International Tea Day is this Friday, May 21, and I plan to celebrate. Every morning, I walk to my tea stash in the living room bookshelf and peruse for something to entice my taste buds. Do I want black or green tea? Ooh, what about a nice oolong? Today’s choice is a floral plum rose oolong blend from Miro Tea. Yesterday’s choice was an extra citrusy earl gray. What I’ll pick tomorrow is up to the tea fairies: perhaps a smoky lapsang souchong paired with some hot chocolate.
Where does tea come from? What exactly is it? And what does drinking it do to our bodies?
A lot of people will call a hot beverage with steeped lavender or lemon leaves or diced ginger “tea,” but tea is actually one family of plants: the Camellia sinensis. Two major varieties are used to produce today’s teas for public consumption: Camellia sinensis var sinensis and Camellia sinensis var assamica. The sinensis variety originates from China, and its leaves are typically on the smaller side. Assamica plants are from the Assam region in India, and its leaves tend to be larger.
Anything else not grown as a variety of the Camellia sinensis is considered a “tisane” or herbal tea.
Despite its narrow botanical origins, tea is a versatile drink with a long, rich history and fascinating production processes. Tea remains the second most consumed beverage in the world, behind water, with Turkey being the leading consumer of tea per capita: The average resident drinks 7 pounds of tea per year, according to a 2016 study.
The top tea-producing countries are currently China, India, Taiwan and Kenya, according to tea historian and sommelier Domenico Gradia of the UK Tea Academy.
Climate, soil and elevation are each crucial when it comes to tea production, said Jason Chen, the owner of CC Fine Teas in Bellevue and a tea farm in China. Tea needs high humidity and temperatures between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit to develop tender leaves. Unlike many other crops, the tea plant requires acidic soil to ensure plant growth. Heavy rainfall is also needed for the Camellia sinensis to grow. In Fujian, where tea is believed to have originated, the yearly average rainfall is between 50 and 79 inches.
The sun rises at 5 a.m. in late spring in the Fujian province of China. Tea leaf pickers wake up with the sun on 200-or-so-acre plantations to start their days. Leaves for green tea should be picked in the morning to prevent withering. Pickers reach for bamboo baskets, often strapping them to a backpack, and head to the fields to pick each leaf by hand.
Once picked, the oxidation and roasting processes begin. To turn green tea into black, the leaves must be left to oxidize completely before roasting. To produce green tea, the leaves are heated as soon as possible in giant woks, preventing oxidation. Once heated, tea becomes pliable, and then it is rolled, breaking the leaf’s cellulose, which is essential to the flavors.
Quick history sip
Tea originally comes from western China, dating back approximately 5,000 years, but the first reliable records are from 200 to 300 AD, when it started to spread eastward. In the 9th century, Japanese priests visited China to study Chinese culture and brought Camellia sinensis seeds home with them.
By the early 1600s, the Dutch had introduced tea from China to Europe, and it arrived in England around 1650, where it became a novelty item in coffee shops. When trade disputes between China and Britain grew tense in the 19th century, British traders would buy silks, tea and other goods from Chinese merchants using silver. When Chinese merchants would not recirculate the silver for British goods, the British used opium to trade for the silver, which was then used to purchase Chinese goods, including tea. In the end, opium paid for the entire tea trade in China.
The late 19th century and 20th century brought many innovations to tea production and consumption. The first tea kettle was introduced in 1893. In 1904, New York importer Thomas Sullivan used tea bags to distribute samples of tea and coffee internationally. Customers were supposed to take the tea out of the bags but instead found them useful for steeping, and the bags gained popularity. By the 1970s, teabags became mainstream, with an uptick in mug use, allowing tea drinkers easier and faster access to the beverage.
“Tea lost much of the elegance during this time,” Gradia said, referring to the art of consuming loose leaf teas in tea pots and changes in brewing methods.
Chen said 90% of tea drinkers in the US use tea bags.
Strong health notes
“Ancient Chinese have always known that tea is good for you,” said Roy Fong, of the Imperial Tea Room in San Francisco. “The Chinese have used tea as a medicinal herb for many, many, many centuries. Some Chinese herbalists recommend pu-erh.” Fong said tea has many medicinal properties, including reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and aiding digestion.
“The only bad thing about tea is that it stains your teeth,” Fong joked.
According to a 2019 Penn State article, green tea can particularly be beneficial in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. The Camellia sinensis plant contains antioxidants and might lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. Oolong, which is oxidized somewhere between green and black, contains L-theanine, an essential amino acid that allegedly reduces stress and increases awareness and alertness.
Black tea can also be used topically to
reduce swelling and relieve pain.
Tea is also full of GABA, an amino acid that can aid in sleep and help reduce stress and depression, among other things. In the 1980s, Japanese researchers discovered ways to increase the levels of the acid in tea by processing them in anaerobic conditions.
Modern tea merchants and producers share certain worries. Arable land in China and India is diminishing from climate change and urbanization. Climate change and pollution also adversely affect production. Economic changes are also impacting the quality of tea. The current demand for tea is rushing the production process from farm to market. In addition to experiencing drought, rising COVID cases in India and Nepal have impacted the tea harvest.
“The issue is not going to be the population,” Fong said, “but the quality, because climate change, pollution, artmanship is not as valuable anymore. People don’t know the quality from 30 years ago.”
Yet experts have high hopes for tea’s cultural future. More and more young people are becoming regular tea drinkers with the rise of bottled tea, bubble tea and sparkling tea, which is an alternative to alcohol. And new farms in Mississippi and Latin America are playing around with cultivating tea.
“I see tea continuing to be a relevant beverage,” Liu said. “Tea has become more and more mainstream and broader.”
Many shops experienced jumps in internet sales during 2020, and the community is seeing more interest in the beverage and culture.
As Fong said, “Anything in fashion for thousands of years, there’s gotta be a good reason for it.”
Steeped: Not all teas should be brewed the same.
According to Jeannie Liu of Seattle’s Miro Tea, green tea should be brewed at 170 F to prevent it from burning.
“Brewing methods are really important in terms of controlling temperature, time and quantity of tea,” said Liu. Brewing less oxidized teas at higher temperatures can result in burnt tea leaves and stringent, bitter flavors. Liu said it’s important to understand controlling the parameters to yield consistent results before playing around with different flavor profiles.
See image captions for brewing advice.
Ace Azul is a passionate multimedia storyteller who is interested in profiles, community journalism and portraiture. A tea enthusiast, Ace is often at tea shops searching for his next batch of oolong.
"Seattle’s communi-tea" is the second article in this two-part series. It ran in the following week’s issue, RC May 26, 2021.
Read more of the May 19-25, 2021 issue.