The Origins of Tea
The origins of tea (camellia sinensis) are shrouded in mythology. The common element in these varied myths is water being boiled under a tea tree and leaves inadvertently falling into the pot.
The discoverer of this new wonder is variously described as an emperor, a peasant, or even Shen Nong the patriarch of Chinese herbal medicine.
It is now believed that tea originated in south west China in the area of Yunan province some three-five thousand years ago.
By the 700's A.D., tea houses had become popular as centers for social and philosophical discourse and the saying, "kai men qi jian shi", is in use. This saying roughly means "open the door (of a house) and you see the seven (essential things)". Tea is listed as one of these seven essential things among cooking oil, soy sauce, and others. Also around this time the great tea master Lu Yu (728-804) writes his "Cha Jing" Tea Classic. So tea has been firmly rooted in Chinese culture for at least 1300 years.
Since its obscure beginnings thousands of years ago, tea has remained the favored drink of poets, Taoists, royalty, and martial artists. And now tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world and is being increasingly recognized by modern science for its potent influence on health.
Where Tea Grows
In China, tea is grown in some dozen different provinces from Shandong in the north to Guangxi in the south. Historically and presently, it is often the main product of whole villages. And just as in America, with Georgia peaches and Florida oranges, some regions are best known for certain types of teas. Fujian province is best known for its oolongs, Zhejiang for its green teas, and Yunan for its pu erh. But today tea is also cultivated in many parts of the world outside of China ranging from India to South East Asia and even Africa.
Tea is now grown in terrain ranging from low land valleys and coastal mountains to terraced high mountains. These plants are nourished by local water sources such as limestone springs, coastal fogs, or cloud shrouded mountains. In the case of Fujian's tie guan yin, it is grown amidst apricot trees and even this is thought to influence its flavor and aroma!
Exposure to these varied influences, climates, soil conditions, and watering methods has resulted in more than 300 different varieties. With each variety having their own unique qualities, and the art of brewing tea being another distinct area of study, one can see that the field of Chinese tea is immense.
Although the oldest known tea trees are about 1,200 years old, nearly 80 feet tall and the lowest branches are more than 20 feet above the ground, today's tea plantations prune their tea bushes to a more manageable shrub size.
It takes decades for a plant to mature into a high quality tea producer and as the plant ages its output of leaves will reduce. The harvesting and processing of tea can be roughly broken down into 3 stages; picking, aging (or fermenting), and final drying. All steps of the cultivation and processing of tea are an art form and carefully monitored by experts at each plantation or at local processing plants.
Only the new growth of the plant is used for tea and the old growth is left to nourish the plant. Leaves are picked by hand or a machine similar to a hedge cutter is used. The time and method of picking is dependent on the variety of plant and the type and grade of tea to be produced. Not only is the time of year important when picking, but also the stage of growth of the leaf. The leaf may be picked anywhere between fully mature to even before the leaf is unfurled. Some types of tea leaves are picked when the leaf is merely an emerging bud, barely .5 cm long, whereas others may be picked when the leaf is 2 cm to 6 cm long.
Tea leaves may also be plucked as a single leaf or sets of leaves. As an example; bi luo chun, a green tea often from Jiangsu province, is picked in sets of 2 leaves, one tiny leaf and one emerging sprout on the stem, and oolong may be picked as a single leaf or as sets of 2 or 3 leaves on the stem.
All of this attention to detail is what results in premium grade Chinese teas, also referred to as "single leaf" teas. Unlike most teas seen in America, where the leaf is just an anonymous ground up powder in a bag, when high grade Chinese teas are brewed, the single leaves will unfurl revealing their size, shape, color and the leaf sets will be visible; all attributes of superior grade teas.
After leaves are picked, the plant is pruned back to stimulate more growth so that new growth may be harvested many times a year. In more tropical areas, where winter is warm, plants are harvested most frequently. The first pick of the year is in the spring and termed the "first flush". This is followed by a summer pick, fall, and depending on climate, winter picks might be possible. The first flush picks are full of spring energy and in general provide the lightest and most delicate tasting green and jasmine teas. Spring oolongs are generally the most floral. Fall pick tie guan yin oolongs possess a stronger, bolder taste but are not as floral as the spring picks.
Drying the Tea Leaf
Eventually all types of tea must be completely dried to prevent mildew etc. during shipping and storage. So, after the picked leaves are harvested they are first aged by being left to wilt in indirect sunlight. For green tea this may last up to 2 days. Oolongs are purposefully left to air dry longer to partially oxidize (some say ferment), and black teas which nowadays come mainly from India, are allowed to fully oxidize.
Final drying is accomplished by one of several methods. At smaller more traditional plantations or processing plants, they may be pan fried in a dry wok or in small coal fired roasting ovens. At more modern processing plants, electrical dryers or ovens may be used. Steps in the drying process also shape the leaf.
The leaves may be formed in a variety of shapes. Many teas are hand rolled into a small ball or pearl, pu erh is pressed into bricks, and some are left in more or less their natural shape. Also during the drying process, fruit or flowers are sometimes added as flavorings. But inferior grade teas may merely be sprayed with a flowery perfume. Finally the dried tea is separated into different grades of each variety. Remember that this is only a brief description of the processing of teas and whole volumes could be written on the subject.
In the summer, a recommended tea would be a cooling green tea such as west lake dragon well from Zhejiang province. The addition of chrysanthemum flowers and rock sugar would further enhance its cooling properties and makes a delicious and refreshing drink.
About the Authors:
Eric Schanke, L.Ac.: Tea Buyer & Educator for Far East Summit. Culver City, California, email: teapavillion(at)fareastsummit.com
Brenton Harvey, L.Ac. & Dipl.C.H. and Hong Ji, Tai Chi (Ji ) & Qi Gong Instructor, are Co-owners of Chinese tea Imports, Ltd. Denver, Colorado.