Tea: Who Invented It and How It Is Made

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Updated on April 8, 2024

Reviewed by Aya Radwan

Like all the online fights between Real Madrid and Barcelona fans, dog and cat people, there seems to be a dispute between those who love tea and those who vowed to stay loyal to coffee forever.

Though lots of people prefer coffee, when it comes to which of the two beverages has more historical value, a more significant number of varieties, the flexibility to be mixed with other ingredients, or the need to write an article about profound inventions humans came up with; tea definitely wins.

The word ‘tea’ in and of itself holds so much weight, metaphorically speaking. There are just so many things to mention, from where and when it originated, how long it has been consumed, what civilisation it is attached to, and how it spread to the rest of the world.

And those issues are exactly what is brought up in this article.

So, let’s hop into it.

Basic, Herbal, or Blended?

So basic tea, discussed in this article, refers to the beverage made from the tea plant. This is known as plain or unblended, for it is not mixed with other ingredients. It also has five basic types.

On the other hand, herbal tea refers to any herb or spice infused in hot water. Though the resultant beverage does not have any actual tea powder in it, for some reason, it is still called by this name in the West. Thanks to the incredibly large number of spices and herbs, thousands of herbal tea varieties exist.

The third one is blended tea. This is a natural tea beverage blended with other ingredients. A famous type of it is Earl Grey. It mixes black tea with bergamot oil.

The Birth

Well, it is a drink made from the leaves of a plant called Camellia sinensis. This plant originated in East Asia, precisely in China. The terms tea and chai are used interchangeably in many parts of the world, referring to the same beverage. Yet, in India, chai is basically regular black tea mixed with milk, herbs, or spices. Camellia sinensis has been grown in China since prehistoric times. It is believed that the Chinese ate its leaves, raw or cooked, for hundreds of years before they made drinks out of them. According to the legend, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung came up with the beverages. Well, this is how the story goes anyway.

One day, back in 2737 BC, the emperor Shen Nung was resting under a tree, which he did not know before then was a Camellia sinensis. While his servant was boiling some water, some leaves from the tree fell into the pot. And because the emperor was highly interested in herbalism, he wondered what that infused drink tasted like. Someone else would have probably asked their servant to get rid of the infused water. But, lucky for us, this emperor did not. Following his curiosity, he took some leaves from the tree, dried them, then infused them in boiling water and took a sip.

depositphotos 51539967 stock photo outdoor morning breakfast

“Wow!” He must not have said that because the drink was bitter. But when many people tried it, they noticed several health benefits of that drink and started using it for healing purposes, or this is what the legend says anyways. What is known from written records is that drinking tea was a habit of the Chinese emperors during the second century AD. Other records document the process of cultivating the leaves and infusing them in water to make this beverage.

Afterwards, the drink spread to other parts of Eastern Asia, such as Korea and Japan. In the mid-16th century, it was introduced to the West by some merchants who were doing business in China. Then the West, pioneered by the Dutch in the early 17th century, started shipping it to Europe. Hundreds of years later, it has become the second most consumed drink worldwide, after water.

The Process

One might wonder, why are we processing tea and turning it into tiny pellets? Would infusing its fresh leaves into the water not be better in terms of taste and benefits? Not exactly.

In fact, the opposite is true. Tea processing intensifies its taste, aroma, and colour. This leads to a more enjoyable drinking experience. It was also found that making little changes to the stages of the process produces a new variety. Five primary types of unblended tea will be discussed in a bit.

So, how is it made?

Well, the process is pretty straightforward. The leaves are harvested, dried, crushed, boiled, and voila la, you have a cup of tea. When manufacturing it on much larger scales, each stage gets a bit complex.

The core idea of that process is fermentation or oxidation, which is done gradually over several steps. Oxidation changes the leaves’ chemical composition and intensifies their taste, colour, texture, and aroma. That is why the final pellets are dark brown, not green, and have a sweet, not bitter, taste.

depositphotos 86134412 stock photo hot tea

If you remember from the third-grade science lesson, chlorophyll is a pigment in the leaves which gives them a green colour. So, when the leaves are plucked and exposed to the air, the chlorophyll enzymes combine with oxygen, and the green pigment starts to break down. As a result, the leaves gradually turn brown. The taste of the leaves also changes as they lose all the water inside them, that bitter juice, and therefore dry out.

Now that we understand what oxidation means, let’s explore the five steps of tea manufacturing.

1. Withering

Withering means drying the leaves, usually over two stages: solar withering and indoor withering.

After the leaves are harvested, they are exposed to air and indirect sunlight for a while. This period is determined by the master supervising the whole process. Solar withering kick-starts the oxidation process, and the chlorophyll slowly starts to break down. Then, the leaves are moved indoors for a few hours to continue oxidising. Meanwhile, the water in the leaves starts to evaporate.

2. Disruption

Disruption is also known as bruising. This stage is meant to accelerate the oxidation process of the leaves. After withering indoors for a few hours, the leaves are moved to a bruising machine, which is a rotating drum made from wood.

The rotating motion of the machine tears the leaves. This allows more oxygen to penetrate the cells deeply and continues to oxidise the enzymes. Tearing the leaves also removes any leftover water in the leaves, which takes away their bitter taste.

3. Fixation

After the leaves have oxidised enough, it is time to stop the oxidation at a certain level, which could be between 10% and 90%. This is done through the fixation step.

A 10% oxidation level means only 10% of the leaf was oxidised. In that case, it still retains most of its green colour. But an 85% oxidised leaf is more brown than green because most of its enzymes have already reacted with oxygen.

The leaves are moved to a rotating heated dryer to stop the oxidation, where they tumble for about 10 to 15 minutes to dry. This process is mainly responsible for the final product’s taste and smell. So it is very vital.

4. Crushing

After the leaves have dried in the heated dryer, it is time to turn them into small pellets. To do that, a leaf kneading machine and a rolling press are used. These two machines crush the leaves into pellets with intensified taste.

5. Firing

This is the final step of the process, which is done to ensure the pellets are almost entirely dried and have no moisture at all. So, they are put in large ovens and dried for about an hour at 180°C. Then, the pellets are ready for packaging, selling, and shipping.

Primary Types of Tea

The unblended tea produced through the process just mentioned has five primary types:

  1. Black
  2. Oolong
  3. Yellow
  4. Green
  5. White
depositphotos 173820344 stock photo cup of healthy tea

All these types are different in aroma, taste, and colour. They are produced by making changes in the manufacturing process. It all boils down to how much the leaves are oxidised. This is mainly controlled by how long the withering, disruption, and fixation steps are applied. The longer the leaves are oxidised, the darker they will get and the stronger the flavour of the drink and vice versa.

So, let’s tackle each type in a little more detail.

1. Black Tea

This is one of the most popular and most consumed types in the world, as it is the darkest and the sweetest of them all. Black tea is 100% oxidised. That means it is withered, disrupted, and dried for longer than any other type.

depositphotos 12010508 stock photo black tea in glass cup

Some famous types of unblended black tea include:

  • Assam, India
  • Lapsang souchong, China
  • Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan
  • Lahijan, Iran

These types are different in colour, aroma, and taste. This is achieved by different drying methods. Yet, all of them reach a 100% degree of oxidation.

On the other hand, some famous blended black tea types are:

  • Irish breakfast: it combines different types of Indian Assam tea.
  • English afternoon: it blends Assam and Kenyan teas with Ceylon.
  • Earl Grey: this black tea is flavoured with bergamot oil.
  • Lady Grey: this is a mix of black tea, bergamot oil, lemon and orange peel, and cornflower petals.

Unsweetened black tea has no calories. Besides the excellent taste, the beautiful red colour, and the incredible aroma, it is full of antioxidants which provide several health benefits, such as:

  • Decreasing cholesterol
  • Stabilising blood sugar levels
  • Improving heart health

2. Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is almost exclusively popular in China and Taiwan. It is partially oxidised, so it still looks dark and tastes strong but less than its black brother. It has different oxidation degrees, ranging between 8% and 80%.

As a result, oolong tea comes out in different tastes and levels of darkness. The 80% oxidised type is much darker than that with 8% oxidation, having more of a light golden colour.

Oolong tea is especially beneficial for health as it:

  • Reduces the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance
  • Reduces the risk of heart attacks
  • Stimulates fat burning
  • Improves sleep

3. Yellow Tea

Almost only produced in China and quite complex and costly to manufacture, yellow tea is not popular.

As you can tell from the name, yellow tea is actually yellow. That means it has a low oxidation degree achieved by a short withering before it is dried and fixed. What makes this type distinct is that the leaves are wrapped and steamed for a short time before they are thoroughly dried.

Wrapping and steaming encourage oxidation but at a much slower rate. This gives the drink more of a creamy, smooth flavour as well as its yellow colour. The extra step is what usually takes a lot of effort. Some people consider yellow tea a better version of green tea thanks to its smooth taste compared to the latter’s grassy taste.

Thanks to its antibacterial and antioxidant components, this type was found useful as it helps with:

  • Regulating cholesterol.
  • Preventing the formation of tea plaque.
  • Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

4. Green Tea

Like its yellow brother, green tea has a low oxidation level and a lighter colour than black and Oolong teas. But unlike its brother, green tea is famous worldwide though it originated in China too.

Over the past few decades, this type has been widely promoted as a magical beverage that improves metabolism and helps with weight loss.

Green tea is less oxidised than the yellow type. After harvesting, the leaves only go through a short period of air withering and are heated to stop oxidation. As a result, they preserve most of their antioxidants and chlorophyll. That is why it is green.

Again, the manufacturing process may differ from one place to another, which, in return, produces different tasting and smelling varieties.

Though green tea has been marketed as having many health benefits related to weight loss, scientists report no clinical evidence of these benefits. That said, the antioxidants and the anti-inflammatory content of it might ‘help’

  • Prevent cell damage and stop cancer development.
  • Reduce the risk of deadly strokes and heart attacks.
  • Decrease cholesterol.

5. White Tea

What is different about white tea, besides the oxidation level, taste, colour, and aroma, is that it uses immature leaves that have not yet opened, also known as buds. And because these buds are usually still covered with white hairs when harvested, this type was called white. Colour-wise, white tea is pale yellow.

As you must know now, this type is not oxidised. It might be shortly withered but not long enough to start oxidation. That is why it retains almost all of its antioxidants which may provide similar health benefits to other types.

And so…

We get to the end of this journey.

We first discussed the difference between unblended, blended, herbal teas, and chai. After that, we learnt how it was coincidentally invented around 2737 BC.

Then, we have dived into the tea-making process and how changing each step’s duration can result in a different type. Finally, we learnt a little about each of those types, along with their health benefits.

Since unsweetened tea has no calories, it can be consumed during intermittent fasting. And if you are not sure what that is, have only heard briefly of it, or would like to learn everything about intermittent fasting, make sure you check our article about it here.

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