Behind every cup of tea, there is a story, culture and ritual. Born in China, tea has traveled the globe over the centuries. Hence, it’s no surprise that even today tea remains unbeaten as the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. Get your passports ready and let me take you on a whirlwind tour of around the world in eight teas from - China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, United Kingdom and Turkey.
It all begins in China where the secret on how to manufacture tea was closely guarded. No outsiders were allowed in the tea regions and traitors were sentenced to death. Tea was first consumed and discovered by Chinese Buddhist monks who realised that they could meditate so much better when they consumed tea (because the caffeine eliminated sluggishness). It is believed Japanese monks who noticed this, brought back tea with them to Japan and even today, tea has a place of spiritual significance in Japan.
When you think of China, you think of Jasmine tea. It is not the perfumed beverage that we often find on supermarket shelves. Real Jasmine tea is made by infusing whole jasmine flowers with the green tea at dawn. After blending, the dried flowers are blown away with a hot air blast. Taste notes are mellow and summery in a light golden cup. It is the perfect accompaniment to a wholesome Chinese meal.
You will notice that green teas from Japan are bright green in color unlike any other green tea from around the world. This is because green teas in Japan are steamed, not roasted (like everywhere else). This allows the tea to retain its leafy green colour. Matcha tea is by far the most popular tea from Japan and this tea is at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony called ‘Chanoyu’. Making of a Matcha is a tea ritual passed on from one generation of tea masters to another. Taste notes of a Matcha are vegetal and grassy flavoured in a bright green cup.
Taiwan, is not influenced by its neighbours and has its own distinct variety of tea, Oolong. Formosa Oolong is the most celebrated tea from this region, named after Formosa, the former name for Taiwan. Oolong teas are semi-fermented teas with a complex flavour. It has the body of a green tea with the taste notes of a lively cup of black tea. Interestingly, Bubble Tea originated in Taiwan during the 1980s and is now popular worldwide. It can be hot or cold but always with the chewy tapioca balls in them.
As we go around Asia, we have last two stops to make in India and Sri Lanka. It is true that the British started tea plantations in India, using tea seeds that were smuggled over from China. The first such plantation was in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal. However, what is lost in chapters of history, is that tea was always growing wild on the Assam borders of India. However, we just didn’t know it was tea! Singpho tribes that inhabited this region, chewed on tea leaves as tobacco. It was a chance discovery by Robert Bruce, a Scottish gentleman, who is known as the father of the tea industry in Assam. This is the primary reason why Darjeeling tea tastes so wildly different from Assam tea - the mother bush for Darjeeling comes from China, while the Assam tea variety is native to India. Assam tea is malty and robust while the Darjeeling tea has a delicate muscatel flavor.
India, being the friendly neighbor, gifted Sri Lanka their mother bush which marked the beginning of a flourishing tea industry decades later. The island country now is a close competitor to India in the production of black teas. In colonial times, this island nation was known as Ceylon. This name is still used to describe all teas grown here. Ceylon Tea is usually referred to as black tea which has the characteristic taste notes of being bright, medium-bodied and delightfully tangy.
Tea plantations are extremely labour intensive. Hence tea arrived in Kenya, thanks to the British planters who were looking for cheap labour and vast unfarmed lands. Today, Kenya is a tough competitor to India and Sri Lanka in the volume of black tea production. Tea is a major cash crop that is grown in Kenya. Kenya tea has been the leading foreign exchange earner for the country. Kenya is not necessarily known for high quality of teas and most of the production is CTC (Crush Tea Curl). Teas produced with CTC method have a homogenous taste and are mostly used as in tea blends such as breakfast teas.
It is impossible to talk about teas, without including the United Kingdom, which is home to the largest population of tea drinkers in the world. As a nation, the UK drinks about 165 million cups of tea every day. Even though the UK does not grow any tea, it gave the world the famous English Breakfast Tea. It was fueled by the tea production in British colonies of India, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Hence, the English breakfast tea came about as a blend of black teas from these three regions. Taste notes are full-bodied, robust, rich and blended to go well with milk and sugar, in a style traditionally associated with a hearty English breakfast.
Turkey comes as a surprise to many while talking about tea. People usually think of Turkish coffee, but often forget about its more popular cousin - Turkish Tea or Turkish Apple Tea. Turkey ranks number one in the world based on annual per capita consumption of tea. Tea is grown in Turkey on the coast of the Black Sea. Tea is an important part of Turkish culture and is traditionally served without milk. Turkish tea is traditionally offered in small tulip-shaped glasses which are usually held by the rim, in order to save the drinker's fingertips from being burned, as the tea is served boiling hot.
Every region that was touched by tea, developed their own tea culture and etiquette. However, at the core, it was always centered around hospitality. Tea is social fuel. It is a token of kindness and it has evolved to become a symbol for warmth and friendship. Here we have included only eight tea cultures. However, there are many more left for you to explore. Wish you happy adventures in tea!