The origins of tea start in China, right? Well, although experts believe that the tea plant originated in China, its history is full of legends. Today, a lot of the tea we drink isn’t even grown there. With tea varieties and cultivars now grown in countries around the world, from Asia to South America, do you really know much about where your tea comes from?
My regular readers know that I am a huge advocate for tea brands that give detailed information about where their tea comes from. I don’t care whether you are mass-producing teabags or picking the rarest loose leaf teas, listing the origin as a whole country or entire continent (Twinings, I’m talking about you) is not good enough.
It’s like picking up a fine bottle of wine and seeing that it was “made in Europe”. It doesn’t instil much confidence, does it?
I want to know where my tea was grown, what the elevations are like, who picked it, and what cultivar it is. Although all tea plants originated in China, there is so much variety now and it is a shame that tea producers don’t want to talk about it.
Let me take you on a short journey, starting with the legends concerning the origins of tea.
A Quick History Recap
Tea (the traditional caffeinated kind) is a beverage made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, native to China and the surrounding regions in East Asia. The history of tea dates back to ancient China where it was first used as a medicinal herb. The legendary Chinese emperor, Shennong, is credited with discovering tea in 2737 BCE… but that’s not conclusive proof that he was actually the first!
Appropriately, the discovery of tea is steeped in legend. The Chinese emperor legend states that while out on a trip, the emperor would stop to boil water to drink, as was the custom, to ensure it was safe. One day, while boiling his water a leaf from a wild Camellia sinensis plant fell into his pot. He sipped it, and it was delicious! He then became fascinated by its taste, the feelings it evoked, and its invigorating properties. And that was the spark that (supposedly) encouraged the cultivation and consumption of tea.
Over time, tea became an essential part of Chinese culture, and its consumption spread to neighbouring countries such as Japan and Korea. How tea ended up in India is partially due to the British – read more about that in my Guide to Indian Tea.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that tea was introduced to Europe, primarily by Portuguese traders. In the centuries that followed, tea became a popular beverage worldwide and eventually, it made its way into my life and the tea blog at Immortal Wordsmith was born!
Camellia sinensis Plant Origins
Camellia sinensis, also known as the true tea plant, is a species of evergreen shrub native to East Asia. The shrub has lush green leaves and, through centuries of cultivation, is quite bushy and full to provide a good harvest. It is the plant from which all true teas, including black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea, are made. The leaves of Camellia sinensis are harvested and processed in different ways to produce these various types of tea.
Technically, you could pick the leaves of a single tea plant and make green tea, black tea, white tea, oolong tea, and even pu-erh tea from it. But in reality, most farmers will only make one type (or maybe two) of tea from their entire estate. This is because different cultivars of Camellia sinensis often lend themselves best to particular tea types.
Camellia sinensis thrives in warm, humid environments and is primarily grown in countries such as China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. The plant can grow up to 6 metres in height if not pruned but is typically kept at a shorter height to facilitate harvesting. Interestingly, the height above sea level, light conditions, soil types, and microclimate can have a huge impact on the flavour once the leaves are processed!
Camellia refers to the genus and sinensis refers to the species. Within this species, there are different varieties. Confusingly, sinensis is a variety. So, you might see Camellia sinensis var. sinensis or Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Within each variety, you can also find cultivars that have different names.
Some of the thousands of variations and cultivars of Camellia sinensis that are farmed include Yabukita which is popular for Sencha and Dai Bai which is also known as the Great White Cultivar as it is grown to produce white tea.
Today, tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages globally, with a tea culture that varies from region to region. Let’s look at how the origins of the beverage differ from one country to another, focusing on the most prolific tea drinkers and growers.
Alongside the countries listed below, numerous places around the world have a tea-growing and drinking culture including:
- South Korea
You can also find select tea estates in some more unusual locations. Some that I have discovered in my hunt for fine loose leaf blends include:
- And various South American countries.
One thing that all these places have in common is that, in one way or another, their tea plants are cultivars of the original Camellia sinensis plant found in China.
China has been cultivating tea for over 5000 years, and it is considered the birthplace of tea. The Camellia sinensis plant is native to this area of the world so that figures! Despite this reputation, cultures have been steeping plant matter in water for medicinal and general enjoyment purposes for a long, long, long time. But it’s China that focused on Camellia sinensis.
China is also where teas were first processed in different ways and divided into six categories. These are white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented teas (pu-erh). The traditional Chinese method of tea preparation emphasizes the natural flavour of tea leaves.
India is the world’s second-largest tea producer and has been growing tea for over 170 years. In India, tea is mostly grown in the north-eastern states of Assam, West Bengal, and the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Indian teas are typically strong, robust and have a malty flavour profile. This is mostly thanks to a particular strain of the Camellia sinensis plant that grows here, called Assamica after the region it was predominantly farmed in.
Masala chai, a popular Indian tea, is made by simmering tea leaves with milk, water, spices, and sweetener. I have a helpful guide to buying and making masala chai in the UK. It is perfect if you would like to try something a little better than what Costa and Starbucks have on offer!
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is one of the world’s major tea-producing countries. The country has a long history of tea production. This dates back to the 1860s when tea was introduced to the island nation (again, the British might have had something to do with that). Ceylon teas are known for their bright, coppery colour, medium body, and brisk flavour. The country produces several types of tea, including black, green, and white tea.
You will find Ceylon teas included in many tea blends. This includes a vast number of the ‘everyday’ and ‘English Breakfast’ teas sold in UK supermarkets.
Japan’s tea culture is rooted in the traditional tea ceremony known as Chanoyu. Japanese teas, particularly green teas like Matcha, are popular worldwide. Matcha is made by finely grinding young tea leaves into a powder, which is then whisked with hot water. The process of making matcha dates back to the 12th century and is still widely practised today… albeit with the help of an electric whisk or frother.
Other green teas in Japan are very popular too. Sencha is another that many people will have heard of, and I am particularly fond of the roasted flavour of hojicha. Although tea came to Japan from China, there’s no doubt that the Japanese really explored the beverage and made it their own. Some of the finest teas are now grown in Japan.
Kenya is one of the world’s largest tea producers. It exports much of its tea to markets in Europe, the US, and Asia. The country is known for its tea gardens in the Kericho highlands. Alongside standard tea, it produces high-quality tea that has a bright and refreshing taste.
Kenyan tea is a common component of English and Irish breakfast blends. Most standard UK teas, like Yorkshire Tea, utilise tea leaves grown in Africa rather than native Asian countries where the plant was first cultivated. The price might have something to do with this.
Turkey is known for its tea culture, and tea is one of the country’s most popular beverages. Turkish tea is a strong, black tea made on the stove with a double boiler teapot called a çaydanlık. Tea is an essential part of Turkish hospitality, and it is customary to offer tea to guests.
Along with the UK and much of Europe, tea is a popular beverage across Turkey. The difference is that the climate here allows Turkey to successfully grow tea domestically. In the UK, however, the few tea gardens that have been established have produced disappointing results, to say the least.
Conclusion – Tea Origins
Tea has a rich history that spans thousands of years. It is a staple beverage in many parts of the world. The geographical locations and different cultures where the tea is cultivated and consumed have a significant impact on the brewing techniques and flavour profiles. From the birthplace of tea in China to tea-consuming regions like Turkey and India, tea culture varies from place to place. Today, tea is a widely beloved beverage enjoyed by millions worldwide, including me.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about where tea first originated and where it now grows around the world. Leave me a comment below letting me know your thoughts.