Tea, its origins and its history

Tea is made by steeping the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen plant which grows in tropical and subtropical climates.

The tea plant

Camellia Sinensis has been systematically bred and selective varieties cultivated since the spread of tea. As with apple trees and grapevines, cultivars with individual appearance and taste characteristics have arisen as a result of selective breeding. Naturally occurring variation is rare. In agronomy, the term cultivar is used to denote a plant variety that has been selectively breed for desirable characteristics which can then be maintained in cultivation.

Different cultivars

The tea plant’s region of origin extends from northern Burma (Myanmar) to the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.

The original area of the tea plant

If left to grow undisturbed, the tea plant will reach a height of several meters and an age of over 1000 years. In tea plantations, farmers are careful not to allow the tea plants to grow too high. The plants are pruned to waist height. This simplifies the harvest. A tea picker can work standing upright and doesn’t have to stretch or stoop.

Tea trees and bushes

Tea varieties characteristically carry a name which describes their appearance. The Chinese name the oldest tea plants from tea’s region of origin as tea “of the high trees with large leaves” (Qiao Mu Da Ye Zhong). There are two varieties that are common in China nowadays. The first, Camellia sinensis assamica, is used to make Pu-ehr, as well as nearly all of the Indian tea varieties apart from Darjeeling. Pu-ehr is the most widespread post-fermented tea. The Chinese call Camellia sinensis assamica the variety “of the large leaves” (Da Ye Zhong).

Expanding out from the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, tea cultivation extends to other regions of China, thereby giving rise to new varieties and some natural variations of the plant which adapted or were adapted to their respective regional climates by forming smaller leaves. These teas are grouped together as Camellia sinensis sinensis, a classification which started and was taken up by the Western world. The classification means, unlike the name suggests, a range of teas. The majority of Chinese teas, as well as Japanese teas and Formosa teas from Taiwan, fall into the category of Camellia sinensis sinensis. The Chinese call these tea varieties “teas of the small leaves” (Xiao Ye Zhong).

Oolong is a variety of tea which is classified as being midway between green and black teas. It, and some varieties of white tea, are considered exceptions, since they are both cultivated large-leaf teas (Da Ye Zhong). More varieties appear every year. China’s farmers cultivate several hundred varieties of Camellia sinensis for industrial tea plantations. This is the highest number worldwide.


China’s Emperor Shennong introduced tea to his court in 2737 BC –according to this legend, the history of Chinese tea culture began 5000 years ago. In fact, it has been proven that the habit of drinking tea developed 3800 years ago, during the Shang-Dynasty (1766-1050 BC). Tea was first employed as a medicine in Yunnan Province. At that time, the tea leaves were boiled in water with the other ingredients of the remedy, such as butter, herbs and spices. Butter tea, as it exists to this day in Tibet, is reminiscent of this method of preparation. The oldest testaments to Chinese tea culture and tea consumption are dated to the 10th century BC. Tea as a drink was well known as early as the Qin Dynasty (3rd century BC), and ultimately established itself during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Attesting to its popularity, it was exported to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The first book about tea ‘Cha Jing’ (The Classic of Tea), in which the author Lu Yu (728-894) classified the tea plants, appeared during this time. Tea was not stored loosely, but rather pressed into bricks to make its transport easier and to save storage space. The by now conventional form of storing and selling tea loose is approximately 600 years old. It arose during the Song and Ming Dynasties. Chinese tea is categorized into six types worldwide: white tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong, black tea, and dark tea; the latest also called post-fermented tea. Each tea type is characterized by the way the tea leaves are processed.

A brick of compressed tea (left) and loose tea leaves (right)

Green tea has been produced since the 12th century, although its method of production has changed. Initially, the tea leaves were steamed. In the 16th century, the roasting of tea was established along with the introduction of oolong. Portuguese missionaries and merchants brought Chinese tea to Europe 400 years ago. Thereafter tea acceded its triumphant march through the Western world. It reached Great Britain in 1660, but it took another hundred years before its general spread and the British advanced to a European tea nation. It was the British who introduced tea in India and developed cultivation, striving to break the Chinese monopoly.

Dates from the history of tea are not absolutely certain. The production, introduction and spread of a variety or its graft didn’t happen at just one time, but rather were the result of processes. For example, while the beginning of commercial production of black tea dates from the 19th century, some sources, however, point to its use in China as early as the first half of the 18th century.


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