Disclaimer:

I have not ever conducted any scientific studies on tea and am not a licensed MD, nutritionist, or naturopath. This information is not to be taken as gospel truth, but merely intended to provide guidelines and useful information for those fascinated by the subject of tea, its health benefits, and the culture behind the leaf.


What this guide is not:

This guide is not a tasting guide. Though I will provide brewing instructions designed to provide for optimum taste for some more popular types of tea, if you're simply looking for a list of tea varietals, tasting notes, descriptions of flavor profiles, brewing instructions for individual types of tea leaves, that is, unfortunately, much beyond the scope of this simple message board format AND my ability and time to dedicate to putting information together on this subject.

Now, with that in mind, let's get to it.

The origin of tea:

As you may or may not know, tea technically comes only from the leaves of a single plant known by the scientific name of Camellia Sinensis. Lots of other beverages made from steeping the leaves, roots, bark, and stems of various herbs and spices have been given the moniker of "tea" but they are more accurately referred to by the Asian term "tisane." There is nothing wrong with a good tisane from time to time (recent articles on the blog point to Mark and others being fans of tisanes and their potential health benefits), but if you tried to call an herbal infusion of this nature a "tea" anywhere in Asia, you would be met with confusion or if at a reputable tea house, even sometimes, offense.

Another thing to be aware of is that there are several dozen varieties of the Camellia plant but most are simply decorative and only the Camellia Sinensis variety provides leaves, stems, and roots suitable for steeping.

So, when and where did this plant first grow and how was it discovered?

Well, there are several legends and stories in Asian lore that provide their own telling of the origins of tea but two of the most popular are the legend of the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma and the story of one infamous (but nameless) Emperor of China.

According to the legend of Bodhidharma, who was the founder of Chan Buddhism, he fell asleep after continually meditating in front of a wall for eight or nine years (oh no, gasp, shock, and awe!). In anger, he cut off his eyelids to ensure that this would never again happen. He threw them off the ground and left them in disgust. Then the eyelids took root and grew into the first tea plants. This legend makes sense when you realize that Asian monks were infamous for consuming large amounts of tea to help keep them awake during extended meditation sessions.

The story of our infamous Chinese emperor is a little bit less gruesome. Sometime in the 2700s BC there was a law in China that water had to be boiled before it was consumed (they didn't know why, but they knew that people who drank their water boiled had fewer diseases and better health). The story says that a few leaves (presumably tea leaves) fell into the freshly boiled water of the Emperor's cup as he was relaxing in his garden. He did not see them and then proceeded to drink the water. Intrigued by the interesting flavor, he did discover the leaves in his cup. He continued to drink the brew and was pleased by how good it made him feel.

Ok, the legends are interesting, but I want the sciencey stuff.

Ah, well then, let's get to the geographical origins of tea. Botanists believe tea is most likely to have originated in the area of Asia where southwest China and northeast India intersect. This is believed because the oldest living tea trees of BOTH the China and Assam varietals are found. In fact, though tea can grow well elsewhere, these are generally the only places where you will find large, wild tea trees growing in forests. The Chinese region of Yunnan, which is famous for producing some of the world's finest black teas and is the place of origin for the infamous "fermented" tea known as pu'erh and the Indian region of Assam, known for the larger-leafed "Assam Bush" variety of the Camellia Sinensis plant which only grows in this area of the world are the specific areas where tea is thought to have first taken root.

Ok, so now I know the region of origin, but what about the historical origin? And I don't mean those legends again!

Well, tea was likely consumed by the native peoples living in both Assam and Yunnan (long before they had these names). They wouldn't have known how to steep the leaves of course, to make the tea beverage, but anthropologists think that as many as 20,000-30,000 years ago (so, yes, before agriculture, making tea primal) the natives of these regions would have been drawn to the energizing and revitalizing qualities of the plant's leaves (lol, caffeine). This would have been a useful adaptation because there was a need for people to remain awake at night to watch for dangers as other tribe/clan members slept. Tea leaves can help with that.

Turning the tea leaves into a beverage rather than simply eating the leaves like a vegetable likely began in Yunnan. Natives of the region did so by grinding the leaves into a powder (think the slightly less refined precursor to Japanese matcha) and whipping the powdered leaves into a thick, white froth. So, in a way this still wasn't really "steeping" the leaves and they continued, after a fashion, to consume the entire leaf, albeit in a slightly different form. This development probably happened sometime in the Shang Dynasty (though placing this development more accurately than that is pretty much impossible).
At first, as tea consumption spread around China it was revered as a medicine only. The Chinese immediately recognized that consuming tea made people feel better and seemed to treat a wide range of maladies. For hundreds of years tea remained primarily for this purpose.

It probably wasn't until sometime around Tang Dynasty that tea drinking became popular for reasons of pleasure. And no, they hadn't mastered "steeping" the leaves yet. They were still grinding the leaves and whipping it into a bitter froth. This is, however, likely the era that "tea masters" came to be the authority on all things tea and the developing tea customs.

Tea Masters, eh? How were those esteemed "experts" of a damn leaf selected?

During the Tang Dynasty "tea brewing" contests were held regularly. Basically this meant competitors would do their best to whip that tea into a froth. The winner was selected by which competitor produced a tea with the thickest and brightest white froth. Taste wasn't even a factor in the judging! Most teaware was black at this time to emphasize the bright white froth the brewers sought to achieve.

You're kidding. So if you could produce a good froth you were a "tea master?"

Yep.

Wow.

*crickets*

Alright, but enough about this God damned froth. When did steeping become the standard way of preparing tea?

Well, it's a little unclear when the change in brewing style began, but by the Song Dynasty it was pretty much complete. The historical records seem to indicate that the frothy powdered teas popular in the Tang Dynasty were extremely bitter and high court nobles were searching for a better way to brew a more "delicate" cup of tea. There is a lot of controversy as to how this developed, but we know the end point was eventually steeping of the leaves. This also meant a drastic change in the way tea leaves were grown and processed since a new brewing method meant that tea had to be grown in a way that produced leaves that actually tasted good when steeped. This was also the likely era when different varieties of tea started to emerge. Oxidation may have been a ways off yet, so no black or oolong teas were in the picture, but many famous Chinese green teas are still grown using the methods and processing practices developed during this period.

Oooooooooh, so many Chinese green teas of today date back to this era?

They sure do. But there are also some varieties that came about later as well.
Gotcha. But what about "oxidation?" I love my black and oolong teas. When did they discover this nifty tea "hack?"

This process was actually discovered by accident. Tea was compressed into "tea cakes" to make it easy to transport on long journeys to Tibet, Mongolia, and beyond by pack animal. During these long journeys it was noted that the tea became distinctly darker and more "bold" tasting. Over time industrious tea processors realized that the more highly oxidized a tea was, the longer it would last. So oxidized teas could take long journeys well (ie the long ship rides to Europe and America).

Sometimes the tea cakes would also "ferment" on these long journeys via pack animal (ferment =/= oxidation, they are completely different). Some of the traders and merchants particularly enjoyed the pungent flavors that these fermented tea cakes provided and as a result, they learned to manipulate this process as well, and pu'erh tea was born.

Ah, and that explains how tea spread around the world as well.

Yep, with one exception. Chinese monks preferred green tea to other types of tea and it was the Chinese monks who traveled to Japan who first introduced them to tea. This is why the majority of tea consumed in Japan, and the only teas actually grown in Japan are green teas.

Gotcha. Well, I'm sure there's lots more history that you could share, but I want to know about the differences in the different tea types now.

Ugh, now you've opened a can of worms...