All About Tea History and Production

Tea has a long and rich history dating back 4 millennia. Despite its long history, it wasn't widely enjoyed in Europe until the 17th century.

Even now, as tea has become ubiquitous as a drink, its origins and methods of production often seem shrouded in mystery. On this page, we aim to shed some light on the history of tea and how it's made.

The Origins of Tea

Legend has it that tea was first discovered in ancient China by Emperor Shen Nong. Considered the father of Chinese medicine, he is said to have discovered tea as an antidote against the poisonous effects of the many herbs he consumed to learn the properties of. He first tasted it after tea leaves landed in his cauldron of boiling water after being carried by the wind from a burning tea bush.

Tea became a staple in Chinese culture and was soon introduced to neighboring countries like Japan and Korea. It wasn't until the 17th century that tea made its way to Europe, where it quickly became a luxury item for the elite.

Over time, tea became more accessible and affordable, leading to the creation of tea houses and social rituals centered around the beverage. In the 19th century, tea became an important commodity for the British Empire, leading to the establishment of tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka.

Growing Tea

Tea plants are typically grown in areas with warm, humid climates, such as China, Japan, India, and Sri Lanka. Tea plants love soil that is well-drained and rich in nutrients, as they requires plenty of sunlight and water to grow. This is why we see so many pictures of tea bushes growing on slopes

Tea plants are typically grown from seeds or cuttings, and are spaced out to allow for proper air circulation and sunlight exposure. Over the next few years, they are carefully tended to, and allowed to mature for several years before being harvested. They are pruned regularly to maintain their shape and promote healthy growth.

During this growing and maturing time, the plants will produce more and more leaves, and will develop the unique flavors and aromas that make each type of tea unique. Once the time is right they will begin to be harvested. Only the newest leaves at the top of the bushes will be harvested to make tea.

Growing tea is a patient and labor-intensive process that requires careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of the plants.

Harvesting Tea

Tea harvesting usually takes place in the morning, when the tea leaves are still fresh and moist from the morning dew. Harvesters use their hands or small scissors to pluck the top two leaves and a bud from each branch of the tea plant. This selective plucking method is used to ensure that only the youngest and freshest leaves are harvested, as these contain the most flavor and aroma.

The tea leaves are collected and placed in large baskets or bags, which are taken to the processing area for further preparation. It's important to note that the harvesting process can vary depending on the type of tea being produced; some teas require a specific leaf size or leaf shape, which can affect how the tea is harvested. White tea, for example, predominantly uses only the newest tea buds.

Another important factor to consider during tea harvesting is the season. Tea harvesting is typically called "Flushes". The first flush, or first harvest of the year, is considered to produce the highest quality tea due to the tender and flavorful leaves that have slowly grown during the winter months. Later flushes may produce a different quality of tea with their own unique flavors, depending on the weather and growing conditions.

Processing Tea

The tea has been harvested, and taken back to the factory. What happens now?

The first step is withering, during which the freshly harvested leaves are spread out to wilt, reducing the moisture content and preparing the leaves for the next step in the process, rolling. For most kinds of tea, the leaves are either rolled by hand or with a machine, which breaks down the cell walls and releases flavorful oils and juices inside the leaves. This process kicks off the oxidation process, which is how we get the intense flavors of oxidized teas like black and oolong tea.

Oxidation, is the most important in determining the type of tea produced. For black tea, the rolled leaves are spread out and allowed to oxidize in a warm, humid environment for several hours. Oolong teas go through a more flexible oxidation process, where some varieties are oxidized longer than others. Green teas typically skip the oxidation process, and are immediately steamed or pan-fried to prevent oxidation process, resulting in a more delicate flavor.

After oxidation, or steaming, the leaves are dried to remove any remaining moisture and preserve the flavor and aroma. This is typically done using large drying machines or by spreading the leaves out in the sun.

Finally, the dried tea leaves are sorted by size and quality, and then packaged for shipment and sale. Overall, tea processing requires careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of the desired end product. There are many steps in the process of making tea, and changes at any part of this process can lead to different kinds of tea.

Aging and Fermenting Tea

Tea aging is an additional process of allowing tea leaves to mature over time, typically for several years or even decades. During this time, the tea leaves absorb moisture and oxygen, which can change their flavor and aroma in unique and subtle ways. The storage conditions can also play a role in how the tea ages, with factors such as humidity, temperature, and air circulation all influencing the final product.

Like wine, not all teas are aged; aged teas are prized for their complex and nuanced flavors, which can include notes of earthiness, woodiness, and sweetness. Some of the most well-known aged teas include pu-erh tea from China and dark tea from Yunnan province.

Tea fermentation is a specific type of tea processing that involves allowing the tea leaves to undergo a controlled fermentation process. This process typically involves introducing moisture and heat to the leaves, which encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms.

During fermentation, the tea leaves can change color and develop a unique flavor profile that is often described as earthy or woody. This type of tea is also prized for its health benefits, as the fermentation process can increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients and compounds in the tea.

Some of the most well-known fermented teas include pu-erh tea, and some types of oolong tea.

Tea aging and fermentation are two processes that can add complexity and depth to the flavor and aroma of tea. By carefully controlling the storage conditions or the fermentation process, tea producers can create unique and sought-after teas that offer a truly special drinking experience.

Tea Grades

After tea leaves have been processed and dried, they are further sorted into grades which determines their place in the market. During the curing and drying process, leaves get broken, or tiny pieces of leaf break off larger ones, leading to collections of "dust". The sorting process separates the larger, higher quality pieces, from the smaller, lower quality pieces.

Whole Leaf Grades: These grades typically consist of the highest quality tea leaves, which are picked when they are young and tender. Whole leaf grades include Orange Pekoe (OP), Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP), and Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (TGFOP). These teas are prized for their delicate flavors and aromas, and are often more expensive than lower-grade teas.

Broken Leaf Grades: These grades consist of larger pieces of tea leaves that have been broken or crushed during processing. They include Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe (FBOP), and Golden Broken Orange Pekoe (GBOP). Broken leaf grades are generally less expensive than whole leaf grades, but can still offer excellent flavor and aroma.

Fannings: These grades consist of smaller, finer particles of tea that have been sifted out during processing. Fannings are commonly used in tea bags and are often less expensive than whole leaf or broken leaf grades. They can offer a strong, robust flavor but may lack the nuanced flavors and aromas of higher-grade teas.

Dust: These grades consist of the smallest particles of tea, which are often leftover after processing. They are also commonly used in tea bags and are the least expensive type of tea. Dust grades can offer a strong, bold flavor but may lack the complexity and depth of higher-grade teas.

Tea grades can be a helpful guide for understanding the quality and characteristics of different types of tea. While higher-grade teas may be more expensive, they often offer a more nuanced and satisfying drinking experience, while lower-grade teas can still be an option for those on a budget or looking for a strong, bold flavor.