What is tea? tea plant

What is Tea?

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Co-owner of Trader Nicks Tea and Disney fanatic

There are lots of ideas that come to mind when you say the small simple word, tea. However, the definition of tea is quite simple, an infusion from the dried leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. All true tea will be made from the leaves, stems, or leaf buds of this plant. That’s right, white, green, oolong, black, and puerh tea all come from the same plant! 

Tea plants are native to East Asia, and are deeply woven into Chinese culture and history. According to folklore, the Emperor Shen Nong is said to have first discovered tea in China around 2700 B.C. when a leaf from a nearby tree fell into water the emperor was boiling. He was surprised by the pleasant taste and restorative effect of the mysterious infusion.

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Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest

Tea was originally used for medicinal purposes, which often involved boiling the leaves with other herbs, leaves, salt, or butter. This typically resulted in a very bitter brew that would fortify the tea drinker to better deal with daily hardships and extreme temperatures. There are also reports of early tea leaf drinkers in Sichuan who boiled tea leaves without adding other leaves or herbs as to enjoy the stimulating effects, rather than for medicinal purposes.

Chinese teapot blue white epcot

Epcot: China Pavilion

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Animal Kingdom 

The tea plant grows mainly in tropical and subtropical climates, though nowadays tea is grown in almost every part of the world with varying degrees of success. Countries that grow the most tea around the world include China, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Korea, Argentina, Vietnam, and Turkey. Even here in the USA we have several areas that grow tea, including The Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, which has a fairly modern growing and packing operation and also focuses on agri-tourism. Also The Great Mississippi Tea Co. in Brookhaven MS is a promising upstart that has already won several awards for their orthodox handmade teas. And lastly, there are several tea plantations in the island state of Hawaii that show promise, producing expensive teas that are very high quality.

It’s clear that tea is here to stay, being one of the oldest and most widely consumed beverages in human history. And in fact, the popularity of tea is growing more and more, as we see tea farms pop up around the world. We urge you to go on your own tea adventure and discover history in a cup. Taste what people have been enjoying for thousands of years!

camelia sinensis tea plant leaves

Epcot: Flower & Garden, Tea Plant

camelia sinensis tea leaves epcot China

Epcot: Flower & Garden

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Epcot: Flower & Garden

The Different Types of Tea

White tea is made with young, minimally processed tea leaves. It is called white tea because of the delicate downy hairs on the buds and leaves, and not necessarily the color of the leaves or brewed liquor (which tends to be more of a light or dark yellow). Most white tea is grown in China, specifically Fujian Province, though in more recent years it can be found in Nepal, India, Taiwan, and Thailand. Generally, white tea is considered to have less caffeine than other tea types, however studies have shown that the young leaves that make up white teas may actually have more caffeine in them; since we usually brew white with a lower temperature and using less leaves, often the brewed tea will indeed have less caffeine in the finished cup. Popular styles of white tea include Silver Needles and Pai Mu Tan.

Green tea is grown and processed in a variety of ways. Generally speaking, these leaves will be harvested, agitated to initiate oxidation, rolled or pressed, heated to stop oxidation, and then dried. Most Asian countries have their own unique history and culture surrounding green tea, though most green tea found in North America and Europe comes from China, Japan, and Korea. Most green teas have a “moderate” amount of caffeine (generally a cup of black tea has about a third the amount of caffeine of a cup of coffee; green tea usually has less than black tea). Chinese green teas have been known for their shape as well as their taste; some leaves will be curled, flattened, or shaped into little “eyebrows” or balls. Famous types of green teas include Gunpowder, Dragonwell, Chun Mee, Sencha, and Matcha.

Much artistry and care goes into growing and processing leaves to make Oolong tea. Oolong is considered semi-oxidized, somewhere on the spectrum between green tea and black tea. Most oolongs are from mountain regions of China and Taiwan, and many are prized for their complex taste and aroma. Some oolongs are rolled into small tight balls which can be steeped several times, with the tea “ball” unraveling more and more with each steeping. These teas also contain a “moderate” amount of caffeine, that is generally a little less or at least equal to black tea. Some popular styles of oolong teas are Ti Kwan Yin, Rou Gui, Da Hong Pao, and Pouchong.

The most popular type of tea in North America and Europe by far is black tea. Almost everyone has some connection to black tea. From small family owned tea shops to sweet southern iced tea to cheap bagged black tea nearly everyone has had black tea! Black tea is dark and has a wide range of flavors, colors and aromas. Much of these differences depend on terroir, which is the climate, soil, elevation, and environment that the tea plant grows in. Black tea is made in vast quantities in far ranging spots on the globe, from Asia to South America, Eastern Europe, and even here in the United States. During processing, oxidation is what turns the tea leaves dark and creates black tea. Generally higher in caffeine and fuller in body, most black teas will have a robust or full flavor profile. Breakfast blends are usually blends of black teas. Some popular types of black tea are Assam, Darjeeling, Golden Yunnan, Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey, and Keemun.

Westerners have only known about puerh tea since about the 1950s. However, puerh has been around for a very long time in China. Named for the village of Puerh in Yunnan,China where it was originally produced, it is a tea that actually goes through a true fermentation process, and it is known as a fermented tea. Among puerh, there is two types, a raw puerh called Sheng puerh which matures as it ages and continues to slowly ferment over long periods of time, and there is Shou puerh in which the microbial process is hastened to produce a aged character in a shorter amount of time. Puerhs can be in loose leaf form or steam-pressed into cakes or bricks. These tea cakes are easy to store and age. In China, some families have very valuable aged tea cakes that are highly regarded, much like aged wine in Europe. Puerh teas have very interesting and wide-ranging flavor notes. Shou puerhs tend to be earthy and have a true aged quality in the taste, while sheng puerhs can have more wide ranging flavors of fruit, cooked vegetables, or grassy qualities.

Animal Kingdom Everest Tea Plantation

Animal Kingdom: Tea Fields


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