October 23, 2017

Green tea has become very popular the world over due to its various health benefits, known detoxing properties and moderate caffeine content. You would assume that being green in colour is the prerequisite for being classified as 'green tea'? While this is partly correct, technically green tea is any tea that has not undergone the normal production process of oxidation and withering like any black tea. So while all green tea does not necessarily need to come from China, all tea does, however, originate from ancient China. This is where our story about the history of tea begins, more than 5,000 years ago (yes, you're reading that correctly!) in the land of the Dragon...

Religious basis of green tea in China

It is a belief in Chinese culture that gods of agriculture chew leaves, roots, and stems of plants to discover precious herbs for humanity. And, that if any of these gods accidentally ate a poisonous substance, they would chew green tea leaves to detoxify and cure themselves. There is evidence that tea has been a vibrant part of not just the social fabric of China but also its religion for over millennia. In fact, some believe that Buddha himself first discovered Chinese green tea as a gift from the gods.

Discovery of green tea was accidental

It is in the southwest part of China nearly 5,000 years ago that the first accounts of the discovery of green tea were found, during the reign of Legendary Chinese emperor and herbalist, Shennong. It is said that during one of his travels, his caravan was resting when a few green tea leaves accidentally fell into a cup of hot water the Emperor was drinking.

He drank the water without noticing that it had turned a dark colour. It was later that he felt refreshed and ordered his soldiers to henceforth prepare the beverage by adding leaves of the green tea trees - drinking many cups of tea every day.

The drink so produced was referred to as ‘Cha’ as described by Lu Yu in his classic book, The Classics of Tea. Whether or not this Emperor discovered green tea, it is a fact that Chinese have been enjoying Chinese green tea for many centuries, and worldwide to this day.

Traditional Chinese tea ceremonies

While ordinary people enjoyed the flavour and aroma drinking tea with meals for refreshment, the nobility treated the consumption of green tea as a symbol of status and used it in special ceremonies. 

Daily green tea consumption had almost become a social convention in China by the 5th century AD. Formal tea ceremonies were happening during major social festivals and functions - tea was by then intertwined in the cultural fabric of China.

The first official documented accounts of Chinese drinking tea was in the 8th century. It was written that steaming prevented the leaves of green tea from becoming dark (or oxidised like with black tea fermentation process) and they also retained their distinct flavour. It was nearly 400 years later in the 12th century that people in China discovered a new method of frying green tea leaves which was called fixing.

Chewing tea for fun and caffeine

Apparently the local Chinese first chewed the tea plant leaves, Camellia sinensis, which grew wild in the mountains of the southwestern parts of China. They liked its taste and chewed or ate the fresh leaves just for pleasure (very much like modern day chewing gums), and possibly noticing the effects of the caffeine. It was only later that they learnt to drink green tea by boiling the leaves, which is very similar to the way coffee drinking evolved in Ethiopia.

Local tribesman chewed green coffee beans directly before learning to roast them to prepare a hot beverage only much later on. Processing the fresh leaves or berries and adding them to boiling water released a whole new world of flavours. This you can imagine made a pleasant change from drinking only water and also importantly, reduced the risk of getting ill from drinking dirty or contaminated water. So while we now know the health benefits of drinking green tea daily, it was popularised initially purely for the pleasure of its taste and to be consumed with meals to help digestion (like we do in most Chinese restaurants in Europe or North America today).

China tea picker making green tea for Chateaiu Rouge Fine Foods UK

How is green tea made

Both frying and steaming are processes that inhibit oxidation of green tea leaves and still used today from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. However, with the passage of time and the introduction of more modern technology, the process of making green tea has gradually evolved and became very refined.

Like in all industries this has been primarily driven by the need to improve efficiencies, reducing costs but also a growing worldwide demand for healthier organic loose tea, flavoured iced tea drinks and Japanese matcha tea powder.

Today, fixing of green tea leaves is a highly refined process that makes use of cooking techniques like roasting and baking in a hot wok, for a short period - this means in essence quickly halting the deterioration or wilting of the freshly picked leaves, which means the leaves are then preserved in this state for a number of years before starting to loose freshness.

With the demand for high-quality, provenance and organic; there is a resurgence of small artisan growers who are producing some delicious teas: a welcome change from mass production, back to the traditions of the Chinese tea masters of old.

Japanese green tea culture

Green tea seeds were first introduced to Japan by travelling Chinese Buddhist monks, Kukai and Saicho. Another Buddhist monk called Eisai further popularised tea farming in Japan during the 12th century, when he stressed that tea was not just for the consumption of Buddhists alone, but that everyone should drink the beverage because of its health benefits.

Today, Japanese styled tea is also famous in many parts of the world; moreover, nearly 100% of the commercial production of tea in Japan is that of green tea and matcha; starkly contrasted to China where black tea (and even yellow or red tea) is still a big part of the market. China produces some well recognised black teas, like Keemun which creates a smooth, milky cup and is used in more premium earl grey blends or famously Pu-erh tea, black tea that is aged for 15+ years wrapped in a cloth and stored in the ground. And many lesser-known varieties.

Japanese green teas usually impart a dark greenish-yellow colour, and unlike Chinese tea drinks, they are nearly all produced using traditional methods of steaming. While in China, green tea is mostly pan-fried replacing the old process of cooking or steaming. Except in the case of matcha, which has grown so popular the last few years that factories in China now too have been set up to focus almost exclusively on producing organic matcha of various grades. Used in anything from baking, confectionary or chocolates, and even some famous smoothie brands and cafes, all serving matcha in their recipes.

Terracotta warriors and the essential periods in the Chinese history of green tea with Chateau Rouge Fine Foods UK

Essential time periods in the history of Chinese green tea

Wei Jin Dynasties (3rd to 6th century)

During the reign of Wei Jin dynasty, tea drinking became very popular and reached the masses from the nobles. Scented teas were introduced to reduce the bitter taste of the green tea beverage.

Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th century)

Tea drinking became an integral part of the society during this time, and more formal tea ceremonies began to be organised in China. Steaming of green tea leaves started during this period which led to a more refined and better taste of the beverage.

Song Dynasty (10th to 13th century)

The concept of tribute teas started during this period. These premium quality teas were gifted to the Emperor and other nobles. This practice led to the development of new types of green teas, and the quality of brews improved as people were desirous of tasting the flavours of Emperor’s tea. 

Ming Dynasty (14th to 17th century) 

The Golden age of green tea started as Emperor Zhu Yanzhang abolished control over the production of premium quality of Chinese green tea. Loose green tea flourished during this period.

Conclusion

It's hard to imagine that the mug of loose speciality tea you may be drinking can indirectly link you back to over 5,000 years of human cultural evolution, all the way back to ancient China. But if you consider that all tea plants since (across the globe) are all descendants of those original trees in China, you start to realise how interconnected we all are and that tea through the ages and from around the world joins us all...


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