Tea Basics

History of Tea

Tea is nearly 5000 years old. As legend has it, a Chinese Emperor named Chen Nung discovered tea in 2737 BC. When he was sitting in his garden some leaves from a tree blew into a pot of boiling water, infusing the water with a rich colour and aroma. He was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing.

It was, however, not until 3,000 years later that tea cultivation and processing began and that consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture, making tea a daily drink.

Around 800AD, the first tea seeds were brought to Japan by Buddhist priests. Japan developed its own tea traditions, and as in China, it took until the 14th century for tea drinking to enter the popular culture of Japan.

The Dutch and Portuguese, trading for silk and spices in the China Seas, were the first to procure tea and introduce it in Europe in the late 16th century. Soon the Dutch East India Company set up a regular shipment of tea to ports in France, Holland and the Baltic coast in 1610. Great Britain was the last of the three great sea faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes, first samples of tea not reaching England until 1652. Once introduced, tea quickly became Britainís most popular drink, largely replacing ale and becoming the source of many new tea customs, still in place today. Tea may have reached the New World before being introduced in England.

This was to only to a minority of settlers however, who lived in the Dutch colony of what was then called New Amsterdam (New York after the English acquired it).

At the end of the 17th century it was publicly available for sale and in 1720 tea was a generally accepted staple of trade between England and the Colony.

The massive increase of the tea tax by the English resulted in the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when settlers dressed up as Indians and boarded the Dartmouth and threw hundreds of pounds of tea into the harbour.

This act eventually led to the War of Independence and to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and perhaps the Americansí slight preference for coffee?

At first many British attempts at growing tea in India failed. Each failure, however, contributed to the eventual perfection of the technology. Finally in the 19th century tea cultivation on plantations flourished.

The 20th century has seen the spread of tea in Africa, notably in Kenya.
Although during the 20th century trends were towards coffee, tea, due to its potential health benefits, enjoys a great world wide resurgence, in particular for specialty teas like Green Tea and in flavoured teas.

What Is Tea?

All tea comes from one flowering evergreen shrub, Camellia sinensis regardless of where it is grown. The variation in teas are caused by differing conditions in the tea-growing countries – geographic characteristics, when and how it is plucked and what is done to the leaf after it is plucked.

Types Of Tea

There are 3 major classification of tea – Black (fermented), Green (unfermented) and Oolong (semi-fermented). These are achieved by different manufacturing processes, i.e., varying degrees of withering (evaporation of moisture), rolling, oxidation (fermentation) and heat. The tea most commonly known around the world is black tea, although, of late, green tea has also gained wide acclaim.

Where Is It Produced?

Tea is produced commercially in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia are some large tea-producing countries. Other countries also produce tea, e.g., Argentina, Kenya, Malawi and Turkey. Typically, hot temperature and heavy rainfall are key to growing tea.

The Lingo

The sophisticated dining public seems to have finally embraced the wide world of fine wines, going beyond French varieties and into the wilds of the worldís vineyards. This same crew is now expanding its palate to include gourmet teas ñ from single-variety to blended, and black to white. With this move towards connoisseurship comes a need to grasp the terminology that is associated with quality teas.

In fact, many of the intricacies of tea lingo and appreciation can be better understood by analogy with wine there’s the same discussion of appellations, terroir, aroma, body, finish, and so on. In addition to these descriptive terms, there is also a host of expressions and acronyms used by tea connoisseurs and professionals to describe the nature and quality of tea leaves. Indian tea, for example, has its own nomenclature. It consists of acronyms that describe three aspects of the leaves: the type, size, and amount of quality leaves used in specific teas.

Glossary of Tea Traditions

Tea Gardens
Developed by the English and refers to the habit of taking tea outdoors surrounded by entertainment such as concerts, orchestras, fireworks. Women were allowed to attend mixed, public gatherings for the first time without social criticism.

Developed in the English Tea Gardens. Throughout the Tea Gardens, wooden boxes were placed that had written ìT.I.P.S.î (To Insure Prompt Service) on them. If a guest wanted a waiter to hurry, he dropped a coin into the box. Thus, the custom of tipping servers was born.

High Tea
For the working and farming class in Britain, afternoon tea became high tea and presented the main meal of the day. It was a cross between the Afternoon tea and dinner including meats, bread and cakes.

Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea is said to have originated by Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford early in the 19th century, in order to ward off the hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. It comprises finger sandwiches and pastries served with tea.

Tea Clipper
Until the middle of the 19th century, tea was carried on cargo ships, taking between 12 and 15 months to move from ports in the East to London. They were replaced by a new type of clipper, developed by the Americans, which were capable of carrying greater cargo at a greater speed. The journey time to East India was halved. However, it was not long before other nations started building them and clipper races came into fashion, nations competing with each other to claim the fastest ship. Clippers were replaced by steam ships in the late 19th century.

Tea Rooms, Tea Courts and Tea Dances
In the late 19th century, fine hotels in America and England began to offer tea service in tea rooms and tea courts in the late afternoon. As a dance craze swept both countries at the beginning of the 20th century, hotels began to host afternoon tea dances

Glossary of Tea Manufacturing

Today most tea bushes are grown from cuttings taken from older tea bushes. These are carefully nurtured in nursery beds until ready for planting out.

Cutting back of the tea bush to help it stay productive and maintain its fan shape.

Process that removes moisture from the freshly plucked leaves by spreading them on vast trays and racks. It can take 10 to 16 hours, leaving the leaves flaccid.

The withered tea leaf is broken by machine to extract the natural juice and enzymes from it.
There are two different methods to break the leaves:
Orthodox: the machine rolls the leaf through which large leaf particles are produced.
Unorthodox: the leaf is broken by a CTC (Cut-Tear-Curl) machine into smaller particles.

Oxidation / Fermentation
After withering and rolling, the leaves are again laid out on trays to oxidise for 3-4 hours in a cool, humid atmosphere. This process mostly applies to black teas. Oolongs oxidise for a shorter period of time. Green teas skip this stage altogether.

After fermentation the leaf is fired by passing it slowly through hot air chambers. During this process the moisture is evaporated and the leaf turns brown or black. In a last step the tea is ejected from the hot chambers into chests and sorted into grades. The finished tea is sold via tea brokers (intermediaries who taste, value and bid on their clientís behalf) at international auction centres for example in Kenya, Sri Lanka or at commodity fairs in China. Then it will be shipped to the various packaging companies for blending and packing.