Tea has a fascinating and tumultuous history and it is undeniable that drinking tea and storytelling are inextricable. Tea was first mentioned in Chinese literature in 2,700 BC, and its discovery, is attributed to Emperor Shennong, the father of agriculture. According to ancient legend, Shennong decided to relax under a Camellia tree on an Autumnal afternoon. After boiling some water, dried leaves from the tree floated down into the cup sparking the first ever infusion of the tea leaf. Naturally, Shennong was enticed by the fragrance of the infusion and found the novel drink to be extremely refreshing. Despite this delightful narrative, evidence has emerged that tea was actually invented in the South-West region of China. However, we much prefer the mythological account!
Whilst tea drinking was primarily a Southern Chinese practice, it was more widely popularised during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 AD) with the publication of Lu Yu’s book about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic. In addition, during this period, tea had spread to Japan by Buddhist Monks who had previously journeyed to China to study. In 621 AD, Buddhism became the national religion of Japan and green tea developed to being the Japanese national drink. Since, tea has become an integral facet of Japanese culture, signified in the punctilious ritual of the tea ceremony.
Considering the ubiquity of tea culture around the world today, it is difficult to conceive that it was centuries before tea expanded its cultural influence beyond East Asia. In fact, it was not until 1606, in which the Dutch first shipped a consignment of tea from their trading post in Java back to Holland, that tea entered the European consciousness. With this geographical transposition, the function of tea shifted significantly. Prior to this, apart from in certain Himalayan provinces, tea was largely used a medicinal beverage. However, when it was imported to Holland and soon after, wider Continental Europe, tea became a fashionable and leisurely drink. Due to its high price and exoticism, it was primarily a reserve of the bourgeois.
Surprisingly, the English took a while to catch on to this novel trend of tea drinking. The first coffee house in England opened in London almost half a century after the first Dutch import, and even at that point, tea was a relatively unknown entity. The catalyst for England’s inveterate love for tea came in the form of Charles II’s marriage to Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Catherine was an unashamed tea addict and her love for loose leaves soon spread amongst the aristocracy. The East India Company recognised the lucrative trading opportunity and from 1664 began to import tea into Britain.
Throughout the following century, tea remained a beverage that was exclusive to most affluent members of English society, due to exorbitant levels of taxation imposed upon it. Inevitably, this led to smuggling and rather dangerous practices of adulteration. In 1784, in order to quell these problems, William Pitt the Younger dramatically slashed the tax on tea. The effect was instantaneous- the black market virtually ceased and tea was economically accessible to all.
Across the pond, the taxation on tea caused great political controversy. On 16th December 1773, demonstrators in Boston rebelled against the Tea Act decreed by the British Government by throwing chests of imported tea into Boston Harbour. This protest against the imposition of British colonial rule became known as ‘The Boston Tea Party’ and an iconic event in American history. The Boston Tea Party had a wider symbolic significance in the struggle for independence and is recognised a prefiguration of the American Revolution.
In the early 19th Century, Britain received the vast majority if its tea imports from China. However, the East India Company decided to fragment China’s comprehensive monopoly on the tea trade, by developing plantations in the Assam region of India. The takeover of the East India Company by the British Government in 1858 sparked the established of a multiplicity of tea estates scattered around the Indian subcontinent. Ultimately, by 1888, British tea imports from India began to supersede those from China.
In 20th Century Britain, tea grew perpetually popular and had a significant role in sustaining the morale of the ‘home-front’ during the First and Second World Wars. In the latter half of the century, tea auctions were revived and connections within the international tea market were consequently strengthened. Additionally, the commercial introduction of the tea bag in Britain in the 1970s saw a huge boost in tea consumption. In terms of the British love affair with tea- the rest is history!
In countries of tea cultivation, it is customary that only the upper leaf bud and the next two leaves down, (the youngest ones of a sprout), are plucked. It is widely acknowledged that older leaves have a detrimental impact upon the quality of the finished tea.
Altitude also plays a significant role in shaping the taste and textural profile of tea. In the elevated, cooler regions, the tea naturally grows at a slower pace. The protracted harvesting time enables the characteristics of the tea to develop more efficaciously, therefore guaranteeing a much higher quality of the finished product.
The process of plucking the tea requires meticulous attention and dexterity, and is usually performed by women. Usually, plucking yields approximately 16 – 24 kg of green leaves daily. Ultimately, this amount produces between for 4 – 6 kg of finished tea. The green leaves are transported to the factory which is normally located on the plantation 2 to 3 times each day, where they will undergo stages of production which will determine colour, texture, taste and appearance.
After the harvest and the arrival of the fresh leaves to the factory, the withering process is set in motion, in which the humidity content of the harvested leaves is decreased by around a third. Withering typically takes place in specially measured troughs that can be as long as thirty metres. Large fans ventilate these troughs and can be set to variable temperatures and intensities dependent upon the humidity content of the leaves. Within each trough, the leaves are laid out on a wire mesh grid to go through a thorough withering process that usually lasts anywhere between 12 and 18 hours. By the end, the leaves become sufficiently soft and malleable for the next stage of production to take place: rolling.
The initial stages of the fermentation process occur in the prior phase of rolling. In order to complete the fermentation stage of production, leaves are dispersed out on tables in layers of around 10cm and the surrounding space is humidified by rotating ventilators which sprinkle water. The colour of the leaves is gradually transformed to a copper-red hue, during fermentation which normally lasts between two and three hours. As the quality of the finished tea product is heavily influenced by the dynamics of the fermentation, the tea maker is required to punctiliously scrutinise the degree of oxidation of the leaves.
Following the rather lengthy withering process, the leaves are rolled in large rolling machines. These machines generally comprise two heavy-duty metal plates, which rotate against each other in order to break open the cells of the leaves. Consequently, the cell fluid is brought into contact with the air, and the leaves gradually become oxidised. In turn, the fermentation process commences which develops the essential oils of the leaves. These oils are integral in moulding the idiosyncratic scents and flavours of the finished tea product.
As soon as the desired grade of fermentation is achieved, the tea is dried (usually for around twenty minutes in tiered dryers that are fuelled with either wood or oil. The tie is pulled through the dryer on a conveyor belt. The cell fluid, previously exposed to the air, becomes bound to the leaves under the 90C heat of the dryer. The drying process concludes with a decrease in temperature to 40C and the humidity content of the leaves to around 6%.
Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented during the production process. In avoiding oxidation, the leaves retain their olive-green hue and their high anti-oxidant and polyphenol content. During production, the tannins and enzymes of the green tea are removed via steam treatment or roasting directly after withering. Prior to rolling, the tea is pan-fried or steam and subsequently rolled or dried. Yellow tea is processed in a very similar manner to green tea, but has a slower drying phase in which the leaves are left to gradually yellow.
Harvested traditionally in the Fujian Province of China, White Tea is made from especially young leaves and buds which, after being allowed to wither in the natural sun are steamed and dried. The very fine, silvery white hairs on the unopened buds endow the plant with a whitish appearance. The beverage itself actually pale yellow and very light to the taste, but its health benefits are vast, saturated with polyphenols and a high concentration of anti-oxidants.
Integrally, oolong tea represents the median between black and green tea as it is semi-oxidised. Oolong tea can lean towards either the ‘black’ or ‘green’ end of the spectrum, as its oxidation scale can range from anywhere between 8% to 85%. Effectively a hybrid, oolong tea can simultaneously possess the salubrious characteristics of green tea and the richness and robustness of black tea. After oxidation, which is carefully monitored, the leaves are curled and twisted, giving them a distinct appearance.
Beyond black tea on the processing spectrum, pu-erh tea is twice oxidised and then left to age. During the ageing process pu-erh stored underground and can be left up to 80 years. In this sense, it is analogous to a fine aged wine or whiskey and fetches record prices depending on its maturity. Traditionally, pu-erh is stored in rather aesthetically pleasing disks or cakes, as this is how they were conveyed over long distances across the Chinese region. When infused, it is palpable from the sublime deep crimson or black colour of the cup, how unique pu-erhs are in the spectrum of teas.
Tea, a tree-like plant, is maintained shrub-like for the tea cultivation by regular pruning. Tea belongs to the species of the camellia. The evergreen shrub has dark, ridged, leather-like leaves. The flower is white or rose-coloured and the fruit is small with a hard shell, similar to a hazelnut. Nowadays, its reproduction is rarely done through pollination but rather vegetative, where cuttings are grown on the high-yielding parent shrub.
The two primal tea plants are:
This plant remains shrub-like even without regular cutting and grows to a height of merely 3 – 4 m. This shrub flourishes best in moderate climatic zones and can even be resilient to frost.
This plant becomes a grand tree of a height of 15 – 20 m if it is not regularly cut back. As a purely tropical plant, this tea shrub thrives in a warm environment.
These two primal tea plants have been crossbred innumerable times in order to engineer finer, more aromatic and integrally more robust breeds. It is important to recognise that variation in taste and quality is not solely contingent upon the plant itself, but also on the cultivation region, its climatic conditions and the diligent plucking as well as processing of the tea leaves.
Taking all of these conditions into account, there are myriad varieties of tea that can be placed along a vast spectrum of taste and textural profiles. Consequently, the world of tea can be an exciting, but, at times, daunting place- even for those with an encyclopaedic knowledge!
Extensive and often perplexing, the tea grading spectrum spans numerous categories: from the premium ‘orange pekoe’ to the less desirable, ‘fannings’ and ‘dust’. However, the efficacy of leaf grading in determining the quality of tea is subject to debate within the industry. For many tea aficionados, the criteria for judgement lies solely in the taste.
Inevitably, this process of grading carries its own vocabulary. As a useful introduction, some of the most frequently used terminology in tea tasting is listed below:
GOLDEN FLOWERY- Consists of particularly young leaves or buds, plucked earlier in the season. They are usually characteristically golden in colour.
FLOWERY - Consists of larger, more developed leaves, picked in the second or third flush. They are known to have a proliferation of tips.
TIPPY- Contains an abundance of tips.
CHOPPY- Comprises numerous leaves of variegated sizes.
FANNINGS- Diminutive particles of tea leaves, used almost solely in tea bags.
Tea grades vary according to whether they denote the characteristics of a full leaf or a broken tea. Due to the long and imaginative descriptive names, grades are often demarcated by acronyms that can be relatively confusing. For instance, ‘FTGFOP’ would translate as ‘Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe’. Typically, the rule is: the longer the acronym, the better the quality.
Some of the most important grades for full leaf and broken tea are listed and explained below:
The Flowery Orange Pekoe is a rather wiry, thin leaf with golden or silver-coloured leaf tips. During fermentation, the tips retain their colour- this is due to their low-tannin content. These tips, (that indicate that young tea leaves have been used), can be considered a barometer of premium quality. Variations of the FOP grade include, GFOP- Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe and TGFOP- Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.
Larger than the flowery orange pekoe, but similarly thin and wiry is the Orange Pekoe. In an etymological context, orange refers to the Dutch term, "Oranje", which translates as "royal". However, the exact translation for Pekoe is unknown.
This leaf is shorter and larger than the Orange Pekoe, often also more open and not as finely rolled. Pekoes differ from Orange Pekoe as their constitution is shorter, yet larger. In addition, they appear a lot more open and not as tightly rolled. As they contain more flesh than Orange Pekoe, Pekoe leaves are comparatively stronger in the infusion.
Fannings and dust are collected during the sieving process and are the smallest components of the leaf. Used in tea bags, they are of the lowest quality, but are strong and high yielding and rapidly colour the cup. Often, these teas are blended in order to produce a desired appearance.