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What is tea?

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

To kick off this blog I figured it would be wise to cover the basic questions; What is tea? What is the difference between black, green, white, yellow, purple teas? How long do I steep? And so on.

So here it is: what is tea? What are its origins? (Forewarning, this is going to get sciencey for a moment, but it makes sense in the end!)

A tea is brewed from the camellia sinensis or camellia taliensis plant which is are evergreen bushes originating from Eastern Asia. There are also teas brewed from other plants and fruits which are called herbals or tisanes, teas such as dandelion root, maté or rooibos fall into this category of tea, for now we will focus on the camellia sinensis/taliensis plants.

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis) from Köhler's Medicinal Plants, 1897

The tea plant itself, camellia sinensis has two major variants that are used today, variant sinensis (small leaf) and variant assamica (large leaf). These two variations are both used for all different kinds of teas, black, green, white and others. The origin of the camellia sinensis var. sinensis is commonly questioned as there has never been a known wild colony of the sinensis, most of the wild trees found have often been attributed to past cultivation.(1) The camellia sinensis var. assamica however is commonly thought to have originated from the southern and western regions of the Yunnan Provence in China. Many South Yunnan assam teas have been hybridized with the camellia taliensis, this being the wild relative of the camellia sinensis. This breed of camellia is in danger due to overpopulation and destruction of its natural habitat along with over picking for the tea market. (2, 3, 4, 5 ,6) So why are all of these things important to know? Well it has to do with the kinds of teas we drink today and the kinds of tea people drank thousands of years ago. Today we drink various kinds of teas including assam, darjeeling, Yunnan pu-erh and various others, some of which come from specifically the long or short leaf; for instance any assam tea made is made with the camellia sinensis var. assamica.

There are many different theories and origin stories about the consumption of tea, from poisoned emperors to divine deities bringing the plant to civilization it is constantly up for debate as to where the brew came from but we do know for sure that the origin of drinking tea came from China, the most common theory is somewhere near the Yunnan Provence.

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One of the origin legends is that the Emperor Shen Nung (aka. Shen-nun , Shennong, Chinese: 神农 , 神農氏) had discovered tea one day as he was heating a pot of water and a leaf from the tea tree floated down into the pot and he noticed the coloration of the water and the pleasant aroma that the eventual brew gave off. The legend says that as he drank the brew he felt a warmth throughout his body as the drink was exploring every part of his body. The emperor then decided to name the brew "ch'a", the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. Later on, a Han emperor decided that the character for tea would be wooden branches and grass with man in the middle showing how the brew brought man and nature closer together until they found a balance.

In another origin story, Shen Nong, the divine farmer, accidentally poisoned himself over 70 times, yet before the poison could take his life a single leaf from the tea tree floated down into his mouth. After chewing the leaf for a while he found that it revived him and he was able to survive the poison. This legend is a strange combination of the legend from before and the next one you will read about. but it is clear that at some point in time Shen Nong had some hand in the cultivation of tea in China.

Yet another legend featuring Shen Nong is that Shen Nong’s mother encountered a dragon, and soon gave birth. Shen Nong was born with an ox’s head and a human body, but this was no ordinary body—it was transparent, like crystal. Because of this, the effects of any food or herb could easily be identified upon entering him.

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In the remote ages of ancient China, people didn’t know how to treat diseases, and many were left to die without any treatment. In order to save them, Shen Nong went into the mountains to test and record the effects of various herbs and medicinal plants. He tested hundreds of unique plants by extracting their juices with a magical whip. To counteract regularly poisoning himself, it is said that Shen Nong drank tea to detoxify his body. “Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic” is the earliest Chinese herbal textbook, and Shen Nong is regarded as the founder of agriculture and medicine in China.

Another story of the origin of tea is that a monk named Gan Lu brought the plant back to china with him after a pilgrimage to India. This account takes place during the first century and the bringing back of the tree lead to the planting of the mythological seven tea trees planted by Wu Lizhen, the earliest known recording of the cultivation of tea trees or tea plantations. The trees themselves were planted atop the Mengshan Mountain, which is known as the "Holy Mountain of the World's Tea Culture" and famous for the Five Peaks: Shangqing (上清), Lingjiao (菱角), Piluo (毗罗), Jingquan (井泉) and Ganlu (甘露). The peaks circle like a lotus, among which Shangqing is the highest peak. The annual rainfall at the top of Mengshan Mountain is 2,000 millimeters, which contributes to its Chinese name "Meng" (raining and foggy).

Yet another story, this one coming primarily from Japan, features the Bodhidharma, or simply Daruma in Japan. As with all things concerning Bodhidharma, the genesis of tea was neither simple nor easy but rather a singularly peculiar but characteristically gory event that was in keeping with the high physical price of his ruthless meditation – a cost that the master seemed always to pay with an arm and a leg.  On this occasion, the birth of tea took a more delicate part of his anatomy.  As he sat in deep concentration, Bodhidharma abruptly realized that in an agonizing instant of fatigue, he had closed his eyes and dozed off to sleep. In anger at his weakness, he tore at his eyes in self disgust, tearing his eyelids and flinging them to the ground.  As the leaf like lids lay in the dirt, they sprouted miraculously into tea plants.  Instinctively, Bodhidharma reached over and plucked a few leaves from the bushes to chew and suddenly felt as “one who awakens.”  His mind clear and focused, he resumed his meditation.

So now we have answered how tea came to be, sort of, but how did we get the tea that we drink now? Through the centuries, a variety of techniques for processing tea and different forms of tea were developed. During the Tang dynasty, tea was steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake form until the Song dynasty when loose-leaf tea was developed and became popular. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unoxidized tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried, a process that stops the oxidation process that turns the leaves dark, thereby allowing tea to remain green. In the 15th century, oolong tea, in which the leaves were allowed to partially oxidize before pan-frying, was developed. Western tastes favored the fully oxidized black tea, and thus leaves were allowed to oxidize further to accommodate the high demand brought by the East India Trading Company. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, but yielded a different flavor as a result.

Common types of these teas include:

Black tea; Assam, Bohea, Ceylon, Congou, Darjeeling, Dianhong, Kangra, Keemun, Lapsang souchong (Jin Jun Mei), Nilgiri, Tibeti, Rize &Yingdehong

Oolong tea; Bai Jiguan, Ban Tian Yao, Bu Zhi Chun, Da Hong Pao, Darjeeling oolong, Dong ding, Dongfang Meiren, Gaoshan, Huangjin Gui,

Green tea; Anji bai cha, Aracha, Baimao Hou, Bancha, Biluochun, Chun Mee, Dafang, Genmaicha, Gunpowder, Gyokuro, Hojicha, Taiping houkui, Huangshan Maofeng, Matcha & Sencha

White tea; Bai Mudan, Baihao Yinzhen, Darjeeling White, Shoumei

Yellow tea; Junshan Yinzhen & Huoshan Huangya

Fermented tea; Pu-erh & Lahpet

Blended or flavored teas; Earl Grey (Lady Grey), Breakfast tea (English, Irish), Jasmine tea, Lapsang souchong, Masala chai, Mint tea/Moroccan mint tea, Prince of Wales, Russian Caravan

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