What is Tea?

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“Not for all the tea in China” - British proverb

There could not be a more inappropriate proverb in the whole English language. There is, without a doubt, nothing the British wouldn’t have done to get their hands on tea. The British Empire would stop at nothing, including war and drug peddling, to get hold of the leaf.

This was all because it was tasty, and better for us than gin.

And also because it acquired status from its high-brow supporters, the gentry who first drank the tea (they could afford it) gave tea a mystique and culture which was passed down to the rest of society.

Tea was expensive because it came from a far flung corner of the globe, China. At the time China was a mysterious and exotic place, ruled by the powerfully xenophobic Qing dynasty. The Qing emperors were happy to allow the British to buy tea, but jealously guarded foreign access to the plantations. Over time, the British Empire consumed such a great quantity of tea that an unsustainable trade deficit grew, the Chinese needed nothing from the British in quantities large enough to offset this obsession with tea.

Except Opium, which is (arguably) even more addictive than tea. So the Empire began smuggling opium into China, much to the distress of the Qing Emperor, which triggered the Opium Wars (during which Britain also snaffled Hong Kong). Eventually the British succeeded in finding tea growing on its ‘own’ soil in India, reducing the need for tea from China (does the Assam region sound familiar?).

Camillia-sinensisContrary to popular belief there is only one kind of tea tree, Camellia Sinensis, and the different varieties are the product of different methods of producing the dried leaves, and regional flavour variations. Most tea drunk in Britain is black tea, which gets its colour from the oxidisation process. The most common teas are also blended, they do not come from one particular region, but are a concoction of teas from around the world, blended to create a tea which the British favour. When tea is made using leaves only from one region, it is unblended and usually named after the region it was produced, for example Darjeeling and Ceylon.