In my recent quest to discover tea as a Tea Sommelier, I realised that many cannot answer those questions with confidence. What’s the story behind Tea’s Origin?
“Tea is more than a drink. It’s a story… a feeling… Tea is a work of art.”
It’s debated whether tea first originated in India or China. The documented evidence, according to the history of tea drinking in India, dates back to 750 BC in the ancient epic of the Ramayana, when Lord Hanuman was sent by Lord Rama to the Himalayas to bring back the Sanjeevani tea plant for medicinal use. Japanese legends ascribe tea’s origin in China to the Indian monk Bodhidharma (ca. 460-534), a monk born near Madras in India, and the founder of the Ch’an (or Zen) sect of Buddhism.
One Chinese legend credits a monk called Gan Lu who while traveling to India during the later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-221) to pursue Buddhist studies took and planted seven tea plants to China from India. However, a different legend says tea was discovered in China in 2732 B.C. by Emperor Shen Nung when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water and he drank from it.
Leaving the complicated origin debate to the historians, let’s look at how tea has traveled the world. Tea was brought into Japan by Buddhist monks in the 9th century and was first brought to Europe by the Dutch in the early 17th century. After the introduction of tea to Europe in 1657, Great Britain became a nation of tea drinkers rather than coffee drinkers. Tea was introduced into North America by early settlers but was heavily taxed by the British, eventually resulting in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Thus, coffee continues to remain the staple caffeinated beverage in the United States.
Today, India and China combined account for a whopping 70% of the world’s tea production. Other producers are Sri Lanka, Kenya and Japan.
What exactly is the definition of Tea?
Did you know that tea is the second most consumed beverage after water? Tea commonly refers to an infused beverage derived from the leaves of the tea plant called “Camellia Sinensis”. This plant is a sub-tropical, evergreen plant native to Asia (mainly to India & China). Tea types can be classified into four main categories:
White Tea: Least oxidized or unoxidized by definition
Green Tea: 0-10% oxidized
Oolong Tea: 10-80% oxidized constituting large varieties within oolongs.
Black Tea: 80-90% oxidized
Tea classification is mainly defined by the level of oxidation the tea leaves go through in the process of producing tea. Within each of these four categories, there are varieties based on terroir, region, harvest time, processing type, cultivar, blends, and overall composition. For instance, there is a Darjeeling silver tips (white) tea harvested only on full moon that is considered the most expensive tea worldwide.
However, another category of tea commonly encountered (besides the 4 above) is the herbal tea or Tisanes which do not have any component of the tea plant camellia sinensis (and contain no caffeine). These tisanes are teas produced from various herbal plants or spice mixes like Chamomile, Hibiscus, ginger, etc. Technically not tea, the term “tea” is often used for these.
Is my Tea healthy?
Lucky for all you tea lovers, tea is associated with significant health components and benefits, some of which are believed to be found in tea alone naturally. Tea plant and its chemistry is complex. Tea leaves contain thousands of chemical compounds like polyphenols, amino acids, enzymes, pigments, carbohydrates, methylxanthines, and minerals. Much of tea chemistry from field to cup is still being researched and is still unknown. However, the presence of amino Acids (Theanine) – not only provides tea the rich flavor(umami) but is also associated with multiple health benefits such as suppression of high blood pressure, protection of our central nervous system cells, reducing stress, improving concentration and sleep quality (as it promotes a wave production).
Tea cultures around the world
Although tea is enjoyed worldwide, its culture is very regional and local. For example, most tea drinkers in India drink Indian Chai (black tea with milk and sugar) and associate the beverage with a feeling of comfort or to express love and warmth. China and Japan are mainly green tea drinking countries. Great Britain celebrates tea in the form of afternoon or high tea, and there are local tea ceremonies in countries like Russia, Kenya, and Turkey that differ greatly. Tea is truly special and creates harmony among the many cultures that favor the drink. As is rightly said about this humble yet complex beverage in the Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, “It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa”.
So, let’s keep calm and drink tea!
— By Smita Agrawal
The writer is a certified Tea Sommelier and runs a tea brand called Unchi Wali Chai which also curates monthly Tea Soirees in Bangalore. You can find them at : www.facebook.com/ShefSociety