The beverage tea is an infusion made by steeping the dried leaves or buds of the shrub Camellia sinensis in hot water. Tea may also include other herbs, spices, or fruit flavors. An herbal tea--that is, a tea with no tea leaves in it--is more properly called an infusion or tisane.
Growth and processing
The three main types of tea are distinguished by their processing. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub whose leaves, when picked, start to oxidize. This process is just like the oxidation of fruits; the leaves start to turn brown. The next step in processing is to stop this oxidation by removing the water from the leaves via heating. The term "fermentation" was used (probably by wine fanciers) to describe this process, and has stuck, even though no true fermentation happens.
The three types of tea are usually referred to as:
- Green tea (nearly no oxidation)
- Black tea (substantial oxidation)
- Oolong (烏龍茶) whose oxidation is stopped somewhere in-between.
Black tea is usually named after the region of origin: Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, etc. Most green teas however have kept their traditional Japanese or Chinese names: Genmaicha (玄米茶), Houjicha (焙じ茶), Pouchong (包種茶), etc. Green teas reputedly contain greater levels of antioxidants than black teas.
All types are sold as either "single" teas, meaning just one variety, or as blends. Buyer beware: far more Darjeeling is sold every year than is grown!
Blends and additives
There are various teas which have additives and/or different processing than "pure" varieties:
- Lapsang souchong (正山小種 or 煙小種) from Fujian, China is a strong black tea, which is dried over burning pine, and so winds up with a strong smoky flavor.
- Jasmine tea is spread with jasmine flowers while oxidizing, and occasionally some are left in the tea as a decoration.
- Earl Grey is usually a mix of black teas, with essence of the tropical fruit bergamot added.
Products of some other plant species are also sometimes subsumed under the term tea. Most noticable of them is Yerba Mate. Like tea, and unlike most herbal teas, Yerba Mate contains caffeine.
Tea was first encountered by the Portugese in 1560 in Japan and was soon imported to Europe, where it became popular in France and the Netherlands. English use of tea seems to date from about 1650. The Boston Tea Party was an act of uprising in which Boston residents destroyed British tea in 1773, in protest against the tax on tea. The high demand for tea in Britain caused a huge trade deficit with China. The British set up their own tea plantation in colonial India to provide their own supply. They also tried to balance the trade deficit by selling opium to the Chinese, which later led to the Opium War in 1838-1842.
The word "Tea"
The English word "tea" came from t'e (茶) in Amoy (廈門 Xiamen, Fujian) from southern China. The British shipped tea from southern China to Europe via the sea route. One can tell by which trade route each culture was first exposed to tea based on what tea is called in each language. For example, tea is known as "chai" in Russian, Farsi (Iranian), and some northern European languages. That indicates that they didn't get their tea via the sea. They most probably got their tea via the land route through the Silk Road in the north. Tea is called "cha" (茶) in Mandarin. In Ireland, or at least in Dublin, the term "cha" is sometimes used for tea. Recently in the United States many coffee houses have begun to serve a milky, sweet, spiced tea called "chai" purported to be Indian.
Tea is served both hot and iced, sometimes with lemon, milk, honey, or sugar. Recently, Boba milk tea from Taiwan has become an extremely popular drink among young people. This Asian fad spread to the USA in 2000. (See news)
Drinking tea is often a social event. It is also drunk for its caffeine content throughout the day and especially in the morning to heighten alertness. In Britain and Ireland, "tea" is not only the name of the beverage, but of a late afternoon light meal, called that even if the diners are drinking beer, cider, or juice. Frequently (outside the UK) this is referred to as "high tea", however in the UK "high tea" is a substantial evening meal. The term evidently comes from the meal being eaten at the "high" (main) table, rather than the smaller table common in living rooms.