Green tea leaves steeping in an uncovered zhong (type of Chinese tea cup)

Green tea leaves steeping in cup

Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring boiling hot water over cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The term also refers to the plant itself. After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter, astringent flavour which many people enjoy.

Consumption of tea (especially green) is beneficial to health and longevity given its antioxidant, flavanols, flavonoids, polyphenols, and catechins content. Tea catechins have known anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective activities, help to regulate food intake, and have an affinity for cannabinoid receptors, which may suppress pain and nausea, and provide calming effects.

Consumption of green tea is associated with a lower risk of diseases that cause functional disability, such as “stroke, cognitive impairment, and osteoporosis” in the elderly.

Tea contains L-theanine, and its consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practice.

The phrase herbal tea usually refers to infusions of fruit or herbs made without the tea plant, such as rose hip tea or chamomile tea. Alternative phrases for this are tisane or herbal infusion, both bearing an implied contrast with “tea” as it is construed here.

Cultivation and harvesting

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis)

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis)

Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant that grows mainly in tropical and subtropical climates. Some varieties can also tolerate marine climates and are cultivated as far north as Pembrokeshire in the British mainland and Washington in the United States.

Tea plants are propagated from seed or by cutting; it takes about four to 12 years for a tea plant to bear seed, and about three years before a new plant is ready for harvesting. In addition to a zone 8 climate or warmer, tea plants require at least 127 cm. (50 inches) of rainfall a year and prefer acidic soils. Many high-quality tea plants are cultivated at elevations of up to 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level: at these heights, the plants grow more slowly and acquire a better flavour.

Only the top 1-2 inches of the mature plant are picked. These buds and leaves are called “flushes”. A plant will grow a new flush every seven to 15 days during the growing season, and leaves that are slow in development always produce better-flavored teas.

Tea plantation in Malaysia

Tea plantation in Malaysia

A tea plant will grow into a tree of up to 16 m (52 ft) if left undisturbed, but cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for ease of plucking.

Two principal varieties are used: the China plant (C. s. sinensis), used for most Chinese, Formosan and Japanese teas (but not Pu-erh); and the clonal Assam tea plant (C. s. assamica), used in most Indian and other teas (but not Darjeeling). Within these botanical varieties, there are many strains and modern Indian clonal varieties. Leaf size is the chief criterion for the classification of tea plants, with three primary classifications being: Assam type, characterized by the largest leaves; China type, characterized by the smallest leaves; and Cambod, characterized by leaves of intermediate size.

Processing and classification

Teas can generally be divided into categories based on how they are processed. There are at least six different types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong (or wulong), black (called red tea in China), and post-fermented tea (or black tea for the Chinese) of which the most commonly found on the market are white, green, oolong , and black. Some varieties, such as traditional oolong tea and Pu-erh tea, a post-fermented tea, can be used medicinally.

Fresh tea leaves of different sizes

Fresh tea leaves of different sizes. The smaller the leaf, the more expensive the tea.

After picking, the leaves of C. sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize, unless they are immediately dried. The leaves turn progressively darker as their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. This enzymatic oxidation process, known as fermentation in the tea industry, is caused by the plant’s intracellular enzymes and causes the tea to darken. In tea processing, the darkening is stopped at a predetermined stage by heating, which deactivates the enzymes responsible. In the production of black teas, the halting of oxidization by heating is carried out simultaneously with drying.

Without careful moisture and temperature control during manufacture and packaging, the tea may become unfit for consumption, due to the growth of undesired molds and bacteria. At minimum, it may alter the taste and make it undesirable.

Blending and additives

Although single estate teas are available, almost all teas in bags and most other teas sold in the West are blends. Blending may occur in the tea-planting area (as in the case of Assam), or teas from many areas may be blended. The aim of blending is to obtain better taste, higher price, or both, as a more expensive, better-tasting tea may cover the inferior taste of cheaper varieties.

Some teas are not pure varieties, but have been enhanced through additives or special processing. Tea is highly receptive to inclusion of various aromas; this may cause problems in processing, transportation, and storage, but also allows for the design of an almost endless range of scented and flavored variants, such as bergamot (Earl Grey), vanilla, caramel, and many others.


Tea contains catechins, a type of antioxidant. In a freshly picked tea leaf, catechins can compose up to 30% of the dry weight. Catechins are highest in concentration in white and green teas, while black tea has substantially fewer due to its oxidative preparation. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has suggested the levels of antioxidants in green and black tea do not differ greatly, as green tea has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) of 1253 and black tea an ORAC of 1128 (measured in μmol TE/100 g). Antioxidant content, measured by the lag time for oxidation of cholesterol, is improved by the cold water steeping of varieties of tea.

Tea also contains L-theanine, and the stimulant caffeine at about 3% of its dry weight, translating to between 30 mg and 90 mg per 8 oz (250 ml) cup depending on type, brand, and brewing method.

Tea also contains small amounts of theobromine and theophylline. Due to modern environmental pollution, fluoride and aluminium have also been found to occur in tea, with certain types of brick tea made from old leaves and stems having the highest levels. This occurs due to the tea plant’s high sensitivity to and absorption of environmental pollutants.

Although tea contains various types of polyphenols and tannin, it does not contain tannic acid. Tannic acid is not an appropriate standard for any type of tannin analysis because of its poorly defined composition.

Origin and history

Tea plants are native to East and South Asia, and probably originated around the point of confluence of the lands of northeast India, north Burma and southwest China.

Although there are tales of tea’s first use as a beverage, no one is sure of its exact origins. The first recorded drinking of tea is in China, with the earliest records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century BC. It was already a common drink during the Qin Dynasty (third century BC) and became widely popular during the Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to Korea and Japan. Trade of tea by the Chinese to Western nations in the 19th century spread tea and the tea plant to numerous locations around the world.

Tea was imported to Europe during the Portuguese expansion of the 16th century, at which time it was termed chá. In 1750, tea experts traveled from China to the Azores Islands, and planted tea, along with jasmines and mallows, to give the tea aroma and distinction. Both green and black tea continue to grow in the islands, which are the main suppliers to continental Portugal. Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, took the tea habit to Great Britain around 1660, but until the 19th century, tea was not as widely consumed in Britain as it is today. In Ireland, tea had become an everyday beverage for all levels of society by the late 19th century, but it was first consumed as a luxury item on special occasions, such as religious festivals, wakes, and domestic work gatherings such as quiltings.

Health effects

Several of the potential health benefits proposed for tea are outlined in this excerpt from Mondal (2007, pp. 519–520) as following:

Tea leaves contain more than 700 chemicals, among which the compounds closely related to human health are flavonoids, amino acids, vitamins (C, E and K), caffeine and polysaccharides. Moreover, tea drinking has recently proven to be associated with cell-mediated immune function of the human body. Tea plays an important role in improving beneficial intestinal microflora, as well as providing immunity against intestinal disorders and in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage. Tea also prevents dental caries due to the presence of fluorine. The role of tea is well established in normalizing blood pressure, lipid depressing activity, prevention of coronary heart diseases and diabetes by reducing the blood-glucose activity. Tea also possesses germicidal and germistatic activities against various gram-positive and gram negative human pathogenic bacteria. Both green and black tea infusions contain a number of antioxidants, mainly catechins that have anti-carcinogenic, anti-mutagenic and anti-tumoric properties.

Catechins in green tea possess anticancer properties against “cancer in various organs, including the colorectum and liver, and are known to exert anti-obesity, antidiabetic, and anti-inflammatory effects.” “Branched-chain amino acids in green tea may prevent progressive hepatic failure in patients with chronic liver diseases, and might be effective for the suppression of obesity-related liver carcinogenesis.”

Anticarcinogenic effects of tea polyphonols has been provided by numerous in vitro and experimental studies, which describe their action to “bind directly to carcinogens, induce phase II enzymes such as UDP-glucuronosyl transferase and inhibit heterocyclic amine formation.” “Molecular mechanisms, including catechin-mediated induction of apoptosis and cell cycle arrest, inhibition of transcription factors NF-κB and AP-1 and reduction of protein tyrosine kinase activity and c-jun mRNA expression have also been suggested as relevant chemopreventive pathways for tea.” Protective effects from tea consumption are observed less frequently in populations whose intake of black tea predominates.

Numerous recent epidemiological studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of green tea consumption on the incidence of human cancers. These studies suggest significant protective effects of green tea against oral, pharyngeal, esophageal, prostate, digestive, urinary tract, pancreatic, bladder, skin, lung, colon, breast, and liver cancers, and lower risk for cancer metastasis and recurrence.

Possibly most noteworthy are human intervention studies that find consumption of green tea cuts the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, and advanced prostate cancer by 50%.

Cholesterol and blood sugar levels are lowered significantly by drinking green tea. Drinking green tea is negatively associated with diabetes, possibly due to moderated oxidative stress on fats, which may reduce insulin resistance.

Consumption of green tea is associated with a lower risk of diseases that cause functional disability, such as “stroke, cognitive impairment, and osteoporosis” in the elderly. Specific to mental function, researchers in 2010 found people who consumed tea had significantly less cognitive decline than tea nondrinkers. The study used data on more than 4,800 men and women aged 65 and older to examine change in cognitive function over time. Study participants were followed for up to 14 years for naturally occurring cognitive decline. (AAICAD, 2010)

L-theanine in tea may reduce stress by inducing a calm but alert, focused, and relatively productive (alpha wave dominant) mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practice.

The word “tea”

The Chinese character for tea is 茶. It is pronounced differently in the various Chinese languages. Most pronounce it along the lines of cha (Mandarin has chá), but the Min varieties along the central coast of China and in Southeast Asia pronounce it like te. These two pronunciations of the Chinese word for tea have made their separate ways into other languages around the world:

  • Te is from  in the Amoy dialect, spoken in Fujian Province and Taiwan. It reached the West from the port of Xiamen (Amoy), once a major point of contact with Western European traders such as the Dutch, who spread it to Western Europe.
  • Cha is from the Cantonese chàh, spoken in Guangzhou (Canton) and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau, also major points of contact, especially with the Portuguese, who spread it to India in the 16th century. The Korean and Japanese words cha come from the Mandarin chá.

The widespread form chai comes from Persian چای chay. This derives from Mandarin chá, which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix -yi before passing on to Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, etc.

English has all three forms: cha or char (both pronounced /ˈtʃɑː/), attested from the 16th century; tea, from the 17th; and chai, from the 20th.

Languages in more intense contact with Chinese, Sinospheric languages like Vietnamese, Zhuang, Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese, may have borrowed their words for tea at an earlier time and from a different variety of Chinese, so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations. Korean and Japanese, for example, retain early pronunciations of ta and daTa comes from the Tang Dynasty court at Chang’an: that is, from Middle Chinese. Japanese da comes from the earlier Southern Dynasties court at Nanjing, a place where the consonant was still voiced, as it is today in neighboring Shanghainese zo. Vietnamese and Zhuang have southern cha-type pronunciations.

Etymological observations

The different words for tea fall into two main groups: “te-derived” (Min) and “cha-derived” (Cantonese and Mandarin). The words that various languages use for “tea” reveal where those nations first acquired their tea and tea culture.

  • Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to import the herb in large amounts. The Portuguese borrowed their word for tea (cha) from Cantonese in the 1550s via their trading posts in the south of China, especially Macau.
  • In Central Asia, Mandarin cha developed into Persian chay, and this form spread with Persian trade and cultural influence.
  • Russia (chai) encountered tea in Central Asia.
  • The Dutch word for “tea” (thee) comes from the Min dialect. The Dutch may have borrowed their word for tea through trade directly from Fujian, or from Fujianese or Malay traders in Java. From 1610 on, the Dutch played a dominant role in the early European tea trade, via the Dutch East India Company, influencing other languages to use the Dutch word for tea. Other European languages whose words for tea derive from the Min dialect (via Dutch) include English, French (thé), Spanish (te), and German (Tee).
  • The Dutch first introduced tea to England in 1644. By the 19th century, most British tea was purchased directly from merchants in Canton, whose population uses cha, though English never replaced its Dutch-derived Min word for tea.

At times, a te form will follow a cha form, or vice versa, giving rise to both in one language, at times one an imported variant of the other.

  • In North America, the word chai is used to refer almost exclusively to the Indian masala chai (spiced tea) beverage, in contrast to tea itself.
  • The inverse pattern is seen in Moroccan colloquial Arabic (Darija), ash-shay means “generic, or black Middle Eastern tea” whereas at-tay refers particularly to Zhejiang or Fujian green tea with fresh mint leaves. The Moroccans are said to have acquired this taste for green tea— unique in the Arab world— for East Chinese green tea after the ruler Mulay Hassan exchanged some European hostages captured by the Barbary pirates for a whole ship of Chinese tea.
  • The colloquial Greek word for tea is tsáï, from Slavic chai. Its formal equivalent, used in earlier centuries, is téïon, from .
  • The Polish word for a tea-kettle is czajnik, which could be derived directly from chai or from the cognate Russian word. However, tea in Polish is herbata, which, as well as Lithuanian arbata, was derived from the Latin herba thea, meaning “tea herb”.
  • The normal word for tea in Finnish is tee, which is a Swedish loan. However, it is often colloquially referred to, especially in Eastern Finland and in Helsinki, as tsaitsaijusaiju or saikka, which is cognate to Russian word chai. The latter word refers always to black tea, while green tea is always tee.
  • In Ireland, or at least in Dublin, the term cha is sometimes used for “tea”, as is pre-vowel-shift pronunciation “tay” (from which the Irish Gaelic word tae is derived). Char was a common slang term for tea throughout British Empire and Commonwealth military forces in the 19th and 20th centuries, crossing over into civilian usage.
  • The British English slang word “char” for “tea” arose from its Cantonese Chinese pronunciation “cha” with its spelling affected by the fact that ar is a more common way of representing the phoneme /ɑː/ in British English.

Tea culture

Masala chai from the Indian subcontinent

Masala chai (literally “mixed-spice tea”) from the Indian subcontinent

Tea may be consumed early in the day to heighten alertness; it contains theophylline and bound caffeine (sometimes called theine). Decaffeinated brands are also sold.

While tea is the second most consumed beverage on Earth after water, in many cultures it is also consumed at elevated social events, such as afternoon tea and the tea party. Tea ceremonies have arisen in different cultures, such as the Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies, each of which employs traditional techniques and ritualized protocol of brewing and serving tea for enjoyment in a refined setting. One form of Chinese tea ceremony is the Gongfu tea ceremony, which typically uses small Yixing clay teapots and oolong tea.

Tea is prevalent in most cultures in the Middle East. In Arab culture, tea is a focal point for social gatherings.

In Pakistan, both black and green teas are popular and are known locally as sabz chai and kahwah, respectively. The popular green tea called kahwah is often served after every meal in in the Pashtun belt of Balochistan and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is where the Khyber Pass of the Silk Road is found. In the Kashmir region of Pakistan, Kashmiri chai or noon chai, a pink, milky tea with pistachios and cardamom, is consumed primarily at special occasions, weddings, and during the winter months when it is sold in many kiosks. In Central and Southern Punjab along with metropolitan Sindh, tea with milk and sugar (sometimes with cardamoms, etc.), commonly referred as chai, is widely consumed. It is the most common beverage of working class and households. In the northern Pakistani regions of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, a salty, buttered Tibetan-style tea is consumed. In Iranian culture, tea is so widely consumed, it is generally the first thing offered to a household guest.

In the United States and Canada, 80% of tea is consumed cold, as iced tea. Sweet tea is a cultural symbol of the southern US, and is common in that portion of the country.

Switzerland has its own unique blend of iced tea, made with the basic ingredients like black tea, sugar, lemon juice and mint, but a variety of Alp herbs are also added to the concoction. Apart from classic flavors like lemon and peach, exotic flavors like jasmine and lemongrass are also very popular.

In India, tea is one of the most popular hot beverages. It is consumed daily in almost all homes, offered to guests, consumed in high amounts in domestic and official surroundings, and is made with the addition of milk with or without spices. It is also served with biscuits dipped in the tea and eaten before consuming the tea. More often than not, it is drunk in “doses” of small cups rather than one large cup. On April 21, 2012, the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission (India), Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said tea would be declared as national drink by April 2013. The move is expected to boost the tea industry in the country. Speaking on the occasion, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said a special package for the tea industry would be announced in the future to ensure its development.

In the United Kingdom, especially England, it is consumed daily and often by a majority of people across the country, and indeed is perceived as one of Britain’s cultural beverages. In British homes, it is customary good manners for a host to offer tea to guests soon after their arrival. The British prefer black tea, usually from a tea bag, served in mugs with milk and perhaps sugar. Tea is generally consumed at home; outside the home in cafés, coffee is the drink of choice for many people. Afternoon tea with cakes on fine porcelain is a cultural stereotype, sometimes available in quaint tea-houses. In southwest England, many cafes serve a ‘cream tea’, consisting of scones, clotted cream, and jam alongside a pot of tea. Throughout England, and Scotland, ‘tea’ may also refer to the evening meal.

In Burma (Myanmar), tea is consumed not only as hot drinks, but also as sweet tea and green tea known locally as laphet-yay and laphet-yay-gyan, respectively. Pickled tea leaves, known locally as laphet, are also a national delicacy. Pickled tea is usually eaten with roasted sesame seeds, crispy fried beans, roasted peanuts and fried garlic chips.


Chinese porcelain tea pot (circa 1820)

Chinese porcelain tea pot (circa 1820)

The traditional method of making a cup of tea is to place loose tea leaves, either directly or in a tea infuser, into a tea pot or teacup and pour freshly boiled water over the leaves. After a few minutes, the leaves are usually removed again, either by removing the infuser, or by straining the tea while serving.

Most green teas should be allowed to steep for about two or three minutes, although some types of tea require as much as ten minutes, and others as little as 30 seconds. The strength of the tea should be varied by changing the amount of tea leaves used, not by changing the steeping time. The amount of tea to be used per amount of water differs from tea to tea, but one basic recipe may be one slightly heaped teaspoon of tea (about 5 ml) for each teacup of water (200–240 ml) (7–8 oz) prepared as above. Stronger teas, such as Assam, to be drunk with milk, are often prepared with more leaves, and more delicate high-grown teas such as a Darjeeling are prepared with somewhat fewer (as the stronger mid-flavors can overwhelm the champagne notes).

The best temperature for brewing tea depends on its type. Teas that have little or no oxidation period, such as a green or white tea, are best brewed at lower temperatures, between 65 and 85 °C (149 and 185 °F), while teas with longer oxidation periods should be brewed at higher temperatures around 100 °C (212 °F). The higher temperatures are required to extract the large, complex, flavorful phenolic molecules found in fermented tea. In addition, boiling reduces the dissolved oxygen content of water. Dissolved oxygen would otherwise react with phenolic molecules to turn them brown and reduce their potency as antioxidants. To preserve the antioxidant potency, especially for green and white teas brewed at a lower temperature, water should be boiled vigorously to boil off any dissolved oxygen and then allowed to cool to the appropriate temperature before adding to the tea. An additional health benefit of boiling water before brewing tea is the sterilization of the water and reduction of any dissolved VOCs, chemicals which are often harmful.

Type Water temp. Steep time Infusions
White tea 65 to 70 °C (149 to 158 °F) 1–2 minutes 3
Yellow tea 70 to 75 °C (158 to 167 °F) 1–2 minutes 3
Green tea 75 to 80 °C (167 to 176 °F) 1–2 minutes 4-6
Oolong tea 80 to 85 °C (176 to 185 °F) 2–3 minutes 4-6
Black tea 99 °C (210 °F) 2–3 minutes 2-3
Pu’er tea 95 to 100 °C (203 to 212 °F) Limitless Several
Herbal tea 99 °C (210 °F) 3–6 minutes Varied

Some tea sorts are often brewed several times using the same leaves. Historically in China, tea is divided into a number of infusions. The first infusion is immediately poured out to wash the tea, and then the second and further infusions are drunk. The third through fifth are nearly always considered the best infusions of tea, although different teas open up differently and may require more infusions of hot water to produce the best flavor.

One way to taste a tea, throughout its entire process, is to add hot water to a cup containing the leaves and after about 30 seconds to taste it. As the tea leaves unfold (known as “The Agony of the Leaves”), they give up various parts of themselves to the water and thus the taste evolves. Continuing this from the very first flavours to the time beyond which the tea is quite stewed will allow an appreciation of the tea throughout its entire length.

Antioxidant content, measured by the lag time for oxidation of cholesterol, is improved by the cold-water steeping of varieties of tea.

Black tea (called red tea in China)

Cup of Earl Grey tea

Cup of Earl Grey tea

In the West, water for black tea is usually added near the boiling point of water, at around 99°C (210°F). Many of the active substances in black tea do not develop at temperatures lower than 90 °C (194 °F). Lower temperatures are used for some more delicate teas. The temperature will have as large an effect on the final flavor as the type of tea used. The most common fault when making black tea is to use water at too low a temperature. Since boiling point drops with increasing altitude, it is difficult to brew black tea properly in mountainous areas. It is also recommended that the teapot be warmed before preparing tea, easily done by adding a small amount of boiling water to the pot, swirling briefly, then discarding it. In the West, black teas are usually brewed for about four minutes and are usually not allowed to steep for less than 30 seconds or more than about five minutes (a process known as brewing or mashing in Britain). In many regions of the world, however, boiling water is used and the tea is often stewed. For example in India, black tea is often boiled for fifteen minutes or longer as a strong brew is preferred for making Masala chai. When the tea has brewed long enough to suit the tastes of the drinker, it should be strained while serving. The popular varieties of black (red) tea include Assam tea, Nepal tea, Darjeeling tea, Nilgiri tea, Turkish tea and Ceylon tea.

Green tea

Water for green tea, according to regions of the world that prefer mild tea, should be around 80 to 85 °C (176 to 185 °F); the higher the quality of the leaves, the lower the temperature. Hotter water will produce a bitter taste. However, this is the method used in many regions of the world, such as North Africa or Central Asia, where bitter tea is appreciated. For example, in Morocco, green tea is steeped in boiling water for 15 minutes. In the West and Far East, a milder tea is appreciated. The container in which the tea is steeped, the mug or teapot, is often warmed beforehand so the tea does not immediately cool down. High-quality green and white teas can have new water added as many as five or more times, depending on variety, at increasingly higher temperatures.

Oolong tea

Oolong teas should be brewed around 90 to 100 °C (194 to 212 °F), and again the brewing vessel should be warmed before pouring in the water. Yixing purple clay teapots are the traditional brewing-vessel for oolong tea. For best results, use spring water, as the minerals in spring water tend to bring out more flavor in the tea. High quality oolong can be brewed multiple times from the same leaves, and unlike green tea, it improves with reuse. It is common to brew the same leaves three to five times, the third steeping usually being the best.

Premium or delicate tea

Some teas, especially green teas and delicate oolong teas, are steeped for shorter periods, sometimes less than 30 seconds. Using a tea strainer separates the leaves from the water at the end of the brewing time if a tea bag is not being used. However, the black Darjeeling tea, a premium Indian tea, needs a longer than average steeping time. Elevation and time of harvest offer varying taste profiles; proper storage and water quality also have a large impact on taste.

Pu-erh tea

Pu-erh teas require boiling water for infusion. Some prefer to quickly rinse pu-erh for several seconds with boiling water to remove tea dust which accumulates from the aging process, then infuse it at the boiling point (100°C or 212°F), and allow it to steep from 30 seconds to five minutes.


To preserve the pre-tannin tea without requiring it all to be poured into cups, a second teapot may be used. The steeping pot is best unglazed earthenware; Yixing pots are the best known of these, famed for the high quality clay from which they are made. The serving pot is generally porcelain, which retains the heat better. Larger teapots are a post-19th century invention, as tea before this time was very rare and very expensive. Experienced tea-drinkers often insist the tea should not be stirred around while it is steeping (sometimes called winding or mashing in the UK). This, they say, will do little to strengthen the tea, but is likely to bring the tannins out in the same way that brewing too long will do. For the same reason, one should not squeeze the last drops out of a teabag; if stronger tea is desired, more tea leaves should be used.


The addition of milk to tea in Europe was first mentioned in 1680 by the epistolist Madame de Sévigné. Many teas are traditionally drunk with milk in cultures where dairy products are consumed. These include Indian masala chai and British tea blends. These teas tend to be very hearty varieties of black tea which can be tasted through the milk, such as Assams, or the East Friesian blend. Milk is thought to neutralize remaining tannins and reduce acidity. The Han Chinese do not usually drink milk with tea (or indeed use milk at all) but the Manchus do, and the elite of the Qing Dynasty of the Chinese Empire continued to do so. Hong Kong-style milk tea is based on British colonial habits. Tibetans and other Himalayan peoples traditionally drink tea with milk or yak butter and salt. In Eastern European countries (Russia, Poland and Hungary) and in Italy, tea is commonly served with lemon juice. In Poland, tea with milk is called a bawarka (“Bavarian style”), and is often drunk by pregnant and nursing women.

The order of steps in preparing a cup of tea is a much-debated topic, and can vary widely between cultures or even individuals. Some say it is preferable to add the milk before the tea, as the high temperature of freshly brewed tea can denature the proteins found in fresh milk, similar to the change in taste of UHT milk, resulting in an inferior-tasting beverage. Others insist it is better to add the milk after brewing the tea, as most teas need to be brewed as close to boiling as possible. The addition of milk chills the beverage during the crucial brewing phase, if brewing in a cup rather than using a pot, meaning the delicate flavor of a good tea cannot be fully appreciated. By adding the milk afterwards, it is easier to dissolve sugar in the tea and also to ensure the desired amount of milk is added, as the color of the tea can be observed. Historically, the order of steps was taken as an indication of class: only those wealthy enough to afford good-quality porcelain would be confident of its being able to cope with being exposed to boiling water unadulterated with milk.

A 2007 study published in the European Heart Journal found certain beneficial effects of tea may be lost through the addition of milk.

Many flavourings are added to varieties of tea during processing. Among the best known are Chinese jasmine tea, with jasmine oil or flowers, the spices in Indian masala chai, and Earl Grey tea, which contains oil of bergamot. A great range of modern flavours have been added to these traditional ones. In eastern India, people also drink lemon tea or lemon masala tea. Lemon tea simply contains hot tea with lemon juice and sugar. Masala lemon tea contains hot tea with roasted cumin seed powder, lemon juice, black salt and sugar, which gives it a tangy, spicy taste.

Other popular additives to tea by the tea-brewer or drinker include sugar, liquid honey or a solid Honey Drop, agave nectar, fruit jams, and mint. In China, sweetening tea was traditionally regarded as a feminine practice. In colder regions, such as Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal, butter is added to provide necessary calories. Tibetan butter tea contains rock salt and dre (yak) butter, which is then churned vigorously in a cylindrical vessel closely resembling a butter churn. The same may be said for salt tea, which is consumed in some cultures in the Hindu Kush region of northern Pakistan.

Alcohol, such as whisky or brandy, may also be added to tea.

The flavor of the tea can also be altered by pouring it from different heights, resulting in varying degrees of oxidization. The art of high-altitude pouring is used principally by people in Northern Africa (e.g. Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Libya), but also in West Africa (e.g. Guinea, Mali, Senegal) and can positively alter the flavor of the tea, but it is more likely a technique to cool the beverage destined to be consumed immediately. In certain cultures, the tea is given different names depending on the height from which it is poured. In Mali, gunpowder tea is served in series of three, starting with the highest oxidization or strongest, unsweetened tea (cooked from fresh leaves), locally referred to as “bitter as death”, followed by a second serving, where the same tea leaves are boiled again with some sugar added (“pleasant as life”), and a third one, where the same tea leaves are boiled for the third time with yet more sugar added (“sweet as love”). Green tea is the central ingredient of a distinctly Malian custom, the “Grin”, an informal social gathering that cuts across social and economic lines, starting in front of family compound gates in the afternoons and extending late into the night, and is widely popular in Bamako and other large urban areas.

In Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, the practice of pouring tea from a height has been refined further using black tea to which condensed milk is added, poured from a height from one cup to another several times in alternating fashion and in quick succession, to create a tea with entrapped air bubbles creating a frothy “head” in the cup. This beverage, teh tarik, literally, “pulled tea”, has a creamier taste than flat milk tea and is extremely popular in the region. Tea pouring in Malaysia has been further developed into an art form in which a dance is done by people pouring tea from one container to another, which in any case takes skill and precision. The participants, each holding two containers, one full of tea, pour it from one to another. They stand in lines and squares and pour the tea into each others’ pots. The dance must be choreographed to allow anyone who has both pots full to empty them and refill those of whoever has no tea at any one point.


Tea factory in Taiwan

Machines for rolling and drying tea leaves inside a factory in Taiwan

Tea is the most popular manufactured drink in the world in terms of consumption. Its consumption equals all other manufactured drinks in the world – including coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol – put together. Most tea consumed outside East Asia is produced on large plantations in the hilly regions of India and Sri Lanka, and is destined to be sold to large businesses. Opposite this large-scale industrial production are many small “gardens,” sometimes minuscule plantations, that produce highly sought-after teas prized by gourmets. These teas are both rare and expensive, and can be compared to some of the most expensive wines in this respect.

India is the world’s largest tea-drinking nation, although the per capita consumption of tea remains a modest 750 grams per person every year. Turkey, with 2.5 kg of tea consumed per person per year, is the world’s greatest per capita consumer.


In 2003, world tea production was 3.21 million tonnes annually. In 2010, world tea production reached over 4.52 million tonnes. The largest producers of tea are the People’s Republic of China, India,Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

The following table shows the amount of tea production (in tonnes) by leading countries in recent years. Data are generated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as of February 2012.

Country 2008 2009 2010
China China 1,274,984 1,375,780 1,467,467
India India 987,000 972,700 991,180
Kenya Kenya 345,800 314,100 399,000
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka 318,700 290,000 282,300
Turkey Turkey 198,046 198,601 235,000
Vietnam Vietnam 173,500 185,700 198,466
Iran Iran 165,717 165,717 165,717
Indonesia Indonesia 150,851 146,440 150,000
Argentina Argentina 80,142 71,715 88,574
Japan Japan 96,500 86,000 85,000
Total 4,211,397 4,242,280 4,518,060


Workers who pick and pack tea on plantations in developing countries can face harsh working conditions and can earn below the living wage.

A number of bodies independently certify the production of tea. Tea from certified estates can be sold with a certification label on the pack. The most important certification schemes are Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, UTZ Certified, and Organic. All these schemes certify other crops (such as coffee, cocoa and fruit), as well. Rainforest Alliance certified tea is sold by Unilever brands Lipton and PG Tips in Western Europe, Australia and the US. Fairtrade certified tea is sold by a large number of suppliers around the world. UTZ Certified announced a partnership in 2008 with Sara Lee brand Pickwick tea.

Production of organic tea is rising; 3,500 tonnes of organic tea were grown in 2003. The majority of this tea (about 75%) is sold in France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2007, the largest importer of tea, by weight, was the Russian Federation, followed by the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and the United States. Kenya, China, India and Sri Lanka were the largest exporters of tea in 2007 (with exports of: 374229, 292199, 193459 and 190203 tonnes respectively). The largest exporter of black tea in the world is Kenya, while the largest producer (and consumer) of black tea in the world is India. 


Tea bags

Tea bags

Tea bags

In 1907, American tea merchant Thomas Sullivan began distributing samples of his tea in small bags of Chinese silk with a drawstring. Consumers noticed they could simply leave the tea in the bag and reuse it with fresh tea. However, the potential of this distribution/packaging method would not be fully realized until later on. During World War II, tea was rationed in the United Kingdom. In 1953 (after rationing in the UK ended), Tetley launched the tea bag to the UK and it was an immediate success.

Tea leaves are packed into a small envelope (usually composed of paper) known as a tea bag. The use of tea bags is easy and convenient, making them popular for many people today. However, the use of tea bags has negative aspects, as well. The tea used in tea bags is commonly fannings or “dust”, the waste product produced from the sorting of higher quality loose leaf tea. However, this is not true for all brands of tea; many high quality specialty teas are available in bag form. Tea aficionados commonly believe this method provides an inferior taste and experience. The paper used for the bag can also be tasted by many, which can detract from the tea’s flavor. Because fannings and dust are a lower quality of the tea to begin with, the tea found in tea bags is less finicky when it comes to brewing time and temperature.

Additional reasons why bag tea is considered less well-flavored include:

  • Dried tea loses its flavor quickly on exposure to air. Most bag teas (although not all) contain leaves broken into small pieces; the great surface area to volume ratio of the leaves in tea bags exposes them to more air, and therefore causes them to go stale faster. Loose tea leaves are likely to be in larger pieces, or to be entirely intact.
  • Breaking up the leaves for bags extracts flavored oils. 
  • The small size of the bag does not allow leaves to diffuse and steep properly. 
  • Some tea bags are made using a wet paper strength-reinforcing coating using epichlorohydrin, a known carcinogen. 

The “pyramid tea bag” (or sachet) introduced by Lipton and PG Tips/Scottish Blend in 1996, attempts to address one of the connoisseurs’ arguments against paper tea bags by way of its three-dimensional tetrahedron shape, which allows more room for tea leaves to expand while steeping. However, some types of pyramid tea bags have been criticized as being environmentally unfriendly, since their synthetic material is not as biodegradable as loose tea leaves and paper tea bags.

Loose tea

Loose leaf Oolong tea

Loose leaf Oolong tea

The tea leaves are packaged loosely in a canister or other container. Rolled gunpowder tea leaves, which resist crumbling, are commonly vacuum packed for freshness in aluminized packaging for storage and retail. The portions must be individually measured by the consumer for use in a cup, mug, or teapot. This allows greater flexibility, letting the consumer brew weaker or stronger tea as desired, but convenience is sacrificed. Strainers, “tea presses”, filtered teapots, and infusion bags are available commercially to avoid having to drink the floating loose leaves and to prevent over-brewing. A more traditional, yet perhaps more efficient way around this problem is to use a three-piece lidded teacup, called a gaiwan. The lid of the gaiwan can be tilted to decant the leaves while pouring the tea into a different cup for consumption.

Compressed tea

Some teas (particularly Pu-erh tea) are still compressed for transport, storage, and aging convenience. The tea brick remains in use in the Himalayan countries or Mongolian steppes. The tea is prepared and steeped by first loosening leaves off the compressed cake using a small knife. Compressed teas can usually be stored for longer periods of time without spoilage when compared with loose leaf tea.

Instant tea

In recent times, “instant teas” are becoming popular, similar to freeze-dried instant coffee. Similar products also exist for instant iced tea, due to the convenience of not requiring boiling water. Instant tea was developed in the 1930s, but not commercialized until later. Nestea introduced the first instant tea in 1946, while Redi-Tea introduced the first instant iced tea in 1953.

These products often come with added flavors, such as chai, vanilla, honey or fruit, and may also contain powdered milk. Tea connoisseurs tend to criticize these products for sacrificing the delicacies of tea flavour in exchange for convenience.

Bottled and canned tea

Switzerland is considered as the motherland of bottled iced tea. Maks Sprengler, a Swiss businessman, tried the famous American iced tea and was the first to suggest producing ready-made iced tea in bottles. In 1983, Bischofszell Food Ltd. became the first producer in the world of bottled ice tea on an industrial scale.

Canned tea is a form of tea that has already been prepared, and is sold ready to drink. Canned tea was first launched in 1981 in Japan. As such, it is a fairly recent innovation.


Tea shelf life varies with storage conditions and type of tea. Black tea has a longer shelf life than green tea. An exception, pu-erh tea, improves with age. Tea stays freshest when stored in a dry, cool, dark place in an air-tight container. Black tea stored in a bag inside a sealed opaque canister may keep for two years. Green tea loses its freshness more quickly, usually in less than a year. Gunpowder tea, its leaves being tightly rolled, keeps longer than the more open-leafed Chun Mee tea. Storage life for all teas can be extended by using desiccant packets or oxygen-absorbing packets, and by vacuum sealing.

When storing green tea, discreet use of refrigeration or freezing is recommended. In particular, drinkers need to take precautions against temperature variation.

Improperly stored tea may lose flavor, acquire disagreeable flavors or odors from other foods, or become moldy.

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This Wikipedia article is reprinted here under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

See also: George Orwell’s 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea.

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2 Responses to Tea

  1. Ellen on December 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Chinese tea farmers are switching to coffee

    By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times

    December 29, 2012, 5:00 a.m.

    PU’ER, China — This remote southwestern city near the borders of Laos and Myanmar is named after one of China’smost famous teas, grown on mountain terraces painstakingly carved out of the region’s rich red soil.

    But in recent years, pu’er tea has surrendered prime real estate for a more lucrative brew: coffee. Chinese farmers have taken to the new crop, which thrives in high-altitude areas of Yunnan province and commands up to three times as much money as tea.

    “My sole income depends on coffee now,” said Ma Jiaying, a farmer from a dab-sized hamlet in Pu’er called Tea Tree Village.

    Behind the change are major foreign producers, including Seattle’s Starbucks Corp. and Switzerland’s Nestle. Those multinationals are training farmers and buying beans from the region to meet the world’s growing thirst for coffee.

    More important, Yunnan has the potential to thrive as a production base in a country that is becoming increasingly hooked on the caffeine-loaded beverage. Long dismissed by many Chinese as being too bitter, coffee has enjoyed a surge in popularity among the country’s young, urban elite.

    Few pairings denote upward mobility more than an iPhone in one hand and a white-and-green Starbucks cup in the other. In central Beijing, the company’s smallest cappuccino costs about $4.33, making a Chinese Starbucks habit one of the most expensive in the world.

    “Starbucks in China for the young generation is almost like religion,” said Liu Minghui, head of Pu’er-based Ai Ni Coffee, China’s largest coffee production and exporting company. “They want to be seen drinking their coffee. A lot of these Chinese kids have come back from studying overseas where they’ve been introduced to this new lifestyle.”

    At 120,000 tons last year, China’s coffee consumption was only 6% that of the U.S., the world’s top consumer of hot joe. Meanwhile, about 1 million tons of tea was consumed in China last year.

    Still, analysts for Barclays expect Chinese coffee demand to grow nearly 40% each year until about 2015.

    More stores and shops are stocking instant coffee. Nestle’s Nescafe brand has captured more than two-thirds of the Chinese market, thanks in part to blends mixed with powdered milk and sugar to make it more appealing to local palates.

    Coffeehouses are percolating too; sales are projected to expand 23.5% annually on average to about $1.6 billion by 2016, according to Euromonitor, a global research group. Much of that growth is expected to come from Starbucks, which plans to more than double its Chinese stores to 1,500 by 2015. That would make China its second-biggest market, following the U.S.

    “This is a long-term commitment,” said John Culver, president of Starbucks Coffee China and Asia Pacific.

    Part of that effort will be raising the profile of Yunnan coffee. Starbucks released a special blend in 2009 for Chinese consumers called South of the Clouds, which includes beans from Baoshan, a city northeast of Pu’er in Yunnan. A year later, the company partnered with Ai Ni Coffee to grow and test four coffee varietals on a plantation in Pu’er. Those beans could reach domestic and global markets in a few years.

    Yunnan, considered one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world, is responsible for almost all of the roughly 60,000 tons of coffee grown in China. The provincial government has plans to increase coffee production to 200,000 tons by 2020.

    But growers will have to invest heavily to guarantee consistent quality, experts said.

    “It’s still very messy,” said Safi Malik, co-founder of Shangrila Farms, a boutique coffee brand that carries beans from Yunnan. “A lot of farmers don’t have training. There’s great coffee there, it just needs to be found and worked on.”

    A big test is whether Chinese farmers will remain committed to the crop through price fluctuations. This year, growers are being offered about $1.20 a pound, half of what they earned two years ago.

    “The best I can do this year is break even,” said Ma Xinwen, 40, who grows five acres of coffee on a hillside in Tea Tree Village about 4,000 feet above sea level.

    Neighbor Ma Jiaying also worries about the lower prices, but he’s confident they will bounce back.

    The 48-year-old father of two has grown coffee beans for nine years, primarily for Nestle. Every Monday and Tuesday, the company sends Ma and other farmers a text message alerting them of prices. They are free to decide whether to sell their beans.

    When coffee prices surged in 2010, Ma made nearly $15,000 for the year, more money than he had ever seen in his life. He used his extra cash to build a new home.

    “This year, tea may be more profitable than coffee,” said Ma, wearing flip-flops and rolled-up gray slacks. “But I don’t want to switch back. You can’t predict where prices are going to go.”

    Few have profited more from Yunnan coffee than Liu, the founder of Ai Ni Coffee.

    The son of subsistence farmers, Liu grew up 300 miles from Pu’er in a remote mountain village with no electricity or running water. Two of his siblings died of malnutrition. No one thought to brew the coffee that grew nearby. Instead, they ate the berries as a sweet snack.

    After earning a university degree in agricultural studies in 1986, Liu joined a United Nationsprogram in Yunnan aimed at developing coffee farming. The crop had helped Vietnamese farmers earn a living after the Vietnam War. Organizers hoped it would have a similar effect in Yunnan, which remains the second-poorest province in China.

    The experience helped launch Liu’s export business, which he briefly headquartered in Bay Shore, N.Y. Now a millionaire, Liu speaks halting English in a city largely isolated from the outside world, except for a small, single-runway airport.

    That’s where Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz landed in 2010 to negotiate a deal with Liu to produce coffee in Pu’er. Liu likes to show off a photo of the American executive visiting his processing plant.

    “My parents were growing rice, corn and sweet potato to survive,” said Liu, a stout, highly energetic man. “They never would have believed that I would one day grow luxury coffee.”

  2. Louise Nimshaw on July 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Brewing up a storm in specialty tea at $1000 a cup

    June 23, 2013

    Rachel Wells – Consumer Affairs Reporter for The Age

    Melburnians are regularly paying up to $18 for a cup of tea at some city cafes, with the most expensive variety selling for $1000 a cup.

    But these leafy drops are not of the kind derived from a Twinings tea bag or even from a teapot poured at your own leisure. Rather, Melbourne’s most serious brewers are investing in high-tech boilers worth thousands of dollars and spending up to $100 for 100 grams of imported tea leaves, in pursuit of the perfect cup.

    When Hannah Dupree opened Storm in a Teacup in Collingwood 18 months ago, she spent $4500 on an ecoboiler that enables her to boil water and keep it at a range of exact temperatures, according to the variety of tea.

    She serves 35 varieties, including white, green, black and oolong, from $3.50 for a basic English Breakfast and up to $12 for a ”shade-grown” Hawaiian white tea. She recently sold out of the Pre-Quing Ming Mao Jian – made from the first spring leaves of a Chinese tea plant, which cost $18 a cup. Her tea cocktails, including a jasmine gin and a matcha martini, cost between $10 and $20.

    ”Different teas require different temperatures, ranging from 60 degrees for some Japanese green teas up to 100 degrees for your standard black teas. It’s important to get that absolutely right and the boiler allows me to do that,” Ms Dupree says.

    ”Infusion time is also critical. I don’t send a pot out to the customer and get them to pour it whenever they think it’s ready. That’s our job. We brew all the teas at the counter and send the cups out when they are just right.”

    Ms Dupree approaches her tea making in the same way Melbourne’s passionate baristas approach coffee making – as an exact science. ”You wouldn’t send out an espresso coffee and a jug of milk and ask someone to pour their own latte,” she says.

    Chrissie Trabucco from Assembly – a tea bar and retail store in Carlton that sells teas for up to $10 a cup – says a handful of cafe owners are now treating tea with the same respect they accord coffee.

    ”It’s still a long way behind coffee in terms of appreciation of the nuances and the care that goes into making it,” she says. ”But I think that’s been driven by the industry. No one has really been interested in doing it well.”

    She says until recently some of the city’s most astute coffee makers could not understand why you couldn’t ”just bung some tea in the teapot, put some hot water from the coffee machine on top of it and drink it”.

    She says that’s slowly changing.

    ”People are producing really good teas really carefully and therefore we should be brewing them with the same care,” she says. ”We even take the time to filtrate our water. It might sound finicky, but we are constantly testing it and seeing if we can improve it even further.”

    She says customers are happy to pay ”a bit more” for a cup of tea when they see the effort that goes into making it and ”once they taste it”.

    ”The way we’ve set up the shop means customers can see exactly what’s happening. They know they’re getting really high-quality tea and that that we’re not just dumping it in a teapot but we’re brewing it to the absolute best that we can.”

    Vue de Monde’s tea sommelier, Charles Serveau, who serves a $1000 cup from a now-extinct tea plant, says tea is enjoying huge popularity right now.

    ”People like the health benefits and the different, complex tastes and because it can be matched well with different food,” he says.

    ”They are paying for the quality of the tea leaves, the quality of the tea ware, the fact that I brew the tea for them. They appreciate that.”


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