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China and Tea

January 30, 2019

China and Tea

Tea is the most popular beverage in China by far and significant areas of China are dedicated to the growing and production of this versatile plant. Tea is so important to China it is impossible to have one without the other. The reason for this is that tea shares its earliest history with China. Here's how it happened...

Discovery

The ancestors of the modern tea plant were tall trees that grew naturally in the ancient forests of East Asia, mostly in Yunnan in China but also in parts of what are now known as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

It is believed that the population of this area used to pick the leaves of these trees either to chew on for their energising caffeine, but they are also now know to have mixed the picked leaves with strongly flavoured ingredients such as ginger and onion to create a stew that counter-balanced the bitter taste of the tea leaves. This stew was considered both healthy and medicinal so the use of tea leaves for health and happiness is confirmed as being thousands of years old..

 

Cultivation

As the use of tea leaves became more popular it was noted that the smaller, shorter trees produced tastier, sweeter leaves that were not only more delicious when chewed or stewed, but could also when boiled in water to extract flavour.

It is at this point that popularity exploded and a need for a more simple method of growing and harvesting the leaves was devised.

The cultivation of tea originated in the Sichuan province in China. Smaller tea trees with easy to reach leaves were specifically chosen and laid out in special "gardens" in order to allow easier management, farming and harvesting.

Nowadays cultivation of different tea varietals for some characteristic or another is widely known, but all of these processes have their infancy in Sichuan.

 

Processes

Once gardens or "plantations" became commonplace, different methods for processing leaves were invented to either improve the flavours, or preserve the tea leaves for long-distance transport. 

As green teas were most popular in China, two methods of fixing the "green" flavour of tea before drying were developed. Pan firing is the more traditional method which develops sweeter flavours, but steaming is more popular by far in which grassy herbaceous flavours are developed along with increasing the antioxidants in the leaves.

The other famous process is preserving, and this caused the creation of smoking processed such as those used in Lapsang Souchong; and also forming into coins or cakes as is popular with Pu Erh teas. Both of these methods allowed for teas to travel further and become popular outside of China.

 

Popularisation

The change that really put tea on the map in China is the building of the Grand Canal. In 5th century AD this great work was completed, linking many previously disconnected areas in China.

This opened up the mountains of Eastern China to the growth of tea plants and it was soon thought by many that tea originating from the Eastern Mountains surpassed the teas that had been produced in the South; and some of the most expensive teas on the planet today still come from this area.

As quality improved, Emperors became directly involved in the administration of some tea production to ensure the very highest quality. This new "high quality" tea allowed for the teas of Yunnan and Sichuan to become more affordable and popular amongst the masses as now a tea of some type or other was accessible to almost anyone in China and for transport beyond its borders.

 

Legend

Tea is famously associated with a number of legends as to how it was discovered.

The most common legend concerning the discovery of tea as an infusion involves the "Emperor Farmer" who was credited with studying and educating the Chinese on the subjects of plants, medicine and agriculture and was responsible for the increased use and domestication of many species.

He liked to test the properties of new plants by chewing or eating them. When he was journeying through the Chinese countryside at around 2,700 BC, he stopped to take some rest under the shade of a Camelia tree. He boiled water in order to make it safer to drink and some leaves from the tree either dropped or blew into the water. Being an experimental man he decided to drink the infusion, found it invigorating and therefore added it to his list of medicinal plants.

 

 





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