Tea has come a long way from a single leaf plucked from a plant. Today, the tea plant is processed using six methods to become green, white, yellow, oolong, black, and dark (AKA post-fermented) tea. From these six types, we get literally thousands of varieties of tea without leaving the “pure tea” category.
According to most writings, the beginning of tea can be traced to an emperor named Shen Nong in 2700 BCE. While the stories behind tea’s beginning have often been contentious and exaggerated (a tea leaf floating into the emperor’s bath while he was bathing being one of the most fanciful versions), it is clear that tea originated as an herbal remedy.
While it is very possible that tea was initially boiled in water, it is more likely that it was consumed raw, a practice that continues today among minority tribes, such as the Bulang and Wa tribes in Yunnan, commonly believed to be the birthplace of tea. One of the earliest written accounts of tea appears in the Chronicles of Anzi, written from 547-490 BCE. One of its passages describes Anying (Anzi), the Prime Minister of the Qi Nation, consuming tea in the form of a broth. The practice of consuming tea as a broth continues today in the form of Hakka Thunder Rice, which is made from ground tea leaves, ginger, and grain, as well as rice and an assortment of vegetables.
The first documented instance of tea being served as a standalone beverage was in a “slave contract” in 59 BCE. Among the rather extensive tasks outlined in the document were “cook tea and wash the utensils” and “buy tea in Wuyang.” The word used was “烹” instead of “泡” which connotes boiling rather than infusion. While we can infer that there were already dedicated tea utensils during that time, the process of making tea was more akin to cooking or stewing tea, as opposed to using the infusion method we know and love today. While there were other narratives thereafter, it was not until the Tang Dynasty that we had clear written documentation on how tea was produced and consumed.
Lu Yu, commonly referred to as the sage of tea, wrote his seminal work, Cha Jing, or The Classic of Tea, between 760 to 780 CE. From his writings, we learn that during the Tang Dynasty, tea was consumed by adding hot water to tea leaves (or powder) and the tea of that day was produced by steaming tea leaves to halt the oxidation process, which is still essentially how green tea is produced in Japan and certain parts of China (Enshi in Hubei) today. The teas during Lu Yu’s time came in several forms, including “coarse tea,” loose-leaf tea, powdered tea (similar to what is known today as matcha), and tea in cake form (similar to Pu-er cakes today), of which the last is the most common. Tea production during that era was also rather widespread, moving beyond the original birthplace of tea in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Chongqing to include Henan, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, and Jiangsu, among others. During that time, though, tea remained exclusively green tea. So, how did it evolve into the other forms of tea we know today? Stay tuned for my upcoming posts.