There are so many types of tea, yet only a few countries of origin for tea.
I was in a friendly discourse with someone regarding what and where is a country of origin for tea. Numerous countries have a form of tea that they consume. Tea happens to be the second most consumed beverage in the world, trailing behind water. The consumption of tea dates back to ancient times. While tea is a predominant global beverage, it is only a handful of countries that can be called a country of origin for tea.
The word “origin” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the point or place where something begins, arises, or is derived.” Italy is the country of origin for the Lamborghini sports car. England is the birthplace of the Magna Carta. The United States is the originator of iced tea, and the first flight of an airplane (the Wright Flyer). Greece was the birthplace of the Olympics. Egypt lays claim to inventing hieroglyphics and eye make up. France is the birthplace of champagne. Yet only five countries have the distinction of being called a “Country of Origin”, for their cultivation of tea plants and processing of tea leaves. China, Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon), and India are the countries of origin of tea. The type of tea I am referring to is the tea that is made using Camellia sinensis leaves. Along with being a country of origin, each country has their own original development or creation as it relates to tea.
China has the distinction of discovering the first known tea plants. There is some debate as to which country actually discovered tea plants, and how the tea plant was discovered, but it is widely believed China has the honor of locating and identifying the revered plant. The legend dates well back to 2737 B.C, when evidently the Emperor Shen Nung was collecting botanical specimens. The Emperor noticed leaves from a nearby bush fell into his boiling pot of water. He tasted the water and the rest is tea history as they say.
Lu Yu, China's original tea specialist known as the “sage of tea”, wrote a book regarding tea in the 8th century. It was called the Classic Of Tea (Cha Chang). In the book he described the proper growing of the plant, processing practices for various tea types, possible medical benefits, and even culturally the benefits of tea. It is widely read and a wonderful reference book even today.
Japan is the second country of origin of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is believed that tea plant seeds were brought over to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk named Saisho. He carried tea plant seeds back to Japan in the 8th century. During this time, tea was consumed as a liquid and also as a powder in China and Japan followed suit. While the Chinese had ground tea leaves and consumed the powder in hot water prior to Japan, it is Japan that epitomized what we now know as Matcha. It was again a monk, named Eisai, in the late 1100’s, that introduced the Japanese to the unique grinding of tea leaves into a fine powder, then adding to hot water. It wasn’t until later in the 16th century, that Sen No Riku codified the tea ceremony using matcha as the ceremonial tea. Japan was, and still is, the forerunner for the elaborate Chanoyu ceremony.
Along with establishing ritualized tea drinking ceremonies, Japan modified the powdered tea leaf into several different grades of powder. Depending on how the powder will be used, that will dictate the grade (coarse grind to fine grind) of the powder to be used. Matcha can be found in ice cream, candy, smoothies, desserts, and even used as a rub on meat and fish prior to cooking.
The development of tea harvesting machinery is attributed to Japan. For centuries tea leaves have been plucked by hand. More recently leaf shears that look like giant hair combs, yet in scissor form, have been employed to collect leaves off the bush. In the late 20th century, Japan developed elaborate and patented machines that can drive through rows of tea plants and harvest the top outer tea leaves from the bush.
Taiwan has had numerous countries influence their tea industry through the centuries. Spanish, English, Portuguese and Dutch have all, at one time or another, occupied and influenced the island. The tea trade was brought to the island in the mid 1600’s by the Dutch. The mountainous island has also been dually influenced by its Chinese and Japanese neighbors. Migrant Chinese workers brought tea plants to Taiwan after the island was annexed to China in 1683. While oolong teas were made in China for centuries prior to Taiwan doing so, it was in the 1970’s Taiwan started developing and emphasizing the processing of Oolongs. Ali Shan oolong tea, and Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao) oolong tea, have their genesis in Taiwan. Taiwan is credited as taking the process of creating oolongs to new heights and have won numerous awards for their stellar efforts.
Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
What was once a problem, turned into a product. The tear drop shaped island off the southeastern tip of India (previously called Ceylon) had a problem. Tea plants were established on the island, in part, due to work from a Scottish coffee worker named James Taylor. Taylor was instrumental in evolving a tea garden in the Kandy region prior to a devastating development. This island’s copious amounts of coffee plants developed a fungus in 1869 that eventually destroyed all the coffee plants on the island. Not to be defeated by a prodigious plant fungus, the experienced coffee growers decided to try their hand at growing tea plants. The transition from growing coffee to tea was a quick one. In fact, by 1890 Thomas Lipton purchased tea gardens and the world recognized tea brand ‘Lipton Tea” had its original start on Sri Lankan soil.
The Sri Lanka tea industry has some of the most refined, and articulate tea leaf grading categories in the global tea industry. For example, Orange Pekoe tea is not a blend or flavor profile of tea. Orange Pekoe is a description of a dried tea leaf that is long, wiry and twisted. Other examples of tea grades are FBOP (flowery broken orange pekoe) and FBOP1 (flowery broken orange pekoe 1). The subtle differences in the leaves for these grades of leaf include the length of leaf, twist of leaf and if there are leaf tips included in the grade of tea. These are just a few examples of the grading, or delegated levels of types of tea leaves. The Sri Lanka tea industry leaves nothing to chance for the tea buyers; they know exactly what type of tea they are purchasing.
The need for increasing the production of black tea was the impetus for new tea processing tools. The East India company was interested in expanding their tea cultivation areas into India. An employee of the company in 1823, Major Robert Bruce discovered wild tea trees already growing in Assam, the northern part of India. He was unable to discern the exact time the tea trees were established, in the Assam region. He deduced they were well established trees and therefore must be years old, and not young trees. The finding of the trees clarified to the East India Company that tea could indeed be grown in India. India is considered a tea country of origin, because of the discovery of the wild grown Assam tea trees.
The British company needed to not only expand their tea growing regions in Assam and elsewhere, but needed to increase production of black tea. The East India Company was finding it difficult to keep up with the increased demand for black tea. The amount of wild tea trees discovered growing in the Assam region in the 1820’s did not supply enough tea leaves for the growing demand for black tea. The British managed tea industry in India saw this as an opportunity to design and build tea processing machinery. The machinery, whose designs are even now utilized, was an important development in increasing the supply of black tea for export. Original machinery built in the late 1800’s can be seen in use today at various tea gardens.
While countries throughout the world most likely have their own unique tea or tea like beverages, with history and culture wrapped up in their beverage, it is the origins of the Camellia sinensis in a few specific countries that is the focus of this blog.
Whatever country you obtain your Camellia Sinensis tea from, enjoy the beverage of the ancient societies and people who had forged a way in establishing growing tea plants,
About The Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!