The exact origin of tea is hotly debated, but most scholars can agree it originated somewhere near modern-day Nepal, Tibet, southwest China and northeast India. Its cultivation and its popularity as a beverage gradually took hold in China. Today, it is produced in scores of countries around the world, including the United States. However, the most famous tea-producing areas are all in Asia. These include China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan.
Several countries have origin myths associated with tea. The most famous is the Chinese origin myth of Emperor Shen Nung. As the story goes, Shen Nung was a supernatural being – part god, part animal, part man. He was capable of ingesting substances and knowing how they benefit or poison the human body. Some versions of the myth even say his skin and organs were translucent, so he could actually see each substance’s impact on his body. It is said that Shen Nung discovered tea quite accidentally when some leaves fell from a tea plant and floated into a pot of water he was boiling. He tasted the liquid, found it to be delicious, restorative and healthy, and promoted its use to his many subjects from then on.
Today, China boasts the largest variety of tea types produced. Traditions are handed down from generation to generation, so the tea of one village or family may be radically different from the tea of its neighbors. In recent years, Westerners have begun to explore the depth and variety that tea has to offer. Whether you are tasting white tea for the first time or you’re a tea aficionado looking for rarities you have yet to try, there are plenty of options to choose from. Some of our favorites are Golden Yunnan (black tea), Ti Kuan Yin (oolong tea), Dragonwell (green tea) and Silver Needle (white tea).
Surprisingly, a close relative of the Chinese tea plant grew in Assam, India for many years before anyone there cultivated tea for consumption. In the 19th century, the British set up tea plantations in Assam to produce black tea for British tea drinkers. Today, India is known for black teas from the regions of Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri, and the average Indian citizen drinks 750 grams of tea each year.
Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon, but the name “Ceylon” seems to have stuck when talking about teas from Sri Lanka. This island nation was once a major coffee producer, but after monocropping and a major blight destroyed the majority of the coffee crops over 100 years ago, Sri Lanka switched to tea production. Now, Sri Lanka is known for its black tea, with the best teas typically coming from the highest elevations.
Taiwan is famous for its artisan oolongs, which are sometimes called “Formosa oolongs” because “Formosa” was Taiwan’s former name. We offer one of the most unique of all Taiwanese oolongs – our naturally sweet and creamy Milk Oolong.
Centuries after tea was discovered in China, its production spread to Japan through visiting Buddhist scholars. At that time, most tea was powdered and whisked, so Japanese tea traditions were born out of this custom. Now, Japan is known for “Matcha,” a powdered green tea borne out of this former means of tea preparation in China, and for steamed green teas like Sencha and Gyokuro. Experts on health and longevity often attribute green tea’s role in Japanese (and particularly Okinawan) diet to the remarkably long average lifespan and low incidences of age-related disease there.
Caffeine levels vary with each tea type and how you brew it. Generally speaking, herbal teas (or tisanes) don’t contain any caffeine, white and Chinese green teas are low in caffeine, oolong teas have a moderate caffeine level, black teas have less caffeine than cola and shade-grown Japanese green teas have more caffeine than cola. With the exception of very few teas, tea is lower in caffeine than drip-brewed coffee and espresso.
Questions on how to properly prepare your tea? See our Steeping Guide.