By Eric Schanke, LAc, Brenton Harvey, LAc, CH and Hong Ji
The origins of tea (camellia sinensis) are shrouded in mythology. The common element in these varied myths is of water being boiled under a tea tree, and the leaves inadvertently falling into the pot.
The discoverer of this new wonder is variously described as an emperor, a peasant, or even Shen Nong, the patriarch of Chinese herbal medicine. It is now believed that tea originated in southwest China, in the area of Yunan province some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. By the early 700s A.D., tea houses had become popular as centers for social and philosophical discourse, and the saying "Kai men qi jian shi" is in use. This saying roughly means, "Open the door (of a house) and you see the seven (essential things)." Tea is listed as one of these seven essential things along with cooking oil, soy sauce, and others. Also around this time the great tea master Lu Yu (728-804) writes his "Cha Jing," or Tea Classic. Tea has been rooted firmly in Chinese culture for at least 1,300 years. Since its obscure beginnings thousands of years ago, tea has remained the favored drink of poets, Taoists, royalty, and martial artists. Tea is now one of the most popular beverages in the world, and is being increasingly recognized by modern science for its potent influence on health.
In China, tea is grown in a dozen different provinces, from Shandong in the north to Guangxi in the south. Historically and presently, it is often the main product of whole villages. Just as Georgia is known for its peaches and Florida is known for its oranges in the U.S., some regions of China are best known for certain types of teas. Fujian province is best known for its oolongs, Zhejiang for its green teas, and Yunan for its pu erh.
Today, tea is also cultivated in many parts of the world outside China, from India to southeast Asia and even Africa. Tea is now grown in terrains that range from lowland valleys and coastal mountains to terraced high mountains. These plants are nourished by local water sources such as limestone springs, coastal fogs or cloud-shrouded mountains. In the case of Fujian's tie guan yin, it is grown amidst apricot trees; even this is thought to influence its flavor and aroma! Exposure to these varied influences, climates, soil conditions and watering methods has resulted in more than 300 different varieties of tea. With each variety having its own unique qualities, and the art of brewing tea being another distinct area of study, one can see that the field of Chinese tea is immense.
Although the oldest known tea trees are about 1,200 years old and stand nearly 80 feet tall, and the lowest branches are more than 20 feet above the ground, today's tea plantations prune their tea bushes to a more manageable "shrub" size. It takes decades for a plant to mature into a high-quality tea producer, and as the plant ages, its output of leaves will reduce. The harvesting and processing of tea can be roughly broken down into three stages; picking, aging (or fermenting), and final drying. All steps of the cultivation and processing of tea are an art form and are carefully monitored by experts at each plantation or at local processing plants.
Only the new growth of the plant is used for tea; the old growth is left to nourish the plant. Leaves are picked by hand or a machine similar to a hedge cutter. The time and method of picking is dependent on the variety of plant and the type and grade of tea to be produced. Not only is the time of year important when picking, but also the stage of growth of the leaf. Leaves may be picked anywhere between the fully mature stage to even before a leaf is unfurled. Some types of tea leaves are picked when the leaf is merely an emerging bud, barely half a centimeter long, whereas others may be picked when the leaf is two to six centimeters long. Tea leaves may also be plucked as a single leaf or sets of leaves. For example, bi luo chun, a green tea often from Jiangsu province, is picked in sets of two leaves: one tiny leaf and one emerging sprout on the stem. Oolong may be picked as a single leaf or as sets of two or three leaves on the stem. All of this attention to detail results in premium grade Chinese teas, also referred to as "single-leaf" teas. Unlike most teas seen in America, in which the leaf is just an anonymous, ground up powder in a bag, when high grade Chinese teas are brewed the single leaves will unfurl, revealing their size, shape and color, and the leaf sets will be visible. These are all attributes of superior grade teas.
After the leaves are picked, the plant is pruned back to stimulate more growth so that new growth may be harvested many times a year. In more tropical areas, where winter is warm, plants are harvested most frequently. The first pick of the year occurs in the spring and is termed the "first flush." This is followed by a summer pick and a fall pick. Depending on the climate, winter picks might be possible. The first flush picks are full of spring energy and generally provide the lightest, most delicate tasting green and jasmine teas. Spring oolongs are generally the most floral. Fall pick tie guan yin oolongs possess a stronger, bolder taste but are not as floral as the spring picks.
Eventually, all types of tea must be completely dried to prevent mildew, etc. during shipping and storage. So, after the picked leaves are harvested, they are first aged by being left to wilt in indirect sunlight. For green tea, this may last up to two days. Oolongs are purposefully left to air-dry longer to partially oxidize (some say ferment), and black teas, which now come mainly from India, are allowed to oxidize fully. Final drying is accomplished by one of several methods. At smaller, more traditional plantations or processing plants, they may be pan-fried in a dry wok or in small coal-fired roasting ovens. At more modern processing plants, electrical dryers or ovens may be used.
Steps in the drying process also shape the leaf. The leaves may be formed in a variety of shapes. Many teas are hand-rolled into a small ball or pearl; pu erh is pressed into bricks; and some are left in more or less their natural shape. Also during the drying process, fruit or flowers are sometimes added as flavorings, but inferior grade teas may merely be sprayed with a flowery perfume. Finally, the dried tea is separated into different grades of each variety. Remember that this is only a brief description of the processing of teas: Whole volumes could be written on the subject.
During these cool winter months, a recommended tea would be a warming tie guan yin or red oolong.
Editor's note: This article first appeared in volume 1, issue #2 of The View From the Summit, a quarterly publication. Reprinted with permission.
Click here for previous articles by Brenton Harvey, LAc, CH.