A Brief History
Discover the ancient origins and fascinating history of tea!
No doubt you have your own favourite tea brand or blend, but do look through this section and discover other wonderful teas to go out and try...
Although tea was discovered in China nearly five thousand years ago, it took several thousand years before the plant, botanical name Camellia sinensis, found its way to other parts of the world.
Today, tea is grown on a commercial scale in approximately three dozen countries and, in each country, the product makes a significant contribution to the economy of the agricultural sector.
Tea is grown from China to Argentina, Nepal to South Africa, and, next to water, tea is the worlds most consumed drink.
Tea scientists have been working closely with nature for the past two hundred years to produce new tea cultivars that can thrive in difficult conditions like drought yet continue to produce satisfactory yields that deliver the quality that consumers expect.
There are approximately 1,500 different cultivars of tea, all offering interesting and varied style´s, taste and colour. The character of tea, like wine, is influenced by the elevation of the garden, the soil, wind conditions and temperature and, of course, the quality of the plucking. With so many teas to choose from there is a lifetime of enjoyable exploration ahead.
Black tea is grown and processed all over the world in varying geographies and climates. Some of the largest producers of black tea today are Africa, India and Sri Lanka.
Tea is considered to have originated in China, almost five thousand years ago with legends of green tea linked to the Shen dynasty
As tea culture spread and tea was processed for export to trade around the world, it was discovered that the more oxidized black tea would retain its freshness and flavour better over long journeys than green tea that is minimally oxidized. The length of, or absence of, the oxidation step during the processing of Camelia sinensis (tea) leaves is responsible for the distinctive flavours of black, green oolong and white tea
Many green teas are still traditionally made by hand using methods that have been handed down from generation to generation. However, more and more teas are now made in mechanised factories. Green teas are totally unoxidised (compared to black teas which are fully oxidised) and so the first stage of the manufacturing process is to kill any enzymes that would otherwise cause oxidation to take place. To de-enzyme them, the freshly plucked leaves are either steamed (to make 'sencha-type teas) or tumbled quickly in a wok or panning machine (to make pan-fired teas) and are then rolled by hand or machine to give the leaf a particular appearance - some teas are twisted, some curved, some rolled into pellets, etc. To remove all but 2-3% of the remaining water, the tea is then dried in hot ovens or over charcoal stoves.
White teas traditionally come from China's Fujian province and are made from leaf buds and leaves of the Da Bai (Big White) tea varietal by the simplest process of all teas. Very young new leaf buds and baby leaves are simply gathered and dried - often in the sun (solar withering). The best known white teas are Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) which is made using new leaf buds and a few very young leaves, and Yin Zhen (Silver Needles) which is made from just the new leaf buds.
There are a number of subcategories of dark tea of which Pu Erh (Yunnan's famous tea) is the best known. Fu tea is another (Shaanxi Province).
Pu Erh tea is named after Pu Erh city in Yunnan province which was once the main trading centre for teas made in the area.
The official Chinese definition for Pu Erh tea is "Products fermented from green tea of big leaves picked within Yunnan province". However, even Chinese specialists cannot agree on the true definition but, in general terms, Pu Erh are teas from Yunnan that are aged for up to 50 years in humidity and temperature-controlled conditions to produce teas that have a typically earthy, mature, smooth flavour and aroma.
There are two types of Pu Erh tea made by two different methods of manufacture: naturally fermented Pu Erh tea (also known as Raw Tea or Sheng Tea) and artificially fermented Puerh tea (also known as Ripe Tea or Shou Tea).
To make naturally fermented Pu Erh tea, fresh leaves from the bush are withered, de-enzymed in a large wok, twisted and rolled by hand, dried in the sun, steamed to soften them and then left loose or compressed into flat cakes or blocks of various shapes. The tea is then stored in controlled conditions to age and acquire its typically earthy character.
To make artificially fermented Puerh tea, fresh tea leaves are withered, de-enzymed in a large wok, twisted and rolled by hand, dried in the sun and then mixed with a fixed quantity of water, piled, covered with large 'blankets' made from hide and left to ferment. The tea is stirred at intervals and the whole process takes several weeks.
When the teas have fermented to a suitable level, they are steamed in order to render the leaf pliable before being pressed into shape. This can take a number of forms, the most commonly seen being the cake and the Tuocha (a smaller, finger-formed dome). Alternatively, the tea is shaped into balls, or Tuancha.
The teas are then stored in damp, cool conditions to age. Naturally fermented Pu Erh teas are left for at least 15 and up to 50 years; artificially fermented Pu Erh teas are aged for only a few weeks or months. When ready, each cake of Pu Erh tea is wrapped in tissue paper or dried bamboo leaves.
The reason for manufacturing Pu Erh teas by artificial fermentation is to allow the tea producers to make more Puerh in a shorter time. 50 years is a long time to wait for a good Pu Erh so the more modern artificial method was developed to meet a growing demand for these teas.
According to Will Battle's "World Tea Encylopeadia" - Yellow tea processing is the least know and least practised tea-making style, representing significantly less than 1% of China's total production. The methodology for making yellow tea reputedly lay lost for a centuary before its rediscovery in the 1970s. The yellow tea heartland is Anhui and Hunan with pockets in Sichuan and Henan, and it is seldom if ever witnessed outside of China.
The process is for the most part largely similar to green tea, incorporating solar withering, panning, steaming and sweating, before finally drying.
For more see Will's book here