The Origins of Tea
Where it’s hot and relatively wet, there’s tea. Tea is grown in well over 30 countries in the world and generally speaking, only between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – but there are some exceptions.
As tea is a plant, its growth is subject to climatic and topographical conditions much the same as any other plant. As a result, teas from one area of an estate will taste different to another – and even this will change from day to day depending on the temperature, humidity and the number of sunshine hours. Generally speaking, you can characterise teas by the region in which they originate – but once again, there are many exceptions!
Argentina – typically has an earthy character and is fantastic for iced tea as it is fairly neutral in flavour and has a deep red colour that remains transparent in the glass.
Australia – you wouldn’t expect Australia to be on this list, yet there are a couple of estates producing a small amount of tea that’s fairly bright and not bad quality.
Bangladesh – the leaf tends to be very black and uniform in shape and the liquors are relatively dull – not famed for its quality although a few gems can be found in a good season.
Brazil – tea from Brazil has a lovely inexplicable nutty character when brewed with or without milk. It’s golden in liquor with a good thick mouth feel. I have to admit, this nutty character makes it one of my absolute favourites.
China – what can I say about China? China is singularly the most complicated yet creative of the tea growing origins and requires a whole book just to explain teas from a single region. Most tea in China is grown on small family run plots rather than organised estates and as a result, each one has it’s own distinct character. Generally speaking, green tea is preferred in China, but can be in infinite shapes, sizes, colours and flavours – just watch out for Pu-erh tea, it’s considered a delicacy as it’s buried in the ground to ferment for dozens of years, but only drink it if you have a strong constitution! In China, black tea is (unjustly) considered inferior to green tea and is therefore usually manufactured at the end of the season – this is probably where people’s perception of green tea being better for you originated.
Ethiopia – a relative newcomer to the tea world, there are only a handful of estates, but they provide bright golden liquors with lots of flavour.
Georgia – Probably the most well known of the former Soviet States that produces tea. The small amount that is exported tends to have a fairly neutral flavour that works best drunk without milk. Most Georgian tea finds its way into the teacups of Russia.
India – like China, India has a vast array of styles and flavours based on the area in the country the estate is situated. The best known of these is the Darjeeling region in the foothills of the Himalayas – affectionately known as “the champagne of tea” as only tea from the region can be called a true Darjeeling – it has a very distinctive pungent flavour and the leaf is generally a mottled green colour even though in theory it is a black tea. Assam is the next well-known region – teas from this area have a very thick mouth feel and the liquor is golden with a lovely malty flavour. Tea is also grown in the south of the country with the Nilgiris being the best of these, having a very fresh and green character of flavour.
Indonesia – generally speaking, Indonesian tea is considered a poor man’s Indian, but in some cases this is grossly unfair. Known more for its array of green teas, Indonesia can produce some great solid teas at certain times of the year.
Japan – Once again, there are a plethora of shapes sizes and flavours produced in Japan, but they all generally tend to be fairly delicate and aromatic. Sencha style green tea (steamed rather than dried in the manufacturing process) is the most famous with its intense fresh character. Other, lesser known tea from Japan includes “Genmaicha” which is a delicate green tea mixed with roasted grains of rice – definitely an acquired taste!
Kenya – the largest producer of tea in Africa, a good Kenyan tea will have a golden and bright liquor and would be considered to be relatively strong in flavour and character. As with the rest of African tea, Kenya predominantly produces “cut tear curl” black tea for the tea bag market, but there are a few interesting green and orthodox teas to be found.
Malaysia – the tea produced in Malaysia is usually only drunk in the country itself, but occasionally the odd one finds its way into the world market and can be of pretty good quality.
Malawi – the soil in Malawi is incredibly red and for some reason the tea grown there has inherited this characteristic – sometimes the liquors are almost purple they are so colourful.
Nepal – poor Nepal tends to have a bit of a rough time in the tea world, bullied by the neighbouring tea estates of Darjeeling, the leaf and liquors can be just as good, yet they are unable to class themselves as the “Champagne of teas”.
Papua New Guinea – Not the best tea in the world, but strangely show great liquoring quality and colour in soft water – popularly drunk in Australia where this is the case.
Rwanda – recent political events have decimated the tea crops, but now they are making a comeback to their former glory – producing some of Africa’s finest teas that are so bright you almost have to wear sunglasses when drinking!
South Africa – famed more for it’s indigenous Rooibois, South Africa can also produce some great red or golden teas.
Sri Lanka – like India and China, Sri Lanka is famed for its tea. Depending on the elevation of the tea estates in the country, the tea will characteristically display different flavour traits. A tea from a low grown elevation will usually be darker in liquor and leaf with a heavier mouth feel. From medium elevation, the tea will be easy drinking and have a fairly bright liquor. The highest elevation is the pick of the bunch in my opinion – bright in liquor, strong in flavour and almost medicinal in character for the very best – fantastic either with or without milk.
Taiwan – some weird and wonderful teas of all shapes and sizes can be found here – generally green with a delicate character similar to the teas found in Japan.
Tanzania – until very recently, tea from Tanzania was considered to be of inferior quality to it’s neighbour Kenya, but now there are some great bright and well made teas challenging this conception.
Turkey – probably unknown to most, Turkey is one of the world’s largest producers of tea. Like Argentina, the liquors tend to be red and very clear with a neutral flavour so are perfect for iced teas.
Uganda – after years of neglect, tea bushes in Uganda had grown into trees and now the producers are trying to bring the quality back to normal – it’s great to see some good bright and golden teas being exported once more.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but covers off the main tea growing countries in the world that are exported in any quantity. One thing is for sure, if you multiply the number of countries, by the number of estates, by the number of days in the year, by the number of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours possible for tea, you quite literally do get the possibility of a blend for everyone!
Herbs and flavours
Due to their ever-increasing popularity in a tea drinker’s repertoire, a blender’s knowledge must be as comprehensive for herbal infusions as it is for tea itself. Although herbs used for drinking are generally grown and manufactured in the same way as tea, once again every type of herb has it’s own flavour, appearance and style according to it’s origin in the world. As with tea, each of these characteristics must be learnt the hard way – by tasting!
Many of the tea growing regions of the world will also produce herbs, but in addition to this, certain herbs will grow in Europe, North America, parts of Russia and Northern Africa. To put this into perspective, you can usually grow your own selection of herbs in your garden wherever you live in the world, but you’d probably struggle to grow tea.
As with tea, herbal infusions generally have significant health properties. Often high in antioxidants and usually associated with certain healing abilities, the use of herbs for this reason is as old as man itself.
Below are some of the more common herbs used to make herbal infusions to be drunk just like tea.
Camomile – grown all over the world including Europe, the delicate yellow flowers are often associated with calmness
Hibiscus – very astringent in the mouth, but the striking aspect is in the vibrant blood red colour
Honeybush – another herb indigenous to South Africa, Honeybush has a soft and slightly sweet flavour
Jasmine – traditionally grown and used in China to flavour green tea, the beautiful white flowers have a delicate perfume
Lemongrass – characterised by a soft citrus flavour, normally blended with other herbs to add depth
Peppermint – not only does the strength of peppermint leaves awaken your senses, but also they’re great for digestion
Rooibos – only grown in South Africa, “Red Bush” has a slightly smoky character and is used to aid sleep
Rosehip – famed for it’s healing properties since medieval times, the red berry must be crushed to extract the flavour
At blendsforfriends I only ever use small amounts of herbs in a blend in order to enhance the character. Due to the vastly different flavour characteristics even the most avid herbal infusion drinker will usually only have a small range in their cupboard. With this in mind I wouldn’t want to create a blend of herbs if there was a risk the recipient wouldn’t like the flavour!