The Story of Tea
Tea is a universally popular and quite aromatic beverage most often prepared by steeping or soaking in boiled water the cured, dried, oxidised, fermented, or ground, leaves of the Camellia Sinensis tree, an evergreen bush native to East Asia. Apart from water, tea is the most popular drink for humans.
The Tea plant is native to the borderlands of north Burma and southwest China. The habit of drinking tea is believed to have started during the Shang Dynasty in in the Yunnan region of China, where it was taken for medicinal purposes.
Later it is thought that Sichuan, residents began to boil tea leaves for consumption into a concentrated liquid without the addition of other leaves or herbs, and so started using tea as a stimulating drink, as opposed to purely as a medicinal treatment.
Two principal varieties of the tea plant are grown in plantations for tea beverages: Camellia sinensis is used for most Chinese and Japanese teas, and a sub-species, Camellia assamica, is used in most Indian teas (except Darjeeling which uses the original Camellia sinensis).
Within these two botanical tea varieties, many strains and varieties of tea exist. Leaf size is the main basis for the classification of tea plants, with the three key classifications being; China type, characterised by the smallest leaves; Assam type, characterised by the largest leaves; and a Cambodian type, characterised by medium sized leaves.
Many different types of tea have evolved by varying degrees and methods of treatment of the tea leaves; some teas, such as Chinese green teas, and Darjeeling have a slightly bitter, and astringent flavour, while other teas have quite different profiles including sweet, nutty, floral or grassy.
During the centuries, a variety of different techniques for processing tea leaves, and a range of different forms of tea, were developed. In the Tang dynasty, tea was steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake form, while in the Song dynasty, loose-leaf tea was developed and became popular. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unoxidized tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried, a process that stops the oxidation process that turns the leaves dark, thereby allowing tea to remain green. In the 15th century, oolong tea, in which the leaves were allowed to partially oxidize before pan-frying, was developed. Western tastes, later, favoured the fully oxidized black tea, and so the leaves were allowed to oxidize further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently poor control practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, but yielded a different flavour as a result.
Green tea was known as the “healthiest” form of tea due to its lack of processing, resulting in extremely high nutrient levels. However the ancient Buddhist monks in Japan went one better with Matcha Tea, by grinding the leaves to a powder and because the entire leaf is ingested in a powder form, it is the most potent green tea available.
In Japanese “cha” means tea, and “ma” means powder, thus the word matcha translates literally as powdered green tea. It is believed that the very first green tea seeds were brought to Japan from China by Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, in 1191 A.D., who planted them on the temple grounds in Kyoto. Eisai encouraged the cultivation of tea trees, and his Kissa yojoki (Health Benefits of Tea), tied tea-drinking to longevity and launched tea in Japan on a large scale.
Kombucha Tea is a living health drink made by fermenting tea and sugar with the kombucha culture. The resulting brew can taste like something between sparkling apple cider and champagne, depending on what type of tea you use. It’s not what you’d imagine fermented tea to taste like.
The exact origins of Kombucha Tea have become lost in the mists of time. It is thought to have originated in the Far East, probably China, and has been consumed there for at least two thousand years. The first recorded use of kombucha comes from China in 221 BC during the Tsin Dynasty. It was known as “The Tea of Immortality”
Masala Chai Tea is a flavoured tea beverage made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices, and herbs. Originating in India, the beverage has gained worldwide popularity, becoming a feature in many coffee and tea houses. Although traditionally prepared by a concoction of green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn together with black tea leaves, retail versions include tea bags for infusion, instant powdered mixtures, and concentrates
Many Western commercial preparations now also use non-traditional ingredients such as vanilla or chocolate, relegating the traditional masala spices to a relatively minor role.
Herbal tea usually refers to infusions of fruit or herbs made without using the tea plant, such as steeps of rosehip, chamomile, or rooibos. These are not teas, they better called tisanes or herbal infusions to prevent confusion with real tea which is made from the leaves of the tea plant.