If you guessed tea, you’d win!
With this fact in mind, it follows that tea is one of the oldest beverages known to man! Its beginnings date to prehistory, a time shrouded in legend and myth.
ORIGINS OF TEA
Tea’s origins began in China, specifically the Yunnan region (see my professionally drawn blue arrow on the map) Click on the map to enlarge!)
This area is long considered the source of indigenous tea bushes. Along Yunnan’s southern edge, its borders with Myanmar and Laos meet easily on paper, however it’s a rugged mountainous area of forested jungles that— in reality—is difficult to separate.
Anthropologists now know that tea trees existed (and still exist today) in enormous swaths of remote forested land that straddled the border areas of those countries. Back then, there were no country borders. Hence the debate you may see about tea’s origins!
They also speculate that prehistoric humans (homo erectus) discovered indigenous tea trees.
Along with the skills of fire-building, they may have burned the wood of the many tea trees they found.
They most likely experimented with adding tea leaves and forest barks to boiling water. One taste of caffeine, and I suspect they were hooked!
I doubt homo erectus had cell phones or flip flops or cans of beer. They may have had adorable puppies, however…
Early Beliefs About Tea
Ancient Chinese healers believed the Great Mother Goddess imbibed plants and minerals w healing properties. That’s why jade is so revered; it is thought to be a stone that stores up ‘soul substance.’ Tea leaves are a brilliant shade of evergreen. It may be why in China, tea came to be known as ‘froth of the liquid jade.’
At first, tea was consumed for its medicinal properties. For any given ailment, tea leaves were boiled with other plants, seeds, barks, and leaves. This laid the groundwork for China’s famous herbal-healing traditions.
From Religion to Culture
China’s three great philosophy religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, sprouted during the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BC) All three embraced tea for its healthful virtues and powers of rejuvenation.
I suspect the monks and priests found that tea helped them stay awake during long mediations!
The emperor responsible for unifying China began construction of the Great Wall.
Cultural unification also occurred under his reign. Word spread about the beneficial tonic called tea.
Different dynasties rose and fell, and with them, attitudes about tea changed. Tea became associated with high art, luxury and culture.
Eventually, barbarians in the west learned of tea. Trade became robust.
Exchanging One Addiction for Another
I could write a book about tea’s spread from east to west. Let’s fast forward instead, to Great Britain in the 18th century and the East India Company. Westerners were obsessed with tea, but China held the reins. And China wanted cash for tea. (At that time, cash meant silver) British traders were at their wits’ end. What did they do? They traded one addiction for another.
Sneaky. Clever. Evil.
Papaver somniferum (opium from the poppy plant) for Camellia sinensis (tea leaves)
What a deal.
In 1729, because of concerns about the spread of addiction, China had issued an edict against smoking opium. But that did not include importation. (loophole much?)
Thus started one of the most sinister chapters in Western imperialist history.
Two armed conflicts, called the Opium Wars, followed China’s attempts to suppress opium use within its borders, and British efforts to keep opium trafficking routes open so they could sell tea. In each case, the Chinese lost, and European powers gained commercial privileges and land concessions from China. (Bye bye Hong Kong!)
Speaking of Drugs....
Tea leaves have several beneficial drugs. (NOTE: this post does not condone the recreational use of opiates in any form…Alex suggested I add this)
Yes, tea has caffeine. (more on caffeine here!)
Caffeine can be found in the seeds, leaves, and fruit of more than sixty plants.
The amount of caffeine in tea leaves varies from 2-5%. It’s not necessarily true that black tea has the most caffeine, white the least, with oolong and green in between.
It is true that young tea leaves have less caffeine than older ones, and since white teas are made up of more young leaves, a cup of white tea has less caffeine.
Interestingly, a pound of tea leaves has more caffeine than a pound of coffee beans! (more about coffee here!)
The difference is that on a weight basis, more bean is needed to brew coffee than tea leaf to brew tea!
I’m with President Lincoln. I’m in it for the caffeine. And the anti-oxidants. An extra amino acid can’t hurt.
Chocolate has caffeine too!
In a traditional Chinese tea house today, tea may be served with small snacks such as hard-boiled quail eggs. I like eggs, but with a hot cup of tea, I think chocolate is the way to go.
Four Types of Tea
Strange as it seems, all real tea is derived from the same plant! Camellia sinensis.
Tea grown in different parts of the world –with different climates and soil types– imparts different flavors. It is the process of how the leaves picked and when, how they’re dried, or withered, allowed to oxidize or not, compressed or hand worked which determine the classes of tea.
(oxidation : the loss of electrons during a reaction)
Adding scents and the flavors of fruits and flowers comes later.
It gets pretty complicated!
I’ve never tried it but I’m curious.
What is Herbal Tea?
Maybe you’re wondering about herbal tea. The packages at the store tout its positive properties and the fact that it’s caffeine free. How can that be, when Camellia sinensis leaves have caffeine?
Because herbal tea is not technically tea! It isn’t derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal tea is known as a tisane. They are made of other leaves, fruits, bark, roots, or flowers belonging to almost any edible, non-tea plant.
This doesn’t make them bad! They have benefits and can be found in a myriad of delicious flavors. Tisanes date back to ancient times too, when they were used for health and spiritual benefits, just like tea. But herbal tea isn’t tea.
Proper Way to Steep Tea
Any post about tea has to include proper preparation!
The boiling process is critical for oxygenating the water and drawing out flavors of your tea. Wait until small strings of bubbles appear for white and green teas. This occurs around 185 degrees F. Oolong and black tea are good with a full boil. (212 F)
- Use a stove kettle or electric kettle
Microwave boiling will result in uneven temperatures. And impart food odors into your tea. Ok. I've used the microwave. Guilty as charged.
- Steep for the correct amount of time
Under-steeping = weak tea Over-steeping = bitter tea
Don't Squeeze the Tea Bag
WHAT?! I thought the same thing. Get all the flavor.(I even had this cool move with my spoon.) Not so. You're releasing the tannins when you squeeze the bag. This makes your tea bitter!
Whether you drink tea like President Lincoln did to stay awake, for its its anti-oxidants, because it calms you, is steeped with tradition and feels magical, or just because it tastes great, tea is here to stay!
What’s your favorite tea? I’d love to know in comments below!