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Tea is a caffeinated beverage, an infusion made by steeping the dried leaves or buds of the shrub Camellia sinensis in hot water. In addition, tea may also include other herbs, spices, or fruit flavours.

The word "tea" is also used, by extension, for any fruit or herb infusion; for example, "rosehip tea" or "camomile tea". In cases where they contain no tea leaves, some people prefer to call these beverages "tisanes" or "herbal teas" to avoid confusion. This article is concerned with the "true" tea, Camellia sinensis.


Cultivation and classification

Tea is grown primarily in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Republic of Korea,Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, Australia, Argentina, and Kenya. (Note that in the tea trade, Sri Lanka and Taiwan are still referred to by their former names of Ceylon and Formosa, respectively.)

Divisions of tea by processing technique

Camellia sinensis
Camellia sinensis

The four main types of tea are distinguished by their processing. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub whose leaves, if not quickly dried after picking, soon begin to wilt and oxidize. This process resembles the malting of barley, in that starch is converted into sugars; the leaves turn progressively darker, as chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. The next step in processing is to stop the oxidation process at a predetermined stage 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 (i.e. the process is not driven by microbes and produces no ethanol). Without careful moisture and temperature control, fungi will grow on tea. The fungi will cause fermentation which will contaminate the tea with toxic and carcinogenic substances. In fact, when real fermentation happens, the tea must be discarded.

Tea is traditionally classified into four main groups, based on the degree or period of oxidation the leaves have undergone:

Black tea 
The most common tea in the western countries. Substantial oxidation; the literal translation of the Chinese word is red tea, which may be used by some tea-lovers. The oxidation process will take around 2 weeks and up to 1 month . Black tea is further classified as either orthodox or CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl, a production method developed about 1932). Unblended black teas are also identified by the estate they come from, their year and the flush (first, second or autumn). Orthodox and CTC teas are further graded according to the post-production leaf quality by the Orange Pekoe system.
Green tea 
The oxidation process is stopped after a minimal amount of oxidation by application of heat; either with steam, a traditional Japanese method; or by drying on hot pans, the traditional Chinese method. The tea is processed within one to two days of harvesting.
Oolong (烏龍茶) 
Oxidation is stopped somewhere between the standards for green tea and black tea. The oxidation process will take 2 to 3 days.
White tea 
Young leaves (new growth buds) that have undergone no oxidation; the buds may be shielded from sunlight to prevent formation of chlorophyll. White tea is produced in lesser quantities than most of the other styles, and can be correspondingly more expensive than tea from the same plant processed by other methods. It is also less well-known in the western countries, though this is changing with the introduction of white tea in bagged form.

Unusual variations

There are several tea preparations available which do not fit into the usual nomenclature:

Pu-erh (普洱茶) 
A special category of tea from Yunnan province, China. The tea is usually compressed into shapes such as bricks, discs or spinning tops. There are less oxidised forms, called green (青饼) and mutual (熟饼) respectively. Mutual pur-erh is made from green Pur-Erh tea leaf that going through second stage of oxidation process, using a method similar to compost bin, but with careful moisture and temperature monitoring. While most teas are consumed within a year of production, pu-erh can be kept for years for the aging process. The tea is often steeped for long periods of time or even boiled (Tibetans boil it overnight). Pu-erh is considered a medicinal tea in China.
Yellow tea 
Either used as a name of high-quality tea served at the Imperial court, or of special tea processed similarly to green tea, but with a slower drying phase.
Chong Cha (虫茶) 
Literally worm tea, this brew is made from the seeds of tea shrubs instead of the leaves. It is used in Chinese medicine for coping with summer heat as well as for treating influenza symptoms.
Also called winter tea, kukicha is made from twigs and old leaves pruned from the tea plant during its dormant season and dry-roasted over a fire. Popular as a health food in Japan and in macrobiotic diets.
Lapsang souchong (正山小种 or 烟小种) 
Originally from Fujian, China, Lapsang souchong is a black tea which is dried over burning pine, thereby developing a strong smoky flavour.
Rize Tea (ay) 
Black tea produced in Rize Province on the eastern Black Sea coast of Turkey, that is crystal clear and mahogany in color. Prepared in a samovar, it can be served strong ("koyu" dark) or weak ("aik" open), in small glasses with cubed sugar.

Tea gallery

Blends and additives

Almost all teas in tea-bags and most other teas are blends. Though recently with improvements in the dry freeze technique and the improved infusion method, tea powder and condensed tea essence that only needs hot or cold water to make a cup of tea are sold. Blending may occur at the level of tea-planting area (e.g. Assam), or teas from many areas may be blended. The aim of blending is a stable taste over different years, and a better price. More expensive, more tasty tea may cover the inferior taste of cheaper tea.

There are various teas which have additives and/or different processing than "pure" varieties. Tea is able to easily receive any aroma, which may cause problems in processing, transportation or storage of tea, but can be also advantageously used to prepare scented teas.

Variants include:

Breakfast tea 
Generally a blend of different black teas that are robust and full-bodied, and go well with milk. Some flavors are English, Irish and Scottish. Afternoon blends are lighter. Both blends are popular in the British Isles.
Jasmine tea 
Spread with jasmine flowers while oxidizing, and occasionally some are left in the tea as a decoration. Many other flowers, including roses and other fragrant blooms, are used as flavouring in tea in China.
Earl Grey tea 
Usually a mix of black teas, with essence of the citrus fruit bergamot added.
Spiced teas 
Include the Indian chai, flavored with sweet spices such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, clove, Indian bay leaf and sometimes nutmeg are common in southern Asia and the Middle East.
Touareg Tea 
Strong green tea with Nana mint, prepared in desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East.
A tea with rum added.
Gen Mai Cha (genmaicha)
A Japanese tea with roasted rice added, and favored (as are many teas) by adherents of a macrobiotic diet.


Tea creation myths

  • In one story, Gautama Buddha is said to have discovered tea, when a falling tea leaf happened to land in his cup one day as he sat meditating in a garden.
  • Another story has it that Bodhidharma cut his eyelids off so that he wouldn't fall asleep while meditating, and the first tea plants sprang up from the ground where he flung the severed eyelids.
  • In yet another story Shennong (the legendary Emperor of China and founder of Chinese medicine) was on a journey, when a few leaves from a wild tea tree fell into his hot water. He tasted the mixture out of curiosity and liked its taste and its restorative properties. He then found that tea leaves eliminated numerous other poisons from the body. Because of this, tea is considered one of the earliest Chinese medicines.

Origin and dissemination of tea

Tea plantation in .
Tea plantation in Malaysia.

It is not known whether the tea plant was indigenous to China, India or both; historically the origin of tea as a medicinal herb useful for staying awake is unclear. The use of tea as a beverage drunk for pleasure on social occasions dates from the Tang Dynasty or earlier. For its later uses, see below. The Tang dynasty writer Lu Yu 陆羽's Cha Jing 茶经 is an early work on the subject.

As the Venetian explorer Marco Polo failed to mention tea in his travel records, it is conjectured that the first Europeans to encounter tea were either Jesuits living in Beijing who attended the court of the last Ming Emperors; or Portuguese explorers visiting Japan in 1560. Russia discovered tea in 1618 after a Ming Emperor of China offered it as a gift to Czar Alexis .

Soon imported tea was introduced to Europe, where it quickly became popular among the wealthy in France and the Netherlands. English use of tea dates from about 1650 and is attributed to Catherine of Braganza (Portuguese princess, and queen consort of Charles II of England).

See also: History of tea in China

Industrial revolution

Tea may have played a part in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This revolution occurred in the middle to late 18th century in the area around Manchester and Liverpool in England, when the population exceeded a critical number. Usually, the lack of drinking water and insanitary conditions caused by very large cities produced a natural limit to the population for any conurbation. The antiseptic properties of large-scale tea drinking may have brought the sewerage conditions within controllable limits. Together with access to channelled water, this allowed the area to exceed previous population limits, and provide the necessary interworking between trades that sparked the revolution.

Exploitation, supply and demand

The high demand for tea in Britain caused a huge trade deficit with China. The British set up tea plantations 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 First Opium War in 1838–1842.

The Boston Tea Party was an act of uprising in which Boston residents destroyed crates of British tea in 1773, in protest against the tax on tea. Prior to the Boston Tea Party, residents of Britain's North American 13 colonies drank far more tea than coffee. In Britain, coffee was more popular. After the protests against the various taxes, Americans stopped drinking tea as an act of patriotism. Similarly, Britons slowed their consumption of coffee.

These days, contradicting tea economies do exist. Tea farmers in the Republic of Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China often enjoy better incomes compared to farmers in black tea producing countries.

The word tea

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, but it is pronounced very differently in the various Chinese dialects. Two pronunciations have made their way into other languages around the world. One is 'te' (POJ: t) which comes from the Minnan dialect spoken around the port of Xiamen (Amoy). The other is 'cha', used by the Cantonese dialect spoken around the ports of Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong, as well as in the Mandarin dialect of northern China. Yet another different pronunciation is 'zoo', used in the Wu dialect spoken around Shanghai.

Languages that have Te derivatives include Armenian, Danish, Dutch, English ('tea'), Finnish, Estonian ('Tee'), French, German ('Tee'), Hebrew ('תה', /te/ or /tei/), Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian ('t'), Latvian, Malay, Norwegian, Polish (herbata from Latin herba the), Singhalese, Spanish (t), Swedish ('te'), Tamil, Yiddish, and scientific Latin.

Those that use Cha derivatives include Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian,Bangla, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hindi, Japanese ('茶', 'ちゃ', 'cha'), Korean, Nepali, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian ('???', 'chai'), Serbian, Slovene, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

It is tempting to correlate these names with the route that was used to deliver tea to these cultures, but this correspondence does not follow. For example, most British trade went through Canton, which uses cha.

In Ireland, or at least in Dublin, the term "cha" is sometimes used for tea, and "char" was a common slang term for tea throughout British Empire and Commonwealth military forces in the 19th and 20th centuries, crossing over into civilian usage. In North America, the word "chai" is used to refer almost exclusively to the Indian "chai" (or "masala chai") beverage.

Perhaps the only place in which a word unrelated to tea is used to describe the beverage is South America (particularly Andean countries), because a similar stimulant beverage, hierba mate, was consumed there long before tea arrived. In various places of South America, any tea is referred to as mate.

Tea culture

Tea is often drunk at social events, especially early in the day to heighten alertness—it contains theophylline and bound caffeine (sometimes called "theine"), although there are also decaffeinated teas.

There are tea ceremonies which have arisen in different cultures, Japan's complex, formal and serene one being the most known. Other examples are the Korean tea ceremony or some traditional ways of brewing tea in Chinese tea culture.


In China, at least as early as the Tang Dynasty, tea was an object of connoisseurship, and formal tea-tasting parties were held, comparable to modern wine tastings. As much as in modern wine tastings, the proper vessel was important; the white tea used at that time called for a dark bowl in which the tea leaves and hot water were mixed and whipped up with a whisk. The best of these bowls, glazed in patterns with names like oil spot, hare's fur, and tortoise shell, are highly valued today. Tea houses can be found in many neighborhoods and business districts. Chinese-style tea houses offer dozens of varieties of hot and cold tea concoctions. They also serve a variety of tea-friendly and/or tea-related snacks. Beginning in the late afternoon, the typical Chinese tea house quickly becomes packed with students and business people, and later at night plays host to insomniacs, night owls, and Triad gangsters simply looking for a place to chill out. Formal tea houses also exist. They provide a range of Chinese and Japanese tea leaves, as well as tea making accoutrements and a better class of snack food. Finally there are the tea vendors, who specialize in the sale of tea leaves, pots, and other related paraphernalia.

See also Taiwan, listed below.


The world's second largest producer, tea is popular all over as a breakfast and evening drink. It is often served as masala chai — with milk and sugar, and sometimes scented. Almost all the tea consumed is black Indian tea. Usually tea leaves are boiled in water while making tea, and milk is added.
Offering tea to almost every visitor to a family is a cultural norm. Tea has entered the common idiom; for example, asking money for "chai-pani" means asking for a tip—in certain states, it may mean asking for a bribe.


"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 an 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. Tea is usually served with milk and sugar, although taking sugar is increasingly less common. There is a tradition of tea rooms in the UK which have declined in popularity since World War II but still exist in small village communities. They usually provide the traditional fare of cream and jam on scones. In Devon and Cornwall particularly, cream teas are a speciality. Lyons Corner Houses were a successful chain of such establishments.


Ireland has, for a long time, been the biggest per-capita consumer of tea in the world. The national average is four cups per person per day, with many people drinking six cups or more.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, tea is served in the English style, with milk and sugar, but the milk is always warmed.


As pictured, Turkish tea or ay is produced on the eastern Black Sea coast, which has a mild climate with high precipitation and fertile soil. Turkish tea is prepared in a samovar and can be served strong ("koyu" dark) or weak ("aik" open). It is drunk from small glasses in order to show the colour of the tea, with lumps of beetroot sugar. As a Muslim country, tea replaces alcohol as the social drink.


In Russia, it is customary to drink tea brewed separately in a teapot and diluted with freshly boiled water. The traditional implement for boiling water for tea used to be the samovar (and sometimes it still is). Tea is a family event, and is usually served with sugar and lemon, and an assortment of jams, pastries and confections, including pastila - pressed apple paste.

Czech Republic

Specific tea culture developed in the Czech Republic in recent years, including many styles of tearooms. Despite having the same name, they are mostly different from the British style tea rooms. Pure teas are usually prepared with respect to habits of country of their origin and good tearoom may offer 80 teas from almost all tea-producing countries. Different tea rooms have also created various blends and methods of preparation and serving.

Commonwealth countries

Devonshire tea is the staple "tea ceremony" of the English speaking Commonwealth countries, available in homes and tea rooms throughout the United Kingdom, Australia, India and New Zealand. Devonshire tea is almost unknown in the USA.

United States

In the United States, tea is often served cold, or iced. Sweet tea, with sugar or corn syrup added whilst the tea is still hot from brewing, the mixture then being cooled with ice, is ubiquitous in the Southern U.S. states. Iced tea can be purchased, like soda, in canned or bottled form at vending machines and convenience stores, usually, this pre-made tea is sweetened, and sometimes lemon flavoring is added. Sun tea is brewed by leaving the water and tea with direct sunlight as the only source of heat; steeping times are necessarily long. Recently, bubble tea from Taiwan has become popular in the USA. The so-called Long Island iced tea actually contains no tea — it is an alcoholic cocktail that looks like and, if made correctly, tastes like iced tea.

Hot tea is often consumed "black" but sugar or honey can be added, milk or creamer is less common. It is also common for tea to be flavored by adding a slice of lemon, or lemon juice. When cream is added to tea, it is called "English style". Most American restaurants are not familiar with tea preparation: instead of pouring boiling water over tea leaves or a tea bag they bring the customer a tea bag and a cup (or small pot) of hot water to dunk it in; if the customer is lucky the water has just been boiled, but often it has been sitting for a while and there is no way to know. Traditionally, red and white teas were difficult to find in the U.S., and even green tea was uncommon; however, they have recently become more popular. Recently, many coffee houses have begun to serve a milky, sweet, spiced tea called "chai", based on Indian "masala chai".
In Southern states, when a person says "tea" they normally mean iced tea. In the North, "tea" generally means the hot beverage. This can cause confusion when one is visiting a different part of the country.


Cold tea is very popular in Japan as well. In cafeterias and lunch-type restaurants, the meal is usually served with hot or cold green tea according to the customer's preferences. Black tea, often with milk or lemon, is served in Western style restaurants. Most of the ubiquitous vending machines also carry a wide selection of both hot and cold bottled teas. Historically, the rituals and the traditional dark pottery of China were adopted in Japan beginning in the 12th century, and gave rise to the Japanese tea ceremony, which took its final form in the 16th century.


Recently, bubble tea from Taiwan has become an extremely popular drink among young people. This Asian fad spread to the USA in 2000, where it is generally called "bubble tea" or "pearl milk tea". (See news)


Butter, milk, salt, and sugar are added to brewed tea and churned to form a hot drink called Po cha in Tibet. Traditionally it is made with a domestic brick tea and yak's milk, then mixed in a churn for several minutes. Using a generic black tea, milk and butter, and shaking or blending work well too. (see recipe)

Tea preparation

A Japanese teapot
A Japanese teapot

This section describes the most widespread method of making tea. Completely different methods are used in North Africa, Tibet and perhaps in other places.

The best way to prepare tea is usually thought to be with loose tea placed either directly in a teapot or contained in a tea infuser, rather than a teabag. However, perfectly acceptable tea can be made with teabags. Some circumvent the teapot stage altogether and brew the tea directly in a cup or mug.

Historically in China, tea is divided into first, second, third, and fourth and fifth infusions. The first infusion of tea made is immediately poured out to wash the tea, and then, the second and further infusions are then had. The third through fifth are nearly always considered the best infusions of tea, although different teas open up differently, and may require more infusions of boiling water to bring them to life.

Black Tea 
The water for black teas should be added at the boiling point (100°C), except for very delicate Darjeeling teas, where slightly lower temperatures are recommended. This will have as large an effect on the final flavour as the type of tea used. The most common fault when making black tea is to use water at too low a temperature. Since boiling point drops with altitude, this makes it difficult to brew black tea properly in mountainous areas. The tea should not be allowed to steep for less than 30 seconds or more than about five minutes (a process known as brewing or [dialectally] mashing in the UK): after that, tannin is released, which counteracts the stimulating effect of the theophylline and caffeine and makes the tea bitter (at this point it is referred to as being stewed in the UK).
Green Tea 
Water for green tea, according to most accounts, should be around 80 to 85°C — the higher the quality of the leaves, the lower the temperature. Preferably, the container in which the tea is steeped — the mug or teapot — should also be warmed beforehand (usually by swirling a little hot water around it then pouring it out) so that the tea does not immediately cool down.
Oolong Tea 
Oolong teas should be brewed around 90 to 100 °C or 194 to 212 °F. The brewing vessel should be warmed before brewing the tea as mentioned in the Green Tea section above. Yixing clay teapots are the ideal brewing vessel for oolong tea. For best results use spring water, as the minerals in spring water tend to bring out more flavor in the tea.
Premium or Delicate Tea 
Some teas, especially green teas and delicate Oolong or Darjeeling teas, are steeped for shorter periods, sometimes less than 30 seconds. Using a tea strainer separates the leaves from the water at the end of the brewing time if a tea bag is not being used.
In order to preserve the pre-tannin tea without requiring it all to be poured into cups a second teapot is employed. The steeping pot is best unglazed earthenware — Yixing pots are the best known of these, famed for the high quality clay from which they are made. The serving pot is generally porcelain, which retains the heat better. Larger teapots are a post 19th century invention, as tea before this time was very rare and very expensive.
Experienced tea-drinkers often insist that the tea should not be stirred around while it is steeping (sometimes called winding in the UK). This, they say, will do little to strengthen the tea, but is likely to bring the tannic acids out in the same way that brewing too long will do. For the same reason one should not squeeze the last drops out of a teabag; if you want stronger tea, use more leaves or bags.
Popular additives to tea include sugar or honey, lemon, milk, and fruit jams. Most connoisseurs eschew cream because it overpowers the flavour of tea. The exception to this rule is with very hearty teas such as the East Friesian blend. Milk, however, is thought to neutralize remaining tannins and reduce acidity.
When taking milk with tea, some add the tea to the milk rather than the other way around. If the milk is chilled, this avoids scalding the milk, which leads to a better emulsion and nicer taste. The socially 'correct' method is to add the milk after the tea, but this convention was established before the invention of the refrigerator. Adding the milk first also makes a more milky cup of tea with sugar harder to prepare as there will be no hot liquid in the cup to dissolve the sugar effectively. Of course, if the tea is being brewed in a mug, the milk must be added after the tea bag is removed.
In the United Kingdom, adding the milk first is historically considered a lower-class method of preparing tea – the upper classes always add the milk last. The origin of this distinction is said to be that the rougher earthenware mugs of the working class would break if boiling-hot tea was added directly to them, whereas the fine glazed china cups of the upper class would not. It is now considered by most to be a personal preference.

Tea cards

In the United Kingdom a number of varieties of loose tea sold in packets from the 1940s to the 1970s contained tea cards. These were illustrated cards roughly the same size as cigarette cards and intended to be collected by children. Perhaps the best known were Typhoo tea and Brooke Bond PG Tips the latter of whom also provided albums for collectors to keep their cards in. Some renowned artists were used to illustrate the cards including Charles Tunnicliffe. Many of these card collections are now valuable collectors items.

See also


  • Jane Pettigrew (2002), A Social History of Tea
  • Roy Moxham (2003), Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2005 19:18:26
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