All the tea in China: history and the making of the brew

Travel, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: October 31st, 2012 | Updated: July 4th, 2014 | Comments

The brew that built trading empires and started wars. The thermos-filler found alongside sleepy bǎo'ān, taxi drivers and me as I write this. Tea (chá, 茶) has been the ubiquitous drink of China since the Tang Dynasty and worldwide it's the most popular beverage, with more than 4 million metric tons (about 4.4 million tons) of leaves produced in 2010 alone according to the London-based International Tea Committee. Of that, 35% is produced by China, the number one producer in the world. Made from the leaves and buds of Camellia sinensis (cháhuā, 茶花), tea has long been consumed for its health benefits, caffeine and flavor and comes in a number of surprisingly different varieties prepared in numerous ways. Read on for more about China's favorite drink....

A brief history of tea in China

According to legend, Shénnóng (神农), one of the early mythical rulers of China before the rise of the first dynasties, was having water boiled to drink when a tea leaf dropped into his pot. A renowned herbalist, Shennong decided to try the accidental brew and thus tea was discovered. The history of tea more concretely starts with tea vessels discovered in Han Dynasty tombs, although some theorize based on archeological evidence that tea drinking may have been enjoyed by Homo erectus like the Peking Man before modern man even arrived in China. It went on to become China's ubiquitous drink during the Tang Dynasty, no longer drunk merely for health benefits, but also for pleasure. Tea culture became codified as reflected in the Tea Classic (Chájīng, 茶经), the earliest remaining text on the subject, and the leaves became an important part of domestic and international trade. Dutch and Portuguese traders living in the East became exposed to the brew and the former soon began shipping it to Europe in 1606. Tea drinking took off in Holland and later England and Russia, which eventually contributed to a very lopsided trade relationship between China and Britain, so the British attempted to balance their tea imports with opium exports. After Chinese officials destroyed large quantities of opium to stamp out the drug trade, the British responded with force. treaty ports, which were open to foreign trade, previously limited to the port of Guanzhou.

Off the bush: how tea is processed

Native to western Yunnan, Camellia sinensis grows to tree-height naturally but is generally kept trimmed to bush-size for easy picking. Usually picked by hand, the buds and leaves are processed differently according to the type of tea being made.  The full process includes five steps:

  1. Withering — Plucked leaves are placed on racks in a heated space or allowed to air dry in the sun. This makes the leaves softer.
  2. Rolling - The now more pliable leaves are rolled by machine or hand in order to expose the sap from the leaves to oxygen which starts the fermenting process, extremely important to the tea's flavor.
  3. Oxidation — Left in a cool, dry place, the rolled leaves heat up with the fermenting process.
  4. Drying — The fermentation process is stopped by exposing the leaves to heat by hot air or pan frying.
  5. Sorting/grading — The now-ready-for-tea leaves are judged and sorted by quality, with larger whole leaves set aside for higher quality teas and smaller bits and dust reserved for brewing in tea bags.

And into the pot: brewing tea

Brew times and water temperature vary by style, as can serving method, but there are a few rules good for most. The best water to use is distilled, soft water or permanently hard water. Loose leaf tea, which has a fuller flavor than bagged tea, is best stored in an air-tight container. Both loose and bagged teas begin losing some of their flavor after about six months and become stale after about a year if not properly stored.

Whether drinking from a cup or a pot, using an infuser, such as a metal tea ball, is a good way to brew loose leaf tea so it can be taken out after the appropriate brew time. Pots and cups with removable ceramic infusers can also be found, most easily in tea markets. Brew the leaves and stir the container lightly for 5-10 seconds to clean the leaves, pour out the water and you're ready to brew.

For the more committed tea connoisseur, clay teapots (shā hú, 砂壶) gradually absorb the flavor of the tea placed inside—for this reason, each pot should only be used with one variety of tea—building up a patina that adds to the flavor of future brews. These pots are common in Chinese tea ceremonies, which can be seen in any tea market or tea shop (but watch out for tea house scams!). The ceremony is done on a tray with a drain along with decorative items, two tea pots, a cup per person and a filter. Leaves are first brewed in one pot, and the liquor is poured through the filter into the second pot from which its served. The short first (and for pu'er tea, the second and sometimes third) brew is poured out over a decorative item on the table or closed tea pot. Subsequent brews may only last as long as 20 seconds, extending the re-brewing potential of the leaves.
Not sure what tea you want to fill your mug with? Check out the next installment of All the tea in China: tea varieties.
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