Number 39    November - December 2004


By Eileen Felbinger


All tea comes from the same plant - Camellia sinensis - an evergreen, tropical plant with green, shiny pointed leaves that was originally indigenous only to China and India. As its name suggests, tea is related to the popular Camellias that we love so much in our gardens for their showy flowers. C. sinensis likes a deep, light, acidic and well-drained soil; and given these conditions, it will grow in areas ranging from sea level to altitudes of almost 7,000 feet. Like wine, variations in flavors and characteristics are due to the type of soil, cultivar selection, altitude, and climate conditions where the plants are grown. Different types of processing and blending also affect the taste, as does the addition of essential oils or fragrant herbal additives.

According to Chinese mythology, tea was "discovered" by a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung. One of his far-sighted edicts included a requirement that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. In the summer of 2737 B.C., while visiting a distant region of his empire, he and his entourage stopped to rest. Dried leaves from a nearby tea bush fluttered into the water that his servants were boiling for drinking. As the emperor was a creative scientist as well as a skilled ruler and patron of the arts, he was interested in trying this new liquid; when he drank some, he found it very refreshing and revitalizing. And that is how, according to legend, tea was created.

Tea drinking spread throughout Chinese culture. By the third century A.D. there were already many stories being told and written about tea and its benefit. The first book on tea, the Ch'a Ching, was written around 780 A.D. by Lu Yu, who had been raised by scholarly Buddhist monks in one of China's finest monasteries. The three-volume book covered tea growing, processing, brewing, and drinking, as well as the history of famous early tea plantations, and contained many illustrations of tea making utensils.

Yeisei, a Buddhist priest returning from China, who had seen how tea drinking had enhanced religious meditation, first introduced tea to Japan. The Japanese elevated drinking tea to an art form with the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. According to the Irish-Greek journalist Lafcadio Hearn, "The tea ceremony requires years of training and practice to graduate in art...yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea. The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible".

The Portuguese, with their technologically advanced navy, had successfully gained the first trading rights with China, and were the first to develop a trade route for shipping their tea back to Lisbon. From there, Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland and the Baltic countries. In 1602, Holland, with her excellent navy, entered into direct trade with China. After a period of being exorbitantly expensive, tea became available to the general population in Holland by 1675.

Peter Stuyvesant in 1650 imported the first tea to colonists in America in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. By the time Britain acquired the small settlement in1664 and renamed it New York, the settlers there were already confirmed tea drinkers, consuming more tea than all of England put together.

Tea first reached England sometime in the mid-1600s. In 1660, the merchant Thomas Garway issued a broadsheet offering tea for sale at £6 and £10 per pound, extolling it as "wholesome, preserving perfect health until extreme old age, good for clearing sight," able to cure "gripping of the guts, cold, dropsies, scurveys" and claiming that "it could make the body active and lusty." (An early form of Viagra?)

By the middle of the 18th century, tea had become Britain's most popular beverage and had replaced ale and gin as the drink of the masses

In the early 1800's, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), conceived the idea of having tea with an assortment of little sandwiches and sweets around four or five in the afternoon to ward off hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. She invited friends to join her, and these social gatherings became so popular they started a trend that is still an integral part of British life.

Today, in China, tea is grown mostly on estates, self-contained units hundreds of acres in size, with their own factory, tea growing area, and all the facilities of a small city; or it is grown on small holdings, which are privately owned, and range from about one acre to several acres, much like a small farm.

C. sinensis grows as a low bush approximately 3 feet high, for ease of plucking. When the young plants are ready, they're set into the ground about 4-5 feet apart in rows that are about 3 feet apart. The bush is trained into a fan shape, with a flat top, called a plucking plateau, and takes three to five years to reach maturity, the time depending on the altitude at which it is grown.

In spring, with the first flush of new leaves, the bushes are plucked every 7-14-days, mostly by hand. Altitude, as well as climate, determines the regrowth factor. A tea bush grown at sea level will regrow more quickly after plucking than one grown at a higher altitude, where the air is often cooler.

Plucked leaves are taken to a collection point and weighed before being taken to the factory for processing, or "making", as the manufacturing process is known in the trade. A skilled plucker can gather 65-80 pounds of leaf in a day - enough to produce about 16-20 pounds of processed black tea.

At the factory, the plucked leaves are spread on vast trays or racks and left to wither in the air at 77-86º F (25-30º C). This takes about 10 to 16 hours to evaporate the moisture leaving the leaves flaccid. The withered leaf is broken by machine so that the natural juices, or enzymes, are released and will oxidize on contact with the air. For black tea, the broken leaves are then laid out on trays or in troughs in a cool, humid atmosphere for 3-4 hours to ferment (oxidize) and are gently turned frequently until all the leaves turn a golden russet color and fermentation is complete. The leaves are then dried or fired by passing the broken fermented leaves slowly through hot air chambers to evaporate all the moisture and turn the leaves a dark brown or black. The black tea is then ejected and sorted into grades, or leaf particle sizes, by passing through a series of wire mesh sifts of varying sizes into containers and are then weighed and packed into chests or "tea sacks" for loading onto pallets.

As black tea has the major share of the tea market in terms of production, sales and amounts drunk, most tea factories produce black tea.

For green tea manufacture, the withered leaves are steamed and rolled before drying or firing. This prevents the veins in the leaves from breaking and therefore stops any oxidization or fermenting. The brewed tea has a very pale color.

Oolong tea follows the same process as black tea, but the fermentation period is cut to half the time, about 1-2 hours, before it is dried or fired. When brewed, it has a pale, bright color and a very delicate flavor.

Factory tea-tasters taste the finished "make" and if they find nothing wrong, samples are then sent to brokers worldwide where it is evaluated for quality and price so it can be sold to the best advantage.

After each "make", the tea factory is washed from top to bottom to ensure that the completed "make" does not contaminate the next "make" of tea.

The tea is then shipped to the various packaging companies for blending and packing. Most teas on the market are popular leading blends that contain numerous different teas and remain constant in quality, character and flavor. The tea blender - a tea taster with many years experience - tastes between 200-1000 teas per day, adjusting his recipe to ensure that his company's brand remains constant. His findings are fed into a computer and the required amounts of the various teas are conveyed into a large blending drum that rotates to mix all the teas together. After blending, the tea is ready for packaging.

Tea reaches the retailer's shelf approximately 20 to 30 weeks after it has been plucked.

Common Tea Terms: (excerpted directly from The Tea Council's General Tea Glossary)

Afternoon Tea - The name given to the British meal taken mid-afternoon, comprising finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries accompanied by tea.

Assam - A region in northeastern India, known for its robust, high quality teas characterized by their smooth round, malty flavor.

Black Tea - Tea that has been fired or dried after the fermentation or oxidization period of manufacture.

Ceylon - Blends of teas grown on the island of Sri Lanka which take their name from the colonial name of the island. The traditional name of Sri Lanka was readopted by the island when it became a sovereign republic in the British Commonwealth in 1972.

Darjeeling - A tea growing area in north India on the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. Teas grown here take their name from the area and are said to be the 'champagne' of Indian teas. Grown at altitudes up to 7,000 ft. above sea level, Darjeeling tea is known as a high-grown tea and is light in coloring with a delicate, muscatel flavor and aroma. The original tea planted in this area was grown from seeds and plants imported from China.

Earl Grey - A black China tea treated with the oil of bergamot which gives the tea a slightly orange aroma and taste. It was said to have been blended for and named after the second Earl Grey (1764-1845) while he was prime minister of Britain (1830-1834) by a Chinese mandarin following the success of a British diplomatic mission to China.

English Breakfast Tea - A name for the tea blend which originally applied to China Congou tea in the United States of America; in Britain it was a name applied to a blend of teas from India and Sri Lanka. Today this tea is a blend of black teas producing a full-bodied strong flavored colorful tea.

Grade - Term used to describe a tea leaf or particle size of leaf.

Gunpowder - Normally a China tea, but today this could be any young tea, which is rolled into a small pellet-size ball then dried. The finished tea has a greyish appearance not unlike gunpowder in color, which is how the tea got its name.

High Tea - The name given to a meal served late afternoon/early evening, which is a mixture of afternoon tea and dinner. The meal comprises a main dish, sometimes a pudding or dessert served with bread and butter, and cakes and tea. High Tea was the main meal for farming and working classes in Britain in the past.

Hoochow - A China green tea.

Lapsang Souchong - A black tea from China (and today also from Formosa), which is smoked to give it a smoky or tarry flavor and aroma.

Oolong - A semi-fermented or semi-green tea produced in China and Formosa.

Pan-fired - A kind of Japan tea that is steamed then rolled in iron pans over charcoal fires.

Russian Tea - The name given to a glass of hot tea liquor which is poured into the glass over a slice of lemon. Sometimes sugar or honey is added. In some countries, this type of tea drink is known as lemon tea. The name comes from the Russian way of taking tea.

Scented Tea - Green semi-fermented or black teas that have been flavored by the additions of flowers, flower petals, fruits, spices or natural oils. Examples of these are Jasmine Tea, Rose Puchong, Orange Tea, Cinnamon Tea or Earl Grey.

Smoky Tea - Black tea from China or Formosa that has been smoked over a wood fire such as in the case of Lapsang Souchong.

Specialty Tea - A blend of teas that takes its name from the area in which it is grown; a blend of teas blended for a particular person or event, or a blend of teas for a particular time of day.

Tannin - The name the tea trade worldwide gives to polyphenols contained in tea. Polyphenols are responsible for the pungency of tea and gives it its taste.

Tea Factory - Factory where the plucked leaf is made or manufactured into black or green tea.

Tea Taster - An expert judge of leaf and cup quality tea at all stages of production, brokerage blending and final packaging.

Tip - The bud leaves on a tea bush.

Twankay - A low grade China green tea. This word was corrupted Twanky, which was applied to the men manning the ships bringing tea back from China. These ships often foundered on reaching the British coast and the bodies of Twankys would be washed ashore to be found by their widows - hence the name given to the Aladdin character 'Widow Twanky' by a Victorian impresario.

Sources: - The Tea Council Ltd.; London, England - The Stash Tea Company, Tigard, Oregon -; Schaumberg




Eileen Felbinger, Herb Garden Docent

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