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The Flavourful History of Tea
Katherine Combes

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Tea lore abounds and the origins of tea-brewing stories vary, depending on who does the telling. People have sung the praises of tea for a millennia. The Chinese Emperor Chien Lung (1710-1799), who lived during the Qing Dynasty, expressed his fondness for tea this way:

"You can taste and feel but not describe the exquisite state of repose produced by tea, that precious drink which drives away the five causes of sorrow."

Others throughout history, the lowly and high-born, have documented and are today again lauding the benefits of this ancient beverage. China grows the bulk of all teas consumed in the world.

Tea is also indigenous to China, although 30 other countries also grow tea. The most recognised are India, Japan, Taiwan, East Africa, Russia and Sri Lanka. India is the largest exporter of a tea crop.

Camellia sinensis (tea plant) can grow as tall as 30 feet. When the shrub is cultivated for tea leaves and not for lumber, as it is in parts of Malaysia, the shrub is pruned into bush form, not more than five feet tall, allowing the picker to reach every branch, and permitting the plant to expend its energy to produce leaves instead of woody growth. Regular pruning every three years keeps the shrubs at the desired height. All teas marketed come from this plant, but the types of tea, as varied as people's personalities, depend on many factors. The quality of tea depends on stringent cultivation.

What accounts for these variations in flavours?

The answer is the soil, proper moisture at the correct time and the methods of wilting, harvesting, curing, drying, fermenting, blending and sorting the leaves into the marketable product.

Importantly, all teas are harvested from the same plants. Much of the differences arise from the types of the harvested tea leaves themselves and their processes of withering, drying, oxidizing/fermenting, smoking, roasting and packing. The choicest and most expensive teas are prepared from the first three leaves, including the unripe tip at the top of the plant, harvested at exactly the right time. Lesser qualities are from the next two leaves down on the branch.

Three main types of tea are available non-fermented green tea, black tea, fermented and oolong (meaning Black Dragon), a semi-fermented tea, manufactured mainly in Taiwan. "Chinese oolong tea is not one tea but many different teas", according to the Tea World website.

Green tea is actually "fired", meaning the leaves are placed in a large iron basin for 20-30 seconds and heated to boiling. This operation destroys the enzymes in the leaves that cause fermentation. This process of "firing" renders the leaves a green colour.

The flavour of green tea depends on the choice of the leaves used, the growing region and the period of storage. A Chinese friend relates that the leaves that have been stored too long can be "revived" by heating them in the oven for a while before brewing. This, when brewed, would result in a better cup of old tea.

A cup of Camellia sinensis , anyone?

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