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A chronicle of tea drinking

21 June 2009
Published in Attualità, Opinioni, Society
by Christina Kolyva

tea3Tea as a drink is the aromatic herbal beverage made by combining the processed leaves of the tea bush Camellia Sinensis with hot or boiling water. Therefore, strictly speaking, herbal, flower or fruit-based infusions are not teas, unless they also contain leaves of the tea bush.

There are two primary varieties of the Camellia Sinensis plant, the Sinensis variety, indigenous to the Yunnan province of south-western China, and the Assamica variety, indigenous, quite explicitly, to Assam in north-eastern India. From these two varieties over a thousand sub-varieties originated throughout the years, either naturally or through human intervention.

From the tea bush to the market, the main stages in tea production are: picking, sorting, cleaning, primary drying/wilting, manufacturing, final firing/drying, sorting and packing. There are many ways of categorising the final product; one is to classify the processed tea leaves as green, yellow, white, oolong, black and pu-erh teas based on differences in their production chain, and especially on the amount of oxidation and fermentation they underwent during the manufacturing phase. Oxidation refers to the enzymatic processes occurring naturally on the fresh tea leaves as they absorb oxygen, turning progressively darker. Fermentation refers to microbial processes engaging several bacteria and occurring in the absence of oxygen. Green and yellow teas are not oxidised, white tea is slightly oxidised, oolong tea is partly oxidised to different degrees, black tea is fully oxidised and pu-erh tea is fermented and sometimes oxidised. Further numerous differences, for example in the way the leaves are dried, their place of origin or the season they were collected, lead to literally thousands of sub-types of tea. The fact that you can also have custom-made tea blends and scented teas like jasmine tea or Earl Grey, leads to so many possibilities that if you think you do not like tea, I am sorry to say, you have probably just not tried enough!

This is however a good point to pause and start recounting the fascinating story of tea from the beginning…

The trail of tea drinking started in China in the early part of the third millennium BC, according to folklore. One of the legends says that Emperor Shen Nung, the Divine Farmer, discovered tea by chance, when a soft breeze sent leaves from some nearby camellia bushes into his cauldron of boiling water. As centuries went by, tea as a beverage gradually changed character from a herbal medicine, to a bitter stimulating tonic and by the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) it was highly regarded as a sweet drink consumed for leisure and for bringing serenity and harmony to the body.  During the Tang era the publication by the scholar Lu Yu of The Classics of Tea, the first tea monograph in the world on the necessary rituals for proper cultivation, brewing and drinking, and the commissioning of aesthetic tea utensils to hold the refined tea brews, as well as the emergence of the first tea houses during the Song dynasty (960-1279), all promoted tea drinking as a pleasurable and highly ceremonious social activity. Tea as a drink was further refined in China during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with the development of the skill of scenting tea with flower petals. Throughout their history, the Chinese showed a preference for types of tea other than black, which they considered suitable only for ‘barbarian foreigners’, and never developed a taste for milk in their tea.

Tea drinking reached Tibet in the seventh century, introduced by a Tang princess who married a Tibetan King. Contrary to the Chinese tea drinking habit though, the Tibetans enriched their brew with yak butter, yak milk and salt, essentially ending up with a rich ‘tea-soup’. At about the same time, Mongols and Tartars also welcomed tea as an addition to their plain diet and adopted the habit of drinking it with fermented mare’s milk. Tea was brought to these populations from China by horse and yak caravans in the form of compressed bricks of dark, coarse, leftover tea-leaf scraps and twigs, which were easy for transportation.

The tea drinking trail continued its spread into Japan through diplomatic missions returning from China. The first tea seeds and the concept of tea drinking were probably introduced at the beginning of the ninth century. The infusion of the Chinese tea drinking rituals and culture with Japanese splendour and formal etiquette led, by the end of the sixteenth century, to the outstandingly artistic Japanese tea ceremony that is known as chanoyu and is performed with whipped, powdered green tea. Buddhist monks returning from study in China most likely introduced Korea to tea drinking at the same time as Japan, but Korean tea culture never reached the sophistication of the Chinese or Japanese.

It was much later, in the sixteenth century, that tea drinking was brought to Russia, via the Cossack soldiers who probably encountered tea in Siberia or Mongolia. Russia grew to a major tea-consuming country after the Silk Road was established at the end of the seventeenth century, an overland camel caravan route allowing for the round trip between China and Russia to be completed in sixteen months. ‘Caravan tea’ was black or oolong. During the reign of Catherine the Great, tea drinking had been established in the Russian court as a habit of the nobility. Unique to Russian tea culture is the samovar, which was first introduced at the end of the eighteenth century. It consisted of an elaborately designed metallic urn filled with water and heated with pine cones via a central conduit. The water was kept at the proper temperature for tea brewing and could be dispensed from an ornate tap at the base of the urn. Strong concentrated tea was made in a teapot that was kept warm on top of the samovar. Tea was served in cups from the pot and diluted to taste with water from the samovar. Turkey, Iran and Georgia were introduced to the tea culture probably in the same ways as Russia or between themselves.tea4

The tea drinking trail was spread in Europe by the sea-faring Dutch during the seventeenth century. The Dutch showed great enthusiasm for this new beverage and they drank it laced with milk. For the purpose of providing them with a type of tea that would not rot or get spoilt by the dampness aboard, the Chinese refined the process of making black tea, which was less sensitive than green tea. The tea drinking habit soon expanded in northern Europe and was fervently adopted by the British as a temperance drink served with milk and sugar lumps. In 1662, when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese Princess and tea drinker, the habit of tea drinking became popular among English ladies. Portuguese traders had brought tea to Portugal from the Far East before the Dutch, but although the habit of drinking tea had been embraced by the Portuguese nobility, it did not expand from there to the rest of Europe.

The Dutch were also the first to transport tea across the Atlantic at around 1670, in order to supply the needs of their colonial province of Nieuw Nederland (part of the Mid-Atlantic States today).

Another tea drinking trail, independent of the Chinese one, has its roots in Northern India. A second variety of the tea bush was growing wild in the tropical jungles of the Assam valley and there are travelers’ reports from the late sixteenth century describing local tribes consuming its leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and drinking its brew. But because of differences in the appearance of the two bushes, the Assam bush was not recognized as a new variety of tea bush until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In their determined efforts to become non-dependent on tea imports from China, the British heavily commissioned tea growing in India and, after decades of trial and error and experimentation, they managed by the beginning of the twentieth century to successfully turn India into their major tea supplier and nowadays the biggest producer of tea in the world.

Also known for their tea consumption, which stemmed from the presence of wild tea bushes in their territory, are Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, but their tea culture is rather modest. Tea production in Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and many African countries was initiated when they were colonized by the English, the Dutch and the Portuguese but, although famous for their tea production, they are not renowned for their tea culture.

All the rest is… history! Tea drinking has been so enthusiastically embraced all around the world since the first grains of the habit were sown, that nowadays tea is second only to water in terms of global beverage consumption.