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A cup of history: different types of tea and their origins

We all love a good cup of tea. Whether it’s to relax after a particularly stressful day, as a homemade remedy to help us feel better when we’re sick, or to keep us warm during the winter months there’s no shortage of love for this brew. 

There’s no shortage of teas out there for almost every palate out there – from energy-boosting black tea, to relaxing herbal or a cup of green tea. With the range of flavours, it's no surprise that tea has a long history spanning many continents and centuries. Brew your favourite cup and settle in for the various histories of a few different types of teas.

tea time

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Black tea – China (17th Century)

When you think of black tea, your thoughts might go to the many boxes you see on supermarket shelves. There’s no doubt that black teas like Earl Grey are a favorite, widely consumed as a regular everyday tea. However, it has a long history dating all the way back to the 17th Century in China. 

The tale goes like this: an army entered the Fujian Province to seek shelter near a tea factory. Their unexpected stay led to a delay in tea production, with many tea leaves being left out in the sun. After a few days, the tea leaves turned red and became oxidized. The farmers, however, didn’t want to lose money or produce, so they roasted the leaves with pine wood, giving the tea a new smoky flavor. 

Or at least, that’s the most popular tale. There are many different versions of this story, but what is known is that it was the British who popularised black tea when it was brought over in the 18th Century. At first, it was seen as an exotic drink, only afforded to those in the higher classes. However, as it became more affordable, it became a popular drink for the masses before it became a staple in pantries across the world today. 

Green tea – China (approximately 2737 BC)

Green tea is favorite for its taste, but also for its multiple and varied health benefits. This brew is known to be the best of the oldest types of tea, with a long history to match. 

Green tea’s invention is attributed to the mythical Emperor Shennong, who accidentally drank boiled water with dead tea leaves inside. It might sound unappealing, but according to the legend, the Emperor found the flavor from the combination refreshing and went out of his way to make more of it.

Green tea didn’t become a regularly consumed and popular beverage until the Tang Dynasty (approx. 618-907 AD). Green tea became a fundamental part of Chinese society as the cultivation of the plant started throughout China.

Similar to black tea, green tea eventually made its way to the West in the 19th Century. Today, China, India, and Japan are the biggest exporters of green tea.

Herbal and floral tea various

There is no shortage of flavors of herbal and floral teas, from peppermint and chamomile to ginger, rooibos, lemongrass, and lavender. It’s no surprise that its origins are just as varied. 

Some herbal teas, like ginger and peppermint, can be traced back thousands of years, whereas others, like rooibos, can be traced back as recently as 300 years. In terms of location, some herbal teas were discovered in Ancient Egypt (chamomile, peppermint), Europe (lavender), South Africa (rooibos), and Asia (ginger, lemongrass).

Herbal and floral teas are generally known for being caffeine free, as well as possibly assisting in relieving stress, improving brain function, and boosting the immune system. 

White tea – China (Tang Dynasty, approximately 618-907AD)

While white tea became well-known during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), its origins date back to the Tang Dynasty. The first mention of this tea actually appeared in writings by Emperor Huizong (1107-1110). He was an avid tea drinker and often detailed rules and guidelines for making tea. 

The first commercial production of white tea was discovered in Fujian province in the 1700s. Today, varieties like Silver Needle and White Peony are now the most popular types of white tea. 

Compared to other teas, white tea has very minimal processing. Their leaves are dried either by vent, sunlight or drying chambers so they don’t oxidize. White tea also comes in different varieties due to being made by the different parts of the Camellia Sinensis plant, from Silver Needle (made from the buds) to White Peony (made from both the buds and leaves).

Purple tea – Kenya (cultivar developed in 1986, first seedlings planted in 2011)

You might not have heard of purple tea, as it’s one of the newest types of tea in the world. Purple tea is produced from a Camellia Sinensis plant cultivar, which was developed by the Tea Research Institute of Kenya for 25 years before its first seedlings were planted in 2011.

While purple tea plants have also been found in India and China, Kenya is currently the only country producing and exporting it. Although new to the market, it is showing promise in possible health benefits, as studies have shown it contains a higher amount of polyphenols than black or green tea, and anthocyanins (an antioxidant) that could reduce the risk of cancer and degenerative diseases. The anthocyanins also give the plant and tea its purple tint.

It’s safe to say that while black, green, herbal and white tea will never go out of style, purple tea could join them as a main type of tea in the future. 

With such a long, detailed and interesting history, as well as the many reported health benefits, it’s no wonder that tea is the second most consumed beverage around the world.

Whether you prefer the older teas to keep you warm and well, herbal and floral teas to keep you calm, or you want to experiment with new types of tea, there are plenty out there for you to choose from to maintain your personal self-care routine for years to come. 

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