The Discovery of Tea
Tea is steeped in legend. And the truth is very difficult to find in the sea of legends around the discovery of tea. Perhaps the most common legend is that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 BC was boiling water to drink when the leaves of a tea plant fell into his pot. He liked the resulting beverage so much that tea was born. Of course, there is no proof of this and many reasons to question to story. But either way, it is clear that tea was discovered in the Yunnan Province of China sometime before 1000 BC.
The first references to people drinking teas can be dated around 600 BC in China, but at this point it was still used mostly as a medicinal beverage. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty of China (618 AD and following) that tea became a popular drink throughout China. Until the sixth century, tea was largely a Chinese drink. At that point we can begin to see tea spread first to Japan and then to other countries. At this point in time tea was processed into tea bricks, similar to modern pu-erh bricks. It would still be a couple hundred years before tea started being consumed from loose-leaves that were not processed into bricks.
The Japanese emperor Shomu gave us the first mention of tea in Japan when he served it to guests. Within one hundred years, tea was being grown in Japan and processed to make the drink. With the birth of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and Japanese types of tea like matcha, tea became as Japanese as it was Chinese.
On a side note, in the late 700’s the first book about tea was written. Ch’a Chang by Lu Yu examined tea in detail from the making of tea through the enjoyment of it.
Creating Different Types of Tea
The first teas were processed into cakes, much like modern pu-erh cakes. And all were dried, steamed or processed in some way, but lightly like a green tea. During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), some teas were ground and whipped into a frothy beverage like our current day matcha. Thankfully, not long after this the Chinese began experimenting with loose leaf teas.
But it wasn’t until Emperor Kiasung in the twelfth century that teas began being divided up based on the types of processing used. Emperor Kiasung declared white teas the most delicious, but he only had odd variations to choose from. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) that began to change. Foreign trade was increasing, so tea merchants needed a tea that would last longer. The Chinese discovered fermenting and began crafting oolong and black teas that would store longer. At this point they also started experimenting with scenting and flavoring teas in order to make the flavor last.
The crafting of different types of teas continued to change over time. We now define four types: white teas, green tea, oolong teas (semi-fermented) and black teas (fermented). And there are subdivisions of these, such as pu-erh teas, which are double-fermented. Herbal teas, including rooibos and mate teas, are not actually teas since they do not contain the Camellia sinensis plant.