With tea being one of the most highly consumed beverages in the world, but mainly made up of leaves steeped in hot water, you may ask yourself at one point “where does tea come from?”
The origins of all sorts of things that we eat and drink seem remarkably random. Who figured out that letting grape juice sit around for a while would be a good idea? How did people discover that old milk curds could be turned into a delicacy? And in the case of tea, why did the leaves from this particular plant make a delicious drink when placed in boiling water as opposed to other leaves?
The Legend of Tea
While it is a bit of a tall tale and has never been verified by written documents, the story of the first pot of tea originates with Shen Nung (or Shennong) around 5,000 years ago.
Depending on the source, he could be considered either an emperor or a mythological deity. Regardless of either, he is considered the father of Chinese herbal medicine, having tasted hundreds of herbs and is credited in some circles as the author of “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic.”
The story goes that one day Shen Nung, while resting under a Camellia sinensis tree, boiled a pot of water (to remove the impurities) in order to drink it. While the water was boiling, dried leaves from the tree drifted into the pot. After smelling the wonderful results of the infusion of water and tea leaves, he tasted it, creating a new beverage that would eventually reach the entire world.
The Original Tea Plant – Camellia sinensis
There is a quote that goes around, even on this website, that “all true tea comes from the same plant.” This is a half-truth, as there are different variations of the same plant, but the origin of tea comes from the Camellia sinensis.
Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant native to East Asia but is also cultivated across the globe. Major modern production is focused in China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and other tropical and subtropical regions. When grown at higher elevations at or above 1500’, the tea leaves grow more slowly and develop a richer flavor.
There are two main strains that are used for the production of tea leaves, Camellia sinensis var sinensis and Camellia sinensis var assamica.
Camellia sinensis var sinensis
Primarily cultivated in China, this strain of the original tea plant has small leaves and the most flavorful results are often gained by growing them at high elevations up to 9000’. In the cold winter while the plants are dormant, the leaves gather more flavor and nutrients.
There are three harvesting seasons, spring, summer, and fall, where leaves for different tea varieties will be picked depending on the desired result.
- China Spring Tea Harvest: Most of the premium Chinese tea leaves are harvested during this time. The relatively cooler weather and first blooms generate an immense flavor and bouquet, normally overwhelming leaves picked in other seasons. Green and white teas picked in the early spring are especially prized.
- China Summer Tea Harvest: The leaves and buds of tea plants will shoot up much more quickly during the summertime, not containing the same concentration of taste and aroma as the springtime leaves. This is an excellent season for black tea. There is nothing inherently bad about tea leaves harvested in the summer, they just don’t have the premium quality as spring buds.
- China Fall Tea Harvest: As the weather starts to cool down, many oolong and pu-er teas are harvested. The yield is not as high as the summer harvest, but usually surpasses the spring tea harvest.
Camellia sinensis var assamica
The assamica or Assam variant of the tea plant is credited as originating in the Assam region of Northern India. Because it can be grown in warmer temperatures and high rainfall, it is also cultivated in countries from Sri Lanka to Africa.
The larger leaves of the Assam tea plant tend to create a more robust and malty black tea than their Chinese counterparts. Some common teas made from this tea plant variant include Darjeeling (grown at higher altitudes), Yunnan (grown in China), and, of course, Assam
Depending on where Camellia sinensis var assamica is grown, the harvest season can last from spring to fall in some regions, or continue year round in a tropical climate. As with the sinensis variant, leaves planted in areas that lie dormant during the winter, such as Darjeeling and Nepalese, are prized for their spring harvests.
Tea farms in Assam generally harvest between spring to fall. Spring and early summer provide a high quality tea with gold tips, while leaves harvested after late summer monsoons will create a rich, highly malted tea with an exceptionally strong flavor.
It seems strange that different types and flavors of tea can be attained by using the same plant, so how does that happen? Oxidation, the chemical reactions of tea leaves that create browning and flavor changes, is the primary means of creating different flavors and chemical compositions of tea.
Oxidation occurs when the cell walls of a tea leaf are broken down. The interior components blend together and are exposed to oxygen. This creates chemical reactions that affect the chlorophyll, amino acids, and lipids of the leaves. The more oxidation that the leaves are exposed to changes the entire chemical makeup of the final tea.
Classic Tea Oxidation
The classic, or orthodox, method of tea oxidation is a labor intensive process used on full-leaf tea leaves. After the leaves are picked, they are:
- Withered to remove moisture
- Rolled and bruised to break up the cell walls
- Left to oxidize
- Heated to stop oxidation and remove any additional moisture that has accumulated during the process
Modern Tea Oxidation
New oxidation methods have been developed to create a less expensive, but lower quality tea. Teas made from these methods are often found in mass-produced tea bags. They are sometimes made from the broken leaves of their full-leaf counterparts.
One of these methods is called “CTC” or “Crush, Tear, Curl.” Instead of the rolling and bruising step to start oxidation, the tea leaves are run through a machine that basically pulverizes the broken leaves, breaking them further, and creating a pebble-like final product that oxidizes quickly and consistently.
For those who like the specific flavor of CTC oxidized teas this is a blessing, since the final result, regardless of tea quality, often tastes the same. While the original source quality may be just as good, the end result will not give the different depth of flavor and aroma as classically oxidized teas.
For a long period of time, tea was compressed into small bricks or even bullet shapes to more easily transport them. This practice eventually fell out of favor with Chinese royalty and open, loose-leaf teas eventually became the high standard of tea.
Where do the True Teas Come From?
The “true teas,” black tea, oolong tea, green tea, and white tea are normally made from the same leaves, the main difference being the amount of oxidation, or fermenting, that the leaves are provided with.
- Black tea has the most oxidation, creating an astringent flavor with a higher caffeine content.
- On the other end of the scale, white tea has the least amount of oxidation, being dried naturally and not oven-fired.
- Green tea is also considered unoxidized, but the production method creates some characteristics of fermenting.
- Oolong teas (“semi-oxidized”) are somewhere in the middle, the level of oxidation depending on the production method.
Black Tea Origins
Black tea is the most heavily oxidized of all true teas, the majority of black teas reaching 100% oxidation. This creates the strongest flavor and generally the highest caffeine content of all teas at 60-90mg per 8oz.
While the origins of tea are generally considered to be from China, the majority of current black tea production comes from other countries, most notably India. In fact, what the western world calls “black tea” is actually considered “red tea” in China. Pu-erh, a post-fermented tea, is considered black tea there.
In the 1800’s, looking for a way that they could control the production of tea that their country loved, the British introduced tea cultivation to the colonies of India and Sri Lanka (called Ceylon at the time). The variant used there, Camellia sinensis var assamica, held up while traveling long distances and produced a strong tea that was well suited for British tastes.
White Tea Origins
White tea is the youngest and least processed of all true teas, therefore having the least amount of oxidation. This creates a very pure taste based on the quality of the tea leaves themselves instead of the chemical reactions that take place with oxidation.
White tea leaves are plucked at the very beginning of harvest season before the leaves have a chance to completely unfurl. The buds grow white hair, giving them the name of white tea. Processing involves a quick withering followed directly by drying and packaging so the least amount of oxidation can occur.
The history of white tea goes back to the Tang Dynasty in China, around 600-900 AD, where the youngest and finest tea leaves were presented to the emperor as a tribute. It wasn’t until much later, in the 1800’s, that the modern version of what we consider to be white tea was produced from the Fujian province for common consumption.
The Fuding tea developed there produced buds that became the precursor for our current version of white tea.
Green Tea Origins
Green tea can be considered as the original tea leaf, considering tea’s “origin story” with Shen Nung would have been with fully opened leaves. The main difference between white and green tea is when the leaves are plucked from tea trees; white tea is made from young leaves, whereas green tea is made from more mature leaves.
The drying process with green tea leaves is the same as white tea, where leaves are picked, withered, immediately dried and then packaged.
Green tea was originally a status symbol of society, mainly because of the treatise “Cha Jing” (The Classic of Tea) by Lu Yu. This book, written in the Tang Dynasty, describes the many facets of the production and drinking of green tea. The tea ceremony, with all its steps and tools, also became popular around this time.
Because its shelf life is much shorter than black tea, it wasn’t until the widespread use of faster ships that the western world was introduced to green tea in the 19th century.
Oolong Tea Origins
As a partially oxidized tea, oolong bridges the gap between black tea and green tea. There are many different levels of oxidation for oolong tea (8% to 85%). Since there is not a specific definition on what specifies an oolong tea, pay attention to how dark the tea leaves are and make sure they match your taste.
The history of oolong tea is made up of different stories and accounts. Our favorite version of the origin of oolong tea is when a tea farmer from the Fujian province in China decided to go hunting for deer after he had harvested his tea leaves instead of immediately processing them.
After a long hunt which took an entire day, he returned to find his tea leaves had gone beyond the normal amount of drying and had begun to curl at the edges. He noticed that they smelled delightful, and then proceeded with the regular processing method. In the end, he discovered a wonderful new way to process tea.
While all tea may come from one original plant, it has since split off into different variations of the plant and different ways to treat and process the leaves. When it comes down to it, even though it may not be a “true tea,” anything steeped in hot water for a period of time may be considered tea.
In our modern world, tea comes from many different sources. Some may prefer one type or origin of tea over another, but we can all agree that tea, in and of itself, is a wonderful gift to the world.
Scott is the founder of TeaMinded. He enjoys tasting and discovering teas from across the globe, with green teas and ceremonial matcha from Japan being among his favorites. He’s grateful to be immersed in the tea community, always learning and sharing along the journey.