Friday, August 9, 2013

Teaology 101: Mommy, where does tea come from?

Native to East and South Asia, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis is a subtropical, evergreen that reproduces from seeds and cuttings. It can take from 5 to 12 years for a seed to be produced. An additional three years is required before the plant is ready for harvesting. The climate along with the right soil conditions impacts the flavour, aroma, and characteristics of each type of tea. Ideally, successful growth of Camellia sinensis requires acidic-rich soil, full exposure to the sun, and at least 50 inches of rainfall annually. They can be grown anywhere from sea level to high elevations of up to 5,000 feet. Today, tea is cultivated in more than 30 countries around the world in tropical, subtropical, and even some marine climates.

Holy tea leaf!

The earliest records that mention tea are about 2000 years old, though it is believed that humans have been consuming tea in some form or other much earlier. The origins of tea have not been fully confirmed, but there are certain regions claiming their right to it and even going as far as building shrines around ancient tea trees. Research and analysis however, dictates to the probability that Camellia sinensis originated in the areas united by northeast India, north Myanmar (Burma) and the southwest provinces of China.

Though grown all over the world, the best teas are still produced in the traditional tea growing regions: China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Taiwan (Formosa).

Obviously, China is very well known for its teas, mainly green teas produced in several provinces, which accounts for 70% of the production and consumption. Some noted regions and their teas include:

  • Anhui province: Keemun
  • Henan province: Xin Yang Mao Feng
  • Hunan province: Junshan Yinzhen
  • Zhejiang province: Longjing (Dragon Well)
  • Fujian province: Ti Quan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)
Tea was brought to Japan from China by a Zen Buddhist monk named Eisai. Tea growing regions in Japan include: Mie, Shuzuka, Kagoshima, and Shizuoka. Like China, teas produced in Japan are mostly greens and include the following: Tencha, Gyokuro, Sencha, Bancha, and a green-powdered tea called Matcha.

The Zen Master Eisai

Camellia sinensis plants from China were initially planted in India by the British to compete against China. It was only later discovered that the assamica variety indigenous to India, already existed. Both varieties as well as hybrids are used to produce various teas today in India. The most famous tea producing regions in India are Assam, Nilgiri, and Darjeeling. Travancore and Niligri are regions located in southern India where the highlands are similar to those in Sri Lanka. Other tea producing regions include Dooars and Terai, where medium-grade teas are produced mainly used in blends.

Teas in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, are classified according to the altitude the plants are grown in. Some of the finest teas are produced in the higher, cooler elevations. There are six main tea producing areas in Sri Lanka: Galle, Ratnapura, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Uva, and Dambulla.

Taiwan is especially well known for its oolongs. Tung Ting, a world renowned oolong is produced in Nantou County located in the central part of Taiwan. Teas from Taiwan are sometimes still referred to by their former Portuguese name “Formosa.”

Kenya has emerged as a powerhouse in tea production and export in recent years. However, the teas produced here are mainly CTC (crush-tear-curl) where the tea leaves are mechanically pulverized into smaller particles. These “fannings” as they are known, are mainly used in blends and tea bags. Other tea producing regions in Africa include: Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire.

An example of successful tea growth in North America is The
Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. Other areas in the U.S. include California, Alabama, Washington State, and Hawaii each with their own climate challenges and methods of experimentation on a variety of types of teas including whites, greens, and oolongs.

There is even a tea garden in Canada, specifically on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Experimental still, but it’s in the works. Looking forward to seeing how this one turns out!

Argentina is a leading supplier to the U.S., which yields tea thought best for the production of iced-teas. United States is the largest consumer of iced-tea specifically a style called sweet-tea which is cold tea with sugar.

Tea was planted in the Azores, Portugal by Chinese tea masters. The tea grown here is mainly supplied to the mainland.

Other tea producing regions in the world include: Indonesia, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, Iran, Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia. I had the privilege of visiting the
Cameron Highlands Tea Plantation in Malaysia. It’s quite a sight to see tea growing on hilly sides for as far as the eye can see.

So there you go…the high demand for the second most consumed beverage in the world has opened a window of opportunities for producers all over where conditions are ideal for tea to thrive in, or, in some cases, experimented for possible growth. Next, I’ll discuss how tea is produced!

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