Tea Education

What is Tea? – Origins and Categorization of Camellia Sinensis

What is Tea? – Origins and Categorization of Camellia Sinensis

The modern tea world recognizes six categories of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark (Pu'er). The main attribute by which a tea is put into one ...

Date:

September 26, 2023

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Rishi Tea

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All true tea is made with leaves harvested from a single plant species called Camellia sinensis. Colloquially, the word “tea” is often used to refer to many herbs and botanicals that are brewed with hot water, although these plants are not technically tea. The actual tea plant is an evergreen tree native to the part of Southeast Asia where China’s Yunnan Province meets India’s Nagaland region and the northern areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

From this one species stems two main varieties known as Camellia sinensis var. assamica, and a third lesser known variety called cambodiensis. The assamica, or “broad leaf”, variety most closely resembles the original tea plant, whereas the sinensis, or “small leaf”, variety evolved as the tea plant was carried from its subtropical homeland to more temperate climates. Under each of these varieties fall hundreds of sub-varieties known as cultivars (cultivated variety). New cultivars are developed when tea farmers selectively breed tea plants that demonstrate preferred qualities, such as a stellar aromatic complexity or the tenacity to thrive in periods of frost or drought.

Menghai Broad Leaf cultivar taken by Rishi in Yunnan, China

First flush being harvested at a waist high plucking table in Hubei, China

Left in its natural state, Camellia sinensis grows into a tree that reaches about six feet tall for small leaf varieties to more than 50 feet tall for the ancient broad leaf trees growing in Yunnan. Cultivated tea gardens are managed by pruning tea trees into bushy rows, making it easier to pick young leaves that sprout up on top of the “plucking table”. To this day, most tea is picked by hand.

Hand picking tea leaves Chiangdao, Thailand.

In the northern hemisphere, the harvest season begins in late February or March and runs through September or October. Throughout the growing season, tea plants sprout tender new leaf buds in a series of growth surges called flushes. Most tea regions experience three or four distinct flushes within each crop year. During the winter months, the plants go dormant and their energy and nutrients are stored within the roots. In the springtime, these nutrients are drawn up and become concentrated in the new growth. For this reason, the spring harvest, or “first flush”, is typically the most prized of the year.

The Six Categories of Tea

The modern tea world recognizes six categories of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark (Pu’er). The main attribute by which a tea is put into one of the six categories is its degree of polyphenolic oxidation. This natural oxidation is an enzymatic reaction that is similar to the browning of a sliced apple or freshly chopped basil leaves. For tea, it is the biochemical process that changes freshly picked leaves from green to yellow, amber to red and finally brown. The art of making tea involves skillfully facilitating tea leaf oxidation and dehydration through a series of intricate steps to achieve a desired flavor and aroma. Within each of the six tea categories, hundreds of traditional styles of tea are differentiated by factors including growing region, cultivar, harvest time and crafting technique.

The astounding variety of teas available today, and the vast geography where tea is grown, is all the more amazing given tea’s early roots. Anthropological research indicates that tea was originally wild-harvested and consumed as a bitter vegetable that was cooked into nourishing soups and as a folk medicine prepared as a vitality tonic. It is believed that these foundational uses of tea date back some four or five thousand years, making tea about as ancient as the primitive styles of wine and beer. It is humbling to reflect on that and realize that the more we learn about tea, the more we find there is yet to learn.

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The Beginnings of Tea

They say tea has more than 5,000 years of history and perhaps more. Its use as an herbal medicine and as a vegetable predates domesticated, organized agriculture. The use of tea leaves as an ingredient for making beverages is very old; however the appreciation of “fine and pure” tea and its origin, season, method of processing and vintage is not as ancient as we may think.

Until the 1st Renaissance of tea during the Tang Dynasty in China, tea was brewed and consumed with additives like herbs, salt, leeks, oil, onions and countless other types of regional “brews” or “picked tea"-like concoctions. It was rare that any tea lover enjoyed tea in its pure form.

Lu Yu, the Patron Saint of Tea, helped change this. His revolutionary work was called the “tea classic” (Cha Jing) or what could be translated as the “tea bible” or “essential treatise of tea”.

Before Lu Yu’s encouragement and writing of the Cha Jing, people did not drink tea in its pure leaf form. Tea was more or less an ingredient for herbal medicine or was used by remote tribes as a vegetable, stimulating chew (like tobacco) or even a pickle, and there were hundreds of local concoctions and brews that used tea leaves or fermented tea leaves within their recipe.

In the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu championed tea as a refined beverage and educated the people to drink tea in its pure form without any additives. Lu Yu revolutionized the way people thought about tea and his teachings, refined over 26 years of studying tea and traveling to document the various tea regions of China and Southeast Asia, led to the rise of tea as a major commodity. Soon after Lu Yu’s work and philosophy was distributed, tea became a favored beverage and daily habit of the Chinese.

Lu Yu wrote the Cha Jing more than 1,000 years ago but his concept to change people’s tastes is inspirational and still very relevant for the US tea trade, a market that is overly sweetened, concocted, flavored and far removed from tea’s original taste. In addition to the champions of the US wine and coffee markets that persuaded consumers to seek out and appreciate better quality, we also have to thank Lu Yu as an inspirational guide for our mission to get people to put down the tea flavored sugar water and appreciate the higher quality and pure flavor of single origin teas.

Lu Yu’s work, the Cha Jing, was the first book to teach about the brewing methods, processing, cultivation, regions, varietals and the tasting notes, the best water for tea and the harvest seasons of many teas. Through the work and teachings of Lu Yu, people in Asia began to appreciate tea along the same lines as Westerners appreciate wine.

Popular Tea Profiles

As you begin to discover your tea personality, consider the type of tea and its level of oxidation. We’ve included several recommendations for you to explore below.