tea

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

tea

tea, tree or bush, its leaves, and the beverage made from these leaves. The plant (Camellia sinensis,Thea sinensis, or C. thea) is an evergreen related to the camellia and indigenous to Assam (India) and probably to parts of China and Japan. In its native state, it grows to a height of about 30 ft (9.1 m), but in cultivation it is pruned to 3–5 ft (91–152 cm). The lanceolate leaves are dark green; the blossom is cream-colored and fragrant. Today tea is consumed by more people and in greater quantity than any beverage except water. The flavor of tea is due to volatile oils, its stimulating properties to caffeine, and its astringency to the tannin content (reduced in black teas by the fermentation process). In all parts of the world, tealike beverages (sometimes called tisanes) are made from the leaves or flowers of a wide variety of other plants, often for their medicinal properties.

Cultivation and Preparation

China, where state farms are being supplanted by private ones, remains the largest tea grower of the world; elsewhere, tea is usually grown on plantations. Tea culture requires a protected, well-drained habitat in a warm climate with ample rainfall. The leaves are picked by hand, principally during flushes (periods of active growth), the most desirable being those near the growing tip. They are prepared by withering, rolling, and firing (i.e., heating).

The many kinds of tea are usually named for their color and grade (the best teas using only the two terminal leaves) or for their district of origin, e.g., Darjeeling and Lapsang. Teas are sometimes scented by exposure to fragrant flowers, e.g., jasmine. Brick tea is made from tea dust or inferior tea pressed into blocks. Black teas (e.g., pekoes, souchongs, and congous) differ from green teas (e.g., imperials, gunpowders, and hysons) in having been fermented before firing; oolongs, intermediate in color and flavor, are partially fermented. Green teas are produced chiefly in China and Japan; black teas in China, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya; and oolongs in Taiwan.

History

Tea was cultivated in China in prehistoric times and was probably first used as a vegetable relish (as it was in American colonies and still is in some parts of Asia) and medicinally. By the 8th cent., cultivation had begun on a commercial scale in China, and shortly thereafter, in Japan. The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced from China in the 15th cent. by Buddhists as a semireligious social custom. Tea was first imported into Europe by the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th cent., and its subsequent popularity played an important role in the opening of Asia to Western commerce.

Until 1834 the British East India Company held a monopoly on imports to Great Britain, trading by direct and indirect routes exclusively with China. Only after this monopoly was broken did other tea-producing areas develop as major exporters—chiefly Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan. Leading importers of tea include Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Russia, and the Netherlands. The United States also is a large importer, although coffee has long been a more popular beverage.

Classification

Tea is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Theales, family Theaceae.

Bibliography

See J. Shalleck, Tea (1972); J. Schapiro et al., The Book of Coffee and Tea (rev. ed. 1982).

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