Tea, the hot beverage enjoyed so much in the UK that it has become as quintessentially British as the Queen, begins its life as juicy young leaves on a bush of the Camellia family. The species Camellia sinensis originates from China and the Camellia sinensis assamica variant is the Indian tea variety. Tea bushes are grown in vast crops in hot, humid areas with regular rainfall. China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya are the top four countries, representing 75 per cent of the world’s tea production. Factors such as climate, altitude and humidity affect the quality and taste of the tea crop – much in the same way as grapes and wine – and their leaves are expertly selected and plucked by hand.
Black tea, the kind you’re probably enjoying with milk and one sugar as you read this, is made from new, tender tea shoots, typically the first few leaves and a bud. Once picked, the leaves go through four main steps before they’re ready for brewing in a teapot and accompanying some afternoon cake: withering, rolling, oxidation and drying. For different tea varieties, these steps are modified and adapted, which helps to produce such a huge array of different tea flavours and types.
Different types of tea
The four main types of tea are black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea. They all originate from the same plant, and it is their preparation that defines their taste. White teas only use the very first buds at the top of a new season’s tea plant, which can only be plucked once a year.
All four types of tea leaves are withered first – a process that reduces the moisture content. Once withered, leaves for making green tea are then steamed or pan-fried. This stops the oxidation process – meaning there is no further reaction with oxygen – which is why the leaves keep their natural green colour, giving the tea its name.
Oolong tea is semi- oxidised, placing it somewhere between green and black tea. The partial oxidation allows the leaves to briefly ferment, producing a more distinctive flavour. The leaves are then rolled and dried ready for brewing.
The story of tea
The drink we know and love as tea was reportedly created over 5,000 years ago in China, enjoyed under the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung.
Arrival in Europe
Tea arrived in Europe around 1560 and the first advertisement for tea in the UK was in 1658, appearing in an English newspaper.
The nation’s favourite
By the mid 18th-century tea had become the drink of the masses and now there are 165 million cups drunk daily in the UK – that’s around 60.2 billion per year.
Invented in the early-20th century in America, putting tea in disposable bags means a cup was now easier to brew. Today, 96 per cent of UK tea is from tea bags.
A richer taste
Although tea originated in China, the European market preferred the stronger taste of Indian tea to the finer, more delicate Chinese alternative.
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