fermentation results in a pungent tea, and a longer one produces a tea with a fuller flavor.

Firing. During this final process, the tea leaves are dried by being passed slowly under hot dry air at a carefully controlled temperature. 

Varieties and Grades of Teas
There are over 3000 varieties of camellia genus of trees, each usually taking its name from the place where it is grown. Most are of the camellia sinensis species, the original evergreen grown high in cool mountainous regions, though other species, tolerant of tropical regions, and not evergreens, abound. The size and method of processing the leaf result in further classification.

Black.  A fully processed and fermented tea, and accounts for over 97% of the tea drunk in this country.
Green. Not a fermented or withered tea, but, after the leaves are harvested, they are put into a steamer and heated. They are then dried, but no oxidation takes place and the leaves remain green. The result is a very light tea, in both taste and color, savored primarily in the Eastern Asian countries.
Oolong.  A semi-fermented tea, resulting in leaves that are a greenish-brown color and a taste that can be somewhat pungent. It is frequently used in blends, and is very popular among Chinese restaurants.
White. This tea is only partially oxidized, withered and rolled. Only top buds and young leave are used. The result is a delicate tea.

Needless to say, there are many more varieties, however the above are the most commonly available today.

If you hear the term Orange Pekoe, you'll know that it has nothing to do with oranges, although it used to denote tea that was sometimes flavored with orange blossoms. Today it refers to the size of the leaf.
Orange Pekoe. Long, wiry, thin leaves that sometimes contain yellow tip or bud leaf. In the cup they are light and pale in color.
Pekoe. The leaves of this grade are shorter and not as wiry as orange pekoe, but in the cup they generally have more flavor.
Souchong. A bold and round leaf, pale in the cup.
Broken Orange. Much smaller than any of the other leaf grades and usually contains a yellow tip. In the cup they have good color and strength, and are the mainstay of a blend.
Broken Pekoe Souchong.  A little larger or bolder than broken pekoe, and as a consequence are lighter in the cup.
Fannings. Much smaller than broken orange pekoe, its main virtues are quick brewing and good color in the cup.
Dust. The smallest grade produced, it is very useful for brewing a quick, strong cup of tea and is used only in blends.

Other terms are used in conjunction with the above, especially when the teas are of superior flavor. As such, a Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP) Number 1 would indicate the best, and probably the most expensive, tea, because it denotes the first picking of the first flush, or growth, of the topmost yellow leaves that have received the most sunlight and, therefore, nutrition. 

Scented Teas
These were originally produced by scenting green teas with natural spices and oils. Later, fresh blossoms of jasmine and magnolia were added to the leaves during processing, producing sweet fragrant teas.

Today you can still get jasmine tea, with fresh jasmine blossoms. You can also get teas flavored with everything from cinnamon to almonds.

Herb Teas
It should be pointed out that herb teas are from the camellia sinensis trees, and that their only connection is that they are both infused in boiling water. There are many, many such teas, made from as many herbs and spices as your imagination can fathom.

Camomile tea is a favorite, as is spearmint and black currant. When buying commercially packed herb teas, be sure to look at the label to make sure that all the ingredients are natural.

Tea Tasting
This is one of the oldest professions in the world. Tasters are employed by purveyors of tea to determine the quality of teas that they will purchase for resale or for blending into prepared tea mixtures or tea bags.

Tea Tasters develop an especially sensitive palate. From tasting a tea they can tell the country of origin, the time of year it was harvested, which side of the hill it was grown, and which plantation it may have come from.