The Story of Tea
Let us begin with a question : can you name the
most widely consumed beverage in the world, after
Perhaps many of you have guessed the answer :
the most popular beverage in the world is tea - the
fresh, aromatic brew with which people like to begin
their day. It has a refreshing, astringent flavour. It is
actually made by brewing, that is by infusing in
boiling water, the leaves and shoots of a plant whose
botanical name is the Camellia sinensis. The leaves
are at first dried, cured and processed before they are
packed and sold to us.
Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant that grows
in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Tea plants require
at least 100-125 cm of rainfall a year and prefer
acidic soils. Many of the world’s best tea estates are
located on hill slopes at elevations of up to 1500
metres : it is said that the tea plants grow slowly and
acquire a richer flavour at this height.
When the plants mature, only the top 1-2 inches
of the plant are picked. These buds and leaves are
called flushes. A new flush appears on the plant every
seven to ten days during the peak growing season.
Left to grow on its own, the tea plant may actually
grow into a small tree. But in all tea gardens, the
plants are pruned and kept at a height of about three
feet (waist high) to enable easy plucking of the leaves.
The teas we buy are usually classified according
to their leaf size. Accordingly we have (1) Assam
type of tea, characterised by the largest leaves;
(2) China type, characterised by the smallest leaves;
and (3) Cambod, characterised by leaves of intermediate
We have three very distinct and different tea
growing regions in India. Each of these regions is
famous for the special type of tea it produces, which
are unique in taste, aroma, strength and flavour. The
three regions are : Darjeeling in North-Eastern India,Assam in far North-East India and Nilgiris in South
Most people agree that tea is a refreshing drink.
It contains no carbohydrates, fat, or proteins. What
gives tea its special and distinctive flavour is theanine
as well as caffeine, which give the drink its stimulating
How and when did people first begin to drink tea?
An amusing story has come down to us from Chinese
legends. It is said that Emperor Shennong, the father
of Chinese agriculture and medicine, was on his
travels, when a servant was boiling some water for
the emperor to drink. Just then, a few leaves from a
nearby tree blew into the boiling water. The water
immediately changed colour. On drinking the water,
the emperor was amazed by the rich flavour and the
refreshing quality of the resulting infusion. Excited by
the unknown plant and its amazing flavour, he carried
out further investigations, and discovered that tea had
many healing and restorative properties and could also
be used as an antidote to certain poisons.
Yet another legend tells us that it was a Buddhist
monk named Bodhidharma who was the first to use
tea as a drink. He was keen to find a herb or a
medicinal plant which would help him stay awake and
alert for long periods of time in prayer and meditation.
After considerable search and trial, he found that
chewing leaves from the tea shrub acted as a stimulant,
helping him stay awake. It was he who introduced
tea among his disciples in China. It is said that
Japanese priests studying under Buddhist teachers in
China carried tea seeds and leaves back home with
them. Turkish traders also began to bargain for tea
on the border of Mongolia. In fact, the story goes that
the Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung was so taken up with
tea that he set up a research into the best teawhisking
methods and also hosted tea-making
and tea-tasting tournaments in the court. So
‘tea minded’ was he, that he failed to notice
that Mongolia had actually taken over his
empire!Thus the habit of drinking tea spread to Japan,
Europe and England, where it became a fashionable
and popular drink among the people.
How did this magical beverage get its name? The
Chinese character t’u was first used in early inscriptions
to describe tea. But later, a new character, ch’a, was
developed to refer specifically to tea. The word ch’a
is now sometimes used in English to refer to China
tea. And, as we all know, it is very close to the Hindi
word chai, which is used all over India to refer to
How did tea first come to India? Historians think
that tea had been known in India as a medicinal plant
since ancient times, but tea was not drunk for pleasure
until the British began to establish plantations in the
19th century. In the 1770s, the British East India
Company made several unsuccessful attempts to grow
tea in Bhutan and Assam, with seeds from China.
Although these attempts failed, the botanist Robert
Bruce in 1823 discovered tea plants growing wild in
the Upper Brahmaputra valley. In May 1838, the first
Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public
sale. Since then India has gone on to become one of
the leading producers of tea in the world.
Tea lovers claim that tea may be able to reduce
the risk of cancer, control blood pressure, fight viruses
in our body and actually help us live longer!
Our body produces chemicals called free radicals.
They can damage our body and our health. Tea
contains antioxidants called flavonoids. Scientists
believe these help to protect our system against free
For many people tea is a popular drink to have
with friends. In many countries around the world, tea
drinking is an important social occasion.
Japan, China, Russia and Korea have special tea
ceremonies and traditions. These ceremonies give
people the time to relax and enjoy the taste and the
smell of the tea.
Most people in Japan belong to a ‘tea club’ where
they go every week to take part in the tea ceremony.Ordinary people also feel that tea ceremonies are
spiritual occasions that are closely associated with
their religion. ‘Tea,’ they say, ‘is a healthy, enjoyable
and stimulating drink, full of good qualities. It
reduces loneliness and calms your heart; it is a
comfort in everyday life’.
Many Koreans today still have tea ceremonies
for important occasions including special birthdays
In most areas of China
the tea is made in small clay
teapots. At tea ceremonies,
cups are only half-filled. The
Chinese believe that the rest of the cup must be
filled with friendship and affection.
In Russia, tea is made and served in samovars
- a special Russian tea kettle, made of metal.
Vietnam produces special varieties of tea such
as lotus tea and jasmine tea.
In Japan, tea is made using powdered green tea
called ‘matcha’. The tea is mixed with boiled water
using a bamboo whisk and served in small bowls.
And how about India ? A cup of tea is offered
to any guest or visitor as a token of hospitality even
in the humblest of homes. Most Indians like their
tea hot with a good deal of milk and sugar in it.
In the rainy season, it is brewed with ginger to give
it additional medicinal properties. Others add spices,
like cardamom, cloves or mace, to add to its taste
and flavour. Tea is a must after a plate of spicy
snacks, especially in the morning and evenings.
Some connoisseurs relish delicately flavoured
jasmine tea, green tea, lemon tea and even iced tea!
How about you?