The Story of Tea

Words: Ameil Harikishun
Photographs: Fiona Christensen
It’s more than just a simple matter

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Tea has a long and turbulent history, filled with intrigue, adventure, artistic expression and social change. While tea has its humble origins in colourful far-off lands, it has stimulated the imagination of people around the world. If you’re into the worldwide tea consumption statistics, it is second only to water, the most commonly drunk liquid.

Along tea’s more than two-thousand-year journey it has become something more complicated and place specific. It has resulted in a staggering amount of tea produced- different teas, unique teas. Six classes of tea (each with several subclasses) have developed into an industry that ranges from vital to emerging in approximately fifty countries.

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Every day, millions of people from all walks of life start their day with a cup of tea. It is consumed as both a thinking person’s beverage and an everyman’s delight. Tea drinking is a tactile, sensory activity that lends to intellectual stimulation and aesthetic inspiration during times of social gathering or private contemplation.

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Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of tea is that all tea leaves are plucked from the same species of tea plant, known as Camellia sinensis. When we taste a selection of teas it is obvious that Chinese tea differs from Indian tea, and neither taste like Ceylon tea. China is renowned for fresh-tasting, sweet and delicate green tea, while India leads the world in the production of aromatic and flavourful black tea- yet, interestingly, both teas originate from the same plant.

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So if all teas are harvested from the same species of tea bush, what accounts for the differences between the seemingly endless varieties of tea? The most clearly visible and basic explanation is the method of manufacture that the tea undergoes. In other words, turning a fresh tea leaf into green tea differs from that used to make black tea or an oolong or white tea, because theoretically any fresh tea leaf can be made into any style of tea. This is a simple answer and does not do justice to the intricacies of the tea world.

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A curious eye might see the culture and heritage reflected in the different tea styles, bounded by tradition, preserving much and changing little. People are often captivated by what the French call terroir- the distinct flavour analogous to a cultural stamp of identity that pinpoints a product to its origin. Terroir is determined by the physical realities of the soil, altitude, climate, geography and the less apparent threads of history and culture. All of these factors yield what can be called “somewhereness.”

The next time you find yourself enjoying a simple cup of tea, know that it is far from a simple matter. Enjoy the journey the tea has taken to get to you and embrace the “somewhereness.”