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.

Image credit: https://www.earthstoriez.com/tea-china/

One of the origin legends is that the Emperor Shen Nung (aka. Shen-nun , Shennong, Chinese: 神农 , 神農氏) had