Tea: A Brief History

Tea – a simple three-letter word belying a deep heritage and rich traditions. A beverage once drank as medicine, then as a refreshing pick-me-up, and now thanks to analysis by modern science, tea is touted as a healthy, beneficial drought approaching super-food status.

Tea LeafBut what is tea? There are two ways to define “Tea:” as a warm or cold beverage derived from brewed or steeped leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, or any beverage derived from the process of pouring or soaking dried plant or botanical parts in hot or boiling water. Either way – tea is a fascinating subject in and of itself.

China

Tea originated in China; this much is certain. It probably began as a medicinal drink near or around the time of the Shang Dynasty. Actual dates aren’t certain, but this probably ranges from about 1500 BCE to 1046 BCE (or a very, very long time ago).

The Tea plant itself, Camellia sinensis, is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia near the area where Burma, China and Tibet meet. The actual transition from medicinal concoction to stimulant or recreational tea consumption is shrouded in legend.

During this time period, the process for preparing and trading tea was developed – and in the regions far away from the center of the empire, Tea bricks were even used as a form of currency. Tea eventually spread through trade and religion as well as cultural migrations to the areas surrounding China, such as the rest of mainland Asia and Japan.

Tea and the West

The tea plant (and the beverage made from it) has had a significant effect on the western world. It has altered everything from trade routes to cultural norms to even the course of history. While a common and inexpensive beverage now, tea began its conquest of the west as an expensive delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy or on special occasions.

BH-3151_infoGrfx-TraditionalTeaTraded over land and sea, tea made its way to the western world (mainly Europe) through capitalist ventures of the Portuguese, English and Spanish interests. In Portugal, Tea was introduced via trade with China to the Portuguese Azores Islands, which were found to be ideal places to cultivate the Camellia sinensis plant. Portugal still gets most of its tea from this chain of small islands.

England (and the East India Company) has a long and varied history with Tea. The British love affair with tea caused the transplant, cultivation, and later the widespread usage of tea in then-colonial India. Native Indians didn’t start consuming it regularly until sometime after a widely-successful advertising campaign, however.

Tea cultivation eventually spread to the Americas – however, before that it had to be imported. As a British Colony, North America imported rather a lot of tea. Everything was more or less fine, until in 1773 British Parliament added extra taxes to its import.

In protest, some “patriots” dumped some 3 boatloads of the stuff into Boston Harbor. Coupled with many, many other grievances, this act eventually escalated into the American War for Independence.

The Plant Itself

The Tea Plant, Camellia sinensis, can grow to nearly 50 feet tall if left untended. But if it wasn’t tended, it really wouldn’t be “tea”, would it? Instead, Tea plants, tea bushes, or tea shrubs as they are called are usually trimmed to around average waist height for a human. This makes it easier to harvest.

Only the top 1-2 inches (called “flushes”) of the mature tea plant is harvested – and during the growing season the plants replenish their flush every 15 days or so. A tea plant takes at least 4 years to bear seeds, and about three years to mature to the point where the plant can be harvested for tea leaves.

So where do all these different kinds of teas come from, if they’re all from the same plant? The secret lies in the drying, preparation, and even the relative “age” of the leaves and when they are picked from the plant. These factors all determine which tea you’re drinking:

Cup of TeaBlack Tea – called “red tea” in China and the most widely consumed tea in the West, Black teas are fully oxidized or fermented. The leaves are withered until pliable and then rolled to release juices and enzymes that turn the leaves brown. After the leaves are fired to “seal” the leaf, black tea is either chopped or sold and packaged as whole leaves.

Oolong Tea – a favorite of Camellia connoisseurs, Oolong lies somewhere between green tea and the darker oxidized red and black teas. Tossed in bamboo baskets to bruise the edges of the leaves, oolong is allowed to oxidize along the outside only – the inside of the leaf remains fresh and green. The leaves are then rolled into balls for brewing.

Green Tea – because minimal processing is employed in the creation of green tea, it retains its natural appearance. Green tea is so popular because of its storied health benefits – mildly caffeinated, it is rich in EGCG and other extremely potent antioxidants called catechins that support everything from cardiovascular health to strong teeth to even weight loss.

White Tea – this kind of tea is the least-oxidized of the “true” teas. Often harvested by hand and made exclusively from baby tea leaves (which are covered in silver-white hairs), white tea is one of the healthiest teas because it is rich in antioxidants. Because of its difficult and unique preparation/harvesting process however, it is expensive.

No matter what your tea preference, one thing is certain – tea is here to stay. Tea is the second most widely consumed beverage after water (this one probably shouldn’t even be on the list, what with its “essential for life” attribute). Thirsty yet? Check out our Refreshing Green Tea Blend – unique to Blessed Herbs. You’ll love it!

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