Tea is made from the dried leaves of the evergreen tea bush Theaceae: The tea bush can reach a height of up to nine meters in the wild. To facilitate harvesting, the bushes are cut back to a height of 1.50 meters.
It’s unknown where the tea plant comes from: The only thing certain is that its origins are on the Asian continent. The area from which the tea plant originally stems stretches across Tibet and western China to northern India.
Origins of tea
Tea was probably first cultivated in China 4,500 years ago. During the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD, tea was first mentioned in writing: in the “Book of Herbs”, one of the world’s oldest preserved books on herbs and medicinal plants, the tea plant is mentioned for the first time.
However, it was not until the Tang Dynasty in the eighth century that Chinese tea culture was formed: Around this time, the “Classical Book of Tea” appeared, a treatise on numerous aspects of tea culture. Around 1000, tea advanced to become the national drink of China.
Tea in Europe
It took a long time before tea arrived in Europe: it was not until around 1610 that Dutch ships brought tea to Europe. The Netherlands held the monopoly in the tea trade until 1669.
In 1669, the British East India Company entered the tea trade: From 1669 until 1833, the East India Company held the tea monopoly.
Large-scale imports made tea one of England’s most popular beverages. Technical advances in the shipping trade made made it possible to offer affordable products: Thus, a beverage that in the 17th century was still reserved for the English royal court became a national drink.
Tea is deeply anchored in British food culture: there is a tea break twice a day.
But it was not only the British who made a cult out of tea consumption: the Japanese tea ceremony is known all over the world.
Around 1650, Dutch immigrants brought tea to North America. In December 1773, the Boston Tea Party took place, during which a cargo of tea from the British East India Company was thrown overboard. It was a protest against the British Tea Act.
Cultivation of the tea plant
Tea plants are often cultivated at high altitudes: There, the tea plants grow slowly and in a mild climate. Given ideal conditions, a tea plantation can keep producing new leaves for up to 100 years. Once a year, the tea plant bears slightly fragrant, small white flowers.
The leaves of these flowers are partially serrated, slightly hairy and covered with glands containing essential oil. On the market, the flowers fetch a high price.
But not only the tea blossoms are processed: The young leaves at the tips of the branches are picked up to thirty times a year. Sometimes this is done by hand, sometimes machines take over this work.
The most aromatic teas are obtained from the leaf buds and the two uppermost leaves. For less aromatic teas, the third, fourth and fifth leaves are also used.
The leaf bud of a tea plant is called “pekoe,” which is derived from the Chinese word pako, meaning “white down“ – an allusion to the down on the underside of the leaf.
India, China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey and Russia are among the leading tea producers.
Fermented tea leaves enter the market as black tea: The process of making black tea involves six steps. First, the leaves are dried, then the leaves are rolled. Rolling releases ingredients that are necessary for fermentation.
During fermentation, the leaves are spread out in cool, damp areas and exposed to the air. This causes the leaves to oxidize and become copper-colored instead of green. The aromatic substances emerge and the caffeine (theine) contained in the leaves is partially destroyed.
After fermentation, the leaves are dried, sorted and finally crushed.
Oolong tea & green tea
There is also oolong tea: oolong tea is only partially fermented. Oolong Tea is an ensemble of black tea and green tea, which is not fermented at all. Oolong tea tastes stronger than green tea, but milder than black tea.
When making green tea, no fermentation is necessary. On the contrary, fermentation must be prevented. To prevent fermentation, the tea leaves are heated immediately after plucking: all substances that could trigger fermentation are eliminated by steam. Then, as with black tea, the leaves are rolled and dried. Green tea has a more stimulating effect than black tea because the theine has not been destroyed. Green tea is especially popular in China and Japan.
In addition to these three classic teas, there are a number of flavored teas that are flavored by adding spices, fruit peels, essential plant oils or flowers.
The world-famous Earl Grey tea is a black tea flavored with bergamot oil.
Preparation of tea
The preparation of tea has changed over time: In the past, tea leaves were boiled; today, tea is poured over with boiling water and left to steep for a short time.
A tea that is supposed to have a stimulating effect is steeped for three minutes, whereas a calming tea is steeped for about five minutes. Brewing for too short a time distorts the aroma of the tea, while brewing for too long makes the tea taste bitter. It is customary to drink hot tea with a little rum: in addition, you can add milk or rock candy.
Although the theine contained in tea is similar to the caffeine contained in coffee, it has a different effect: caffeine affects the cardiovascular system, whereas theine affects brain functions and the central nervous system.
Tea has a reputation for having a preventive effect on numerous cardiovascular diseases.
Tea is one of the most famous beverages in the world: in some regions of the world, tea even surpasses coffee in terms of popularity. In addition to the classic tea varieties, there are also herbal teas: Herbal teas are known primarily for their healing properties. To this day, herbal teas are considered a reliable remedy to fight numerous diseases.
It is hard to imagine the culture of many Asian countries without tea: after all, the history of tea took its origin there.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: A cup of black tea, © Simon von Ludwig
Main source: “The visual food encyclopedia”, 1996 [German version, published in Club Premiere/Bertelsmann]