Tea was first brewed and consumed in ancient China. Dates conflict, but it is possible that it has been known there for around 4500 years, perhaps even longer. What is known is that tea has been cultivated on plantations in China for nearly 2000 years.
All true tea is made from one plant, Camellia Sinensis. There are different varieties and sub-varieties, but it’s all the same bush. Whether a tea is classified as black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh or yellow depends on a number of factors, but most importantly the drying process.
Tea was discovered growing naturally in India in the late 1700s, and has been comercially cultivated there since the mid-1800s. Most of the tea drunk in Britain comes from India.
Often taken with milk, it is the most common type of tea in Britain. It is also known as oxidised tea. The process comprises of four main stages: withering, rolling, oxidising and finally firing, where all the remaining moisture is dried from the leaves.
This is probably the most popular type of tea in the world, as it is so widely appreciated throughout Eastern Asia. Recently, many in the West have begun to enjoy it too, and it is often heralded for its excellent health properties. Known as non-oxidised tea, green tea is fired soon after picking to de-enzyme the leaves, which stops the oxidation process and prevents extra caffeine from being developed. It is then shaped, often giving it a distinctive appearance, before finally being dried.
The most delicate of all teas, as well as being the lowest in caffeine and the highest in antioxidants. Made only from the buds and the top few leaves of the plant, it is also the least involved process, the leaves being dried very soon after they are picked. The name comes from the tiny silver-white hairs that cover the young buds of the tea plant.
Oolong Tea (sometimes wuolong)
Often mis-classified as either green or black tea, while the truth lies somewhere in between. Known as semi-oxidised tea, it is a distinct class in its own right and comes in green or darker varieties, depending on how much it has been oxidised (usually between 10-70%).
Comes exclusively from the Yunnan province in China, although some estates around the world have begun to experiment with similar production methods. Relatively new to the British market, it has been enjoyed in China for around 1700 years and is currently making waves due to its many health benefits. It is said to aid weight loss, help to lower cholesterol, improve liver function and assist the digestion. Its production is very similar to green tea, but with an extra stage in which the tea is matured under special conditions that encourage active bacteria (think yoghurt) that develop the tea as it oxidises. Like wine, Pu-Erh tea can be stored in the right conditions for a very long time, meaning that it has vintage years known to connoisseurs. The most expensive Pu-Erh teas can sell for thousands of pounds per bag!
A very rare Chinese speciality tea. It is made by a process very similar to green tea, but with an extra stage after pan-firing in which the tea is allowed to mellow very gently in a kind of oxidation that does not rely on enzymes. It can be a difficult process to get right, but it results in a tea that is highly prized, particularly among Chinese tea specialists.