The history of tea

According to the Chinese legend, in 2737BC, a few leaves were taken from a tree, beneath which the Emperor Shen Nong sat. They were mixed with a little water to quench his thirst. The Emperor enjoyed this new experience and thereby invented tea.

Originally, tea came from the southern province of Yunnan in China. The tea was at first seen as a therapeutic drink under the Western Han dynasty (206BC - 24AD). Under the Eastern Han period of the dynasty, tea became a daily part of the emperors and aristocratic people’s lives. However, it was only under the Tang dynasty (618 - 907) that tea became more widely available, first in the form of compressed pieces that would be reduced into powder before being mixed with boiling water, and then eventually mixed with salt and spices. Under the Song dynasty (920 - 1279) tea took the form of a powder that was added
to simmering water, like a type of soup. It was not until the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) that tea took its current form; tea leaves that were infused in water.

From the 10th century, China started to export its tea, first to neighbouring countries and then to Europe. In 1606, tea was first exported to Holland by boat. It was then in 1653 that France and England discovered the delights of tea. In 1657, Thomas Garraway started to serve tea in his London coffee house. Tea was an immediate hit, and soon took the place of coffee in British people’s hearts. In the 19th century, China could no longer keep up with the growing demand for tea; the British then introduced their culture in other countries: India in 1834, Ceylan in 1857 and in other Asian and African countries, in Réunion and Argentina.

Tea grading

The value of a tea is determined by its grade, which relates to the fineness of the harvest and the size 
of the tea leaf.

In the typology of grades, the word Orange is used; it originates from the Dutch royal family Oranje Nassau, and does not refer to the fruit.

  • Whole leaves
  • Broken leaves
    • B.O.P. Broken Orange Pekoe : the leaf is no longer whole it is smaller than in the O.P. This creates a darker, stronger infusion.
    • F.B.O.P. Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
    • G.B.O.P. Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
    • T.G.B.O.P. Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
  • Ground leaves
    • F. Fannings : the pieces are flat and smaller than in the B.O.P, this creates a very strong infusion.
    • D. Dust : finely ground, the leaves are only used for certain kinds of tea bags.

Tea Culture

Tea belongs to the Camelia Sinensis family. The tea plant is evergreen and grows in hot, humid climates where there is plenty of sunshine and lots of rain.

A tea plant can grow up to 10 to 15m high. However, to make it easier to harvest, tea plants are usually cropped to 1.10m high and maintained at this height. The life of the average tea plant is around forty years, however it has been known for certain varieties to life for 100 years. The oldest tree plant on record is in Pu’er in the Yunnan province of China, it is 1800 years old.

The tea plants are harvested several times a year and they are still harvested by hand. The harvesting technique and the season of the harvest changes according to each country. Each harvesting period gives the tea a different flavour: for example a springtime harvest will not taste the same as a summertime one.

Types of tea

Despite the many different coloured teas, they all come from the same tea plant. It is the way in which they are treated (fermentation, oxidisation, withering, drying) after the harvest that determines the type of tea.

White Tea

White tea undergoes the least amount of treatment. The leaves undergo two types of treatment: the first is the withering phase, this lasts much longer than for the other types of tea, and the second is the drying process. Despite seeming the most simple, the preparation for the white tea is the most delicate. This is because it is difficult for the grower to know when the climatic conditions will be right for the withering process to take place in the fresh air. White tea is a delicate tea that is often sought by tea connoisseurs. Due to the lack of treatment, white tea is rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins. 

Green Tea

Green tea is not fermented. In order to avoid fermentation, the tea leaves are heated to around 100°C (either according to the Chinese method, in a large wok over a fire, or according to the Japanese method, using steam). The leaves are then rolled according to the method of that particular country (sticks, twists or balls…), they are then dried until they contain less than 5% water. Green tea is the 
most popular type of tea in Asia.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is sometimes referred to as semi-fermented tea, as the fermentation process is interrupted. Once harvested, the tea is desiccated.

The leaves are then parched in a room heated to 22°C with a very high humidity level. According to the desired result, the fermentation time can be prolonged or shortened. The leaves are then roasted and rolled, as for the green tea. Generally, for this technique the leaves will be very ripe, this means that they have less caffeine, making it an idea drink for the afternoon or the evening.

Black Tea

The legend goes that during the 17 th century, a cargo of green tea from China arrived after a very long journey. Because of this, the tea had fermented during the journey and the British, not being tea connoisseurs, enjoyed the taste of the tea and re-ordered it from China.

In order to make black tea, the fermentation process must be completed. After the picking, the withering phase, which allows the tea leaves to lose 50% of their water, takes place. The rolling process then breaks the cells inside the leaf, releasing enzymes and commencing the fermentation process. The fermentation time depends on the desired colour of tea. The tea is then roasted, sorted and classed according to the two grades (broken leaves and whole leaves).

Black tea can be drunk on its own or with sugar, often a little milk is added to enhance its flavour. It is often used to make flavoured teas. The tea is perfumed with either flowers (jasmine, rose…) or plant leaves (mint…) this can be done by spraying the dry tea leaves with the natural essential oils of flowers or plants. Green tea and rooibos can also be flavoured.

Smoked tea

Smoked tea is a black tea. According to legend, smoked tea first appeared around 1820 in the Fujian region where a tea plantation was requisitioned by the Chinese army. In order to free up the drying room quickly, the grower was forced to dry a large number of leaves, which were still humid, over a fire containing the roots of coniferous evergreen trees.  The leaves, during the drying process, took  on a smoky flavour. They were then sold in Europe, where this ‘smoky’ tea became an instant success.

The same method is still used today to produce this type of tea. The most well-known smoked teas are Tarry Souchong and Lapsang Souchong. These teas are usually consumed with a meal, or during the afternoon, either plain or with a little sugar...

Red tea also known as Rooibos

Rooibos is not from the tea plant. It is a plant that only grows in South Africa, in the Cederberg mountains, to the north of Capetown. The indigenous people first harvested and fermented the wild rooibos plant over 300 years ago. This reddish infusion with a subtle, sweet, fruity flavour is still considered to be the national drink of South Africa.

Rooibos is caffeine free and rich in antioxidants; it also has anti-spasmodic and relaxing qualities. 
The plant can be brewed for longer without having a tart taste as it has a lower level of tannins than other teas.

‘Green’ rooibos is even more rich in antioxidants as it is not fermented. It is much milder than traditional rooibos; having a less sweet and fruity taste. It can be drunk at any time of day.