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 the his water, he liked the flavor and gave it its name, “Ch’a,” which literally 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 by European countries of tea.
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 were sewn by hand into silk bags, deciding it was less costly than using tin boxes that were popular at that time. To his surprise, the orders started coming in for tea in these special bags; his customers found that it was much easier and faster to pour boiling water over the bag than to prepare it for loose tea. And 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. It was hot, and all preferred cold beverages. So he added some ice to the drink and it became an instant success.
ORIGINS & 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 economies. In the U.S. 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 cling to the soil of mountains that rise over 6000 feet above sea level, making these teas rare and relatively expensive.
The seeds for a tea bush 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 & 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 is a fully processed and fermented tea, and accounts for over 97% of the tea drunk in this country.
Green is not fermented or withered, 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 is semi-fermented, 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 is only partially oxidized, withered and rolled. Only top buds and young leaves 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 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 Number 1” (“TGFOP1”) 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.
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.
It should be pointed out that herb teas are not 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.
Chamomile 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 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 came from.
INSTRUMENTS FOR BREWING AND STEEPING
There is a myriad variety of utensils manufactured to make it easy for you to prepare tea. Choose what you find will be most convenient for you among the essentials.
You will need a kettle, electric or stovetop, in which to heat the water. Some kettles are made to both boil water and infuse and serve the tea.
Perhaps you’ll want to transfer the water to a tea pot for infusing and serving. Many elegant tea pots are available in porcelain, glass, stoneware, iron, stainless steel, and even of terracotta.
An infuser, or strainer, is needed if you want to keep the leaves separate from the water as they infuse. It is helpful to choose an infuser with holes or pores that are smaller than the tea leaves.
THE PERFECT CUP OF TEA
As with everything, only your taste buds can judge how the perfect cup of tea is brewed. But we do have some suggestions and recommendations to help you determine what may be best for you.
Water Quality – Because water is the primary ingredient, be sure it tastes good to you. You may wish to try bottled water.
Heating Water – Use only freshly drawn, cool, clear water. Bring it to a full, rolling boil in a covered kettle and pour immediately into the teapot or cups. Do not allow the water to boil for long. Many electric kettles shut off automatically when the water reaches a boil.
Almost Boiling – Some like tea better when the water used is heated almost to a boil, just to the point when bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the pot. This will generally produce a milder cup, since the tannin will be stimulated more by hotter water. For green and white teas, allow the kettle to sit off the heat source for about 30 seconds before pouring on leaves.
Water & Oxygen – You may not want to let hot water stand for any length of time before pouring it, as it loses oxygen, resulting in a flat cup of tea.
Preheating – If you like especially hot tea, it is best to pre-heat the teapot or cups by rinsing some hot water in them.
How Much Tea – Add approximately one teaspoon per cup for your first experiment. Different size leaves will require different measures of tea. Green and white tea leaves can be reused for 1 or 2 additional brews.
Steeping – Let black teas steep for 3-5 minutes, oolongs for 1-10 minutes, green for 1-2 minutes, white for 2-15 minutes, (chai for 3-9 minutes, and herbals for 5-10 minutes) adjusting times according to taste. We don’t recommend letting tea leaves remain in the cup or teapot longer than indicated, as the tea will become bitter and astringent. And if you don’t let it steep for the minimum time, it won’t give you a rich taste because the tannin needs some time to be released from the leaves.
Strong or Light – If you want the tea to be stronger, add more tea leaves. If you want it to taste lighter, add less. This, rather than changing the steeping time, will produce a much tastier cup.
Lemon or Milk – Tea may be served with lemon or milk. Cream may curdle in the cup and deaden the taste.
Herbals – These teas steep differently. Some require boiling over a period of time. Others may require just some hot water added for a brief period of time. Ask your herbal tea merchant, or consult the package details for specific brewing and steeping details.
Iced Tea – Use twice as many tea leaves, since the addition of ice cubes to the hot brew will dilute the taste considerably. Allow tea to cool before refrigerating.
Use an airtight container for each tea, and keep it away from direct sunlight.
With proper storage, tea will stay fresh for about 6 months. Flavored teas will keep about half that time. Herbal teas vary widely.
Spent tea leaves can be recycled by placing them in the dirt of your house plants.