One axiom that is typically taught to new tea students is that “all tea comes from the same plant.” If these students continue to learn about tea and study Chinese tea in any depth, they will discover that this statement is almost as wrong as the old belief that black tea and green tea come from two different plants. They may even start to believe there are many different teas produced from many different plants, as the Chinese believe. The different plants are tea cultivars, and to the Chinese, the idea that “all tea comes from the same plant” is absurd. It is not just a matter of culture and language here, it serves the international market in its marketing of commercial tea.
I can almost hear the teeth of Western tea educators and tea merchants grinding as I type this. These are Chinese beliefs, which are certainly the elephant in the room when it comes to Western tea education. Finding out what the Chinese know about tea is not an easy task. Odder still, the Chinese have very little place in defining tea and its categories, considering they know more about tea than anyone. There are even quite a few universities that offer doctoral degrees in a number of fields related to tea. Still, tea in the international market is defined outside of China and that definition does not conform to Chinese standards.
The Chinese are just discovering the concept of intellectual property and have, until recently, made no effort in protecting the intellectual rights that would certainly accompany a French wine. As with wine, a type of tea (defined by Chinese standards) is only authentic if it includes information on the cultivar, place of origin, particular processing, and very defined characteristics manifest in the final product (that is, the shape of processed leaf). Any tea that is outside this standard is, by definition, fake. In China, the customer that buys fake tea is obviously cheated, but there is currently no consumer protection or support for those tea makers producing within the Chinese standards. Certainly one could expect that people outside of China have also been cheated. If I pay a good price for a Parmesan cheese that is labeled “Parmesan,” but it comes from Wisconsin, haven’t I been cheated? The cheese may taste similar to true Parmesan because it is made in exactly the same way, but hasn’t the producer Parma also been cheated, since the label of “Parmesan” has been compromised and does not connote the cheese made under strict Italian standards?
Even though there are no active efforts by China to protect its tea production, there are very strong exporting restrictions regarding tea and other consumable products that took effect in 2008. As far as tea is concerned, it must be tested before it can qualify for legal export, and as part of the exporting inspection process, the tea is evaluated according to those previously mentioned standards set up by the Chinese government. If a tea is called Long Jing, it must conform to those standards – the tea base must be registered (which includes soil and water samples along with documentation of farming practices) and it must also meet the requirements of the country of import in regard to the forms of contaminates. The Chinese government will not allow “puer” made in Guangdong province to be exported using the name puer, according to export reforms made in 2008, much to the chagrin of the Guangdong tea makers that have been faking puer for 50 years, but still says nothing about Malawi calling tea that it is making “puer.” Of course, Chinese trading companies know how to game this system. Moreover, these tea standards only affect Chinese exports, so that doesn’t mean that the Long Jing you are drinking wasn’t made in Africa or South American, where the majority of Europe’s and America’s tea originates.
A few years ago, the international tea industry got together and signed an agreement that addressed how tea categories would be determined by processing alone. Thus, the cultivar and place of origin became completely irrelevant. Moreover, the processing that was defining these tea categories was concerned only with oxidation levels, which excluded any detailed processing. Luo Shou Jun represented China at this conference and refused to sign. Nevertheless, these loose definitions were adapted by the international tea community. Therefore, this resulted in the industry’s ability to legitimately say that all tea comes from the same plant (and through extrapolating – any tea can be made from any cultivar). Sound a little bit absurd?
OK, so what is a cultivar? A cultivar is defined as a plant whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. That means that people intend to develop a cultivar with a specific result in mind. Cultivars have been developed for thousands of years in China, whereas the international commercial tea industry has only been in the business for a little over a century and a half.
It is safe to say that all tea originates from a similar ancient and wild source, and it is certainly true that all tea that ends up in your cup originates from a cultivar. And yes, I know that there are a lot of people saying that they are sourcing wild tea from all over China, but that simply isn’t true. A cultivar can go unattended, which doesn’t mean it reverts back to being wild, just unattended.
A cultivar has definable characteristics that make it different than other cultivars of the same family, and those characteristics have been honed from generation to generation to make a particular tea. No one has cataloged the cultivars in China, but rest assured the number is not small. The Dian Hong Research Institute has more than 200 cultivars in its gardens. Even now, no one knows the link in the evolutionary process between large leaves and small leaves. The information was lost before history could record it; the small leaf first being recorded as a cultivar around 2,000 years ago.
Nigel Melican, who is, in my opinion, the leading expert in commercial tea in the international market (excluding China), will do a workshop this year at the “World Tea Expo,” ironically called “Debunking Tea Myths: Don’t Lie To Your Customers.” I suggested to him during an online discussion that perhaps he might address this statement-turned-myth – that “all tea comes from the same plant.” He refused, stating that indeed it is possible to make any tea from any bush, and that he could do so with his plants in Africa and still have his product be commercially viable. I guess he meant someone would buy his tea regardless of where it came from.
Nigel says with certainty that puer could be made from a Long Jing bush. However, that has never happened, nor could it considering the unique microbiology of the leaves found only in Yunnan that is conducive to the natural fermentation of the tea that makes “puer” puer. You can make both red and white wine from the same grape, but you certainly can’t make a Merlot into a Malbec, the distinguishing factor here being the cultivar.
It’s a bit scary to disagree with Nigel. I have been reading his commentary online for years, but in this case, he is wrong. I only mention Nigel directly because he is the leading Western tea expert and this is a fundamental issue. I have the deepest respect for him, as would any of the Chinese tea scholars or tea producers that I know. He is a wealth of information about tea and its commercial production. However, it is important to note how the international tea industry has a vested interest in maintaining the belief that “all tea comes from the same plant.” It allows them to make teas that the industry can name without being held to the rigorous standards that define Chinese tea. Plus, they are stuck with a very limited number of cultivars in comparison to China, because Chinese cultivars are notoriously difficult to grow outside of China (which the British learned in the middle of the Nineteenth Century; since then, the Chinese have not be keen on allowing foreigners to experiment with their cultivars). There has been some commercially successful white tea produced outside of China. A few years ago, a grower making white tea in Assam asked me why he couldn’t get as much white hair on his tea as the Chinese do, to which I replied “your tea doesn’t originate from the Da Bai Hao bush.” Cultivars do make a difference, not just in appearance.
I think it is important to make the distinction that white tea is a category of tea, not a specific tea. Bai Mu Dan would be an specific, individual tea, that adheres to even more definitions that qualify its name. Puer is also is a category of tea, but the category comes with its own detailed characteristics that limits its production to Yunnan. No other category has these criteria and only Yunnan has the right cultivars and environment that make it possible to make a true puer. So you can see how complicated the issue is.
It is also interesting to note that thanks to the help of the French, only teas that are produced in the Darjeeling area can bear the name Darjeeling. There are multiple cultivars being used in Darjeeling, where they are making what, in most cases, would be classified as oolongs, but are being sold as black tea. It is confusing and doesn’t adhere to any specific tea standards, but Darjeeling teas are nevertheless protected.
All tea producers that use a cultivar, along with skilled and detailed processing, have the right to protect their intellectual property, whether it be the Chinese or the African tea Nigel Melican mentioned. Standards need to be set that are inclusive and meaningful. Perhaps the Chinese have been excluded from setting international standards for too long (and when they were included, they were ignored if they did not agree). The Chinese also need to be more open when it comes to sharing information about tea, both in the cultivation and tea-making processes.
Currently, black tea is – for the first time in history – selling for very high prices in China. Won’t it be interesting if the great Indian and Sri Lankan black tea makers started focusing on the Chinese market instead of Europe and the United States? It is an interesting thought.
The answer to the question about whether or not the statement “all tea comes from the same plant” is relative, depending on which side of the fence you are standing. It is a vague and less than accurate statement, which is to say it should not be taught as the first fact to learn about tea. New students to tea should first understand that, as the Chinese say, “You can study tea all of your life and not learn the names of all of the teas.”
Editor’s note: this fascinating post was first published May 20, 2011.
The photos – representing just a few of the hundreds of Chinese tea cultivars – were taken by Austin Hodge, founder of sevencups.com.
This is indeed a complex issue. I appreciate the perspective you’re bringing here, but it seems to me that ship has sailed. I don’t see how the tea industry can go back to the Chinese standards. I think they were too limited for it to be practical interantionally. Ultimately, if certain teas weren’t grown in specific regions in China, they couldn’t be recognized. I first saw this happening with white tea. How do the Chinese define any tea that isn’t grown in China?
“Tea student” is the operative phrase perhaps. Those with an incredibly keen interest in tea cultivation, production and nomenclature are a very small percentage of tea drinkers. Growing, but nonetheless regrettably small. Tea drinkers by and large seem to be led more by their taste experiences than by concerns about authenticity and origin. To tea drinkers at large – chasing windmills.
Austin – Thank you for stepping forward to take what I am sure will be a controversial position in the tea industry. As Michelle stated, this is a complex issue (probably not from any individual perspective, but based on the fact that there are 2 main and differing camps on the topic). This is a topic I have heard discussed, less directly, for many years. Mostly, it has been under the guise of the difference between what has been defined as snobbery/connoisseurship, and pragmatism. One common thread, with which this is often been brought out, has been regarding the authenticity of white tea. Often the two camps are those that support the concept/classification of white tea based on authenticity – (e.g. coming only from Fuding County in Fujian Province and only from the Da Bai Hao cultivar, and only processed according to specific standards) vs. based on a more pragmatic definition (e.g. that any tea plant processed according to the general standards of producing a white tea can be classified as a white tea). Given that this debate has been going on for quite some time, I don’t expect that it will be settled any time soon. I do, however, look forward to more discussions on the topic and greatly appreciate you bringing this to our attention for thoughtful consideration.
The Indian, Sri Lankan, Kenyan version are industrial versions of all the tea which was stolen or smuggled out of China basically hundred of years back – and as every one knows Chinese teas are hand crafted teas basically.
We must not try to compare these two entities and must live and love happily whatever they are and must enjoy them in the cup for the best qualities thy have.
Thank you all for your comments and for reading my article. I think that you will find that there will be a lot more discussion of these issues as the market trends continue to indicate a strong desire for quality and variety of unblended, unflavored tea, because China will increasing be the place where people will look.
Austin, I believe this topic is as important and relevant today as it was 2 years ago. I feel disturbed that China was basically eliminated from the international decisions regarding the classification of teas. As a group, the international tea community basically said, your standards are too narrow and it doesn’t benefit us sufficiently so we’re going to change the rules. We decided to overthrow the Chinese tea culture and establish one that serves the international tea growers more effectively financially. Where is our respect for this ancient culture? Why must everything be about the mighty dollar? Can’t there be a way to maintain the Chinese principles, when dealing with teas grown in China, without compromising the opportunities for other countries to grow and market their teas?
I don’t know that it is just about money, after al it is the international commodity tea industry that have made tea the most popular beverage in the world. The Chinese system doesn’t allow for the kind of efficiencies that could have made that happen. As my friend Rajiv pointed out when this article was originally published, it is really not possible to compare the two systems, they are very different in their goals and methods of agriculture.
I also think that things are changing when it comes to education. I think that things are really improving in terms of the quality of education that is happening just over the short time since I wrote this, and will surely continue.
I appreciate what you are trying to do, I really do. But I think you are fundamentally wrong about about your assertion. First, I think if you are proposing a sort of tea-style ‘protected designation of origin’ like what Parmesan cheese has, I am all for it! These traditional tea growers need to be able to preserve their heritage and cultural techniques on a fundamental level and it’s a real shame that the Chinese didn’t have more of a say in the classifications of tea a couple years back. But let’s be clear about what you’re saying: if you’re actually saying that tea doesn’t all come from one “plant”, which I think you are, then I think the word plant needs to be defined. Because on the contrary, saying that it doesn’t come from one plant is more confusing than saying that it does.
First off, the main reason I think tea educators say this, is because it clarifies that all herbal teas (chamomile, mint, lavender, rooibos) are not really tea. This is a confusion that most amateurs still have and it’s very helpful off the bat to clarify this. Does tea come from one plant? Depends on your definition of a plant. In general conversation, I’d say most people would think of different plants as difference species within the Plantae kingdom. A carrot is different from a parsnip, even though they look the same, because they are of a different genus and species. These are different plants. But… to use your example, oenophiles don’t argue that Malbec and Merlot grapes are’t the same plant. They may be variations (or cultivars) of the same plant, but they are the same plant none-the-less. They are grapes. Just like a person with blonde hair looks different than someone with black hair, but nobody would argue that they aren’t the same animal. Within the tea plant, there are quite a lot of variances, and some evidence suggests that some cultivars may even be distant hybrids, of tea and very close Camellia relatives. But unless you can produce evidence otherwise, all the studies suggest that Camellia sinensis is on the whole a single species with around two to perhaps six distinct sub varieties (depending on the study and what was measured). There is a large amount of variance within the subgroups, to be sure, but none, as far as any evidence is concerned, is distinct enough to be called a different species. Thus, saying that all tea doesn’t come from the same plant is akin to saying that Chinese Long Jing is as different from a Darjeeling as an apple is from a tomato, which is simply not the case.
Now, I also agree that much more attention should be paid to the specific cultivar, this is very important in the selling, blending, and tasting of fine-grade tea. And of course, the taste variance can be huge! And I really do agree with all your other points concerning these factors. I simply disagree that we should tell people that tea comes from different plants, because as far as facts go, this is a bit of a misnomer.
Thank you for the information. I have been in a long arduous argument with friends and relatives when I try to point out exactly what you have mentioned in this entry. For example, pu’er, I tell people it is not puer if grown outside Yunnan and they laugh at me, more so if I criticize taste over the appearance. I guess the complexity of the term tea has gone beyond misunderstood. I love the post and will keep the teachings in this one a basis for my future blogs. Thank you!
Austin great article. I have butted heads against this issue many times while writing my book. This is where I ended up… there are tea types (green, yellow, white, oolong, black, post-fermented) that are defined by processing and can be made with any cultivar grown anywhere (they may not be *good*). Under each type are styles (Xi Hu Longjing, Dongting Biluochun, etc.) These *styles* are what deserve protection- you can’t call something Xi Hu Longjing if it’s not from Xi Hu following the rules of Longjing production as laid out in the Guobiao standards. Same goes for Dongting Biluochun, Wuyi Yancha, Anxi Tieguanyin, etc. If the Chinese can work together with the WTO and the TRIPS council or create their own trademarked symbols, they can protect their geographic indications, otherwise it’s a free-for-all. One thing is clear though, on a type level — these tea types can and are being produced all over the world outside of China, the battle lies in the individual styles.
Jordon, I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear, I was talking about cultivars. Surely all tea comes from the same species of plant. My point is that tea is much more complicated than the simple statement that all tea comes from the same plant. Tea does not equal tea leaves any more that wine equals grapes. My assertion is that man there is a lot more that goes into the definition of a tea, and serious students of tea need to be aware of the complex nature of a definition. The international commodity market would like to blend a and simplify those complexities. A tea ought to be diefined by all of those variables that uniquely identify it, which include cultivar, processing, and terrior. The variation in cultivars are really vast. Puer must have the microbiology that can only be found in cultivars that exist in the unique biodiversity of Yunnan, otherwise there will be no natural fermentation. Could process change the leaves of the Yunnan into Long Jing or Da Hong Pao, or visa versa. Are the differences greater than the differences of a carrot compared to a parsnip? I am not a botanist, but I do know the difference in almost everyway is significant, even before the processing that makes it tea begins. There are as many as 18 varieties in the Camellia Sinensis species, only three of which tea is made, and the cultivars are so numerous as to have never been catalogued . How many students have been taught this. The Chinese have a sayin that you can study tea all of your life and never learn the names. As Tony correctly points out, the language hasn’t been agreed upon enough to even start the conversation. The issue of the International industry and being able to,agree with the Chinese on basic definitions underlines the problem.
All tea ‘geeks’ love this kind of discussion, my husband and I being two. We love to read Austin Hodge and other experts. I think it’s an intra-industry thing rather than a customer-base thing. A visitor from China told me she has some tea she wants to give me to try. But she had never heard of pouchong, didn’t know about Yunnan teas…any more than the average coffee drinker in coffee-producing countries could tell you about the growing and processing of coffee, or the average American could tell you about wheat. I think education is so important for tea industry/retailers to pass on but, for the most part, when we get to consumers, it’s about taste. And really, for our personal enjoyment..the same applies to my husband and I. Studying tea though, and the science of brewing, etc….ahhhhh…wonderful.
Great article and definitely thought provoking. Is there an attempt at all within China to try to better identify tea growing regions/gardens. Similar to what the Indian Tea Board has done in Darjeeling?
I’m sorry to say that there is no equivant To the Tea Board of India in China. The are government agencies to are tasked with the job of promoting Chinese tea, but they do a very bad job of it. Any intellectual property issues in China are in a very murky world.
Austin, thanks for the reply. I really appreciate what you are doing and I totally agree with you. More attention needs to be paid to the cultivars and an attempt made to collect and categorize the different ones. I’d be interested if there actually is a list of there that someone has attempted to make? Because in Japan there are numerous cultivars as well, but they tend to name them very sterile things, like YM-721. And I totally support a ‘protected designation of origin’ and think more effort should be made to allow these regions to preserve their heritage. More clarity in the system over all, right? But again, I simply think saying that all tea doesn’t come from the same plant is a little confusing and literally untrue, both taxonomically and genetically. Perhaps the saying could be, all tea comes from the same species and has hundreds of different cultivars?