Camellia sinensis - the tea plant. According to legend, tea was discovered in China by the Chinese god of agriculture, Shennong, who was boiling water in his garden and had some of the leaves fall into it. Or, according to another legend, the first tea plant sprang from the eyelids of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Buddhism from India to China, who cut them off to prevent himself from falling asleep during a long meditation.
Whatever the true origin, tea came from China and has risen to the status of the second most popular drink in the world. The first is water. Most historians nowadays believe that tea was first grown as a medicinal herb by commoners in Southwest China. It eventually became a beverage, rather than medicine, due to its popularity with multiple Chinese emperors who encouraged tea drinking across China.
No wonder then, that tea has inspired centuries of myth, legend, folklore, colonization, war, and Internet debates. Whole subcultures around the world have been formed around the "proper" way of preparing and drinking tea. It's very Serious Business.
For all the variety in tea and the ways of serving it, curiously enough, a common theme in many tea cultures is serving tea as a show of hospitality, up to and including Sacred Hospitality. Whether it's iced sweet tea on a porch in Sweet Home Alabama, the complimentary tea served in better Chinese restaurants, the formal structure of a tea ceremony in Japan, the glass of tea that always comes with a friendly visit or business meeting in Turkey and the Arab world, or hot cups passed around to those weathering a disaster in London, the acts of pouring and serving tea take on special meanings in the interaction between host and guest.
But first, some definitions...
For simplicity's sake, this page will concern itself only with real tea - liquid brewed from the plant Camellia sinensis. Any other brewed drinks that go under the name of "tea", such as herbal tea, are more properly called "infusions" or "tisanes".note This includes the likes of popular "red tea" (made from the South African herb called Rooibos and first used as a tea substitute by Dutch colonists there, now famous as the redbush tea favoured by Precious Ramotswe), yerba mate, honeybush, bissap, chamomile and so on.
Once you've made that distinction, all varieties of tea come from the same leaf and the difference is in how they are processed.
- Green tea is minimally heat-treated with steam or hot air to prevent oxidation, then dried, retaining the green color of the leaf. White tea and yellow tea can be considered special subsets of green tea; white is even less processed and uses only the unopened buds and young leaves, and yellow is dried more slowly.
- Black tea is also called "red tea" in Chinese and languages with strong Chinese influences; it's not the same as the herbal "red tea". Its color comes from a process where the tea leaves are bruised and allowed to fully oxidize before drying, resulting in the dark color, stronger flavor and higher caffeine content; the "black" terminology comes from the color of the leaves (really more of a very dark brown) after oxidation, while the East Asian "red tea" terminology comes from the color of the resultant brew. Before modern transport and preservation, this was the only way tea could be shipped long-distance, and it remains the most popular style outside of China and Japan. Former British colonies India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the other most famous tea producers, mainly produce black tea.
- Oolong tea, spelled wūlóng in Pinyin (literally meaning "black dragon tea"), is more oxidized than green tea but less than black; it can occupy any point in that spectrum. It remains the most popular drinking tea in Taiwan and China, and is one of two traditional types of tea for yum cha/dim sum in Guangdong. A shipment of it was dumped into Boston Harbour in a(n in)famous incident and was the type most-consumed in Britain before the proliferation of Indian tea plantations in the late 19th century.
- White tea: Sometimes considered a variety of green tea. White tea is a mild flavored tea which utilises young or minimally processed leaves. White tea is not rolled or oxidized, resulting in a flavour characterized as "lighter" than most green or traditional black teas.
- Yellow tea: Its production process is similar to that of green tea but it has an extra step of encasing and steaming the tea. This allows the tea to oxidize at a slower rate, producing a far more mellow taste than is found in most green teas. Yellow tea is the rarest variety of tea, nearly always pricey and sold exclusively within China. Allegedly, Mao Zedong's preferred tea was a yellow tea called Junshan Yinzhen.
- Post-fermented tea, such as pu-erh tea, is made from green or oolong tea leaves aged to allow fermentation and additional oxidation, producing a dark brown tea. This is what is called "black tea" in China, though "dark tea" is an equally valid translation. It is usually sold in compressed form as bricks, discs, or even more distinctive shapes like bowls and mushrooms. The ideal duration of the aging process is widely disputed. Pu-erh is the other traditional type of tea for yum cha/dim sum in Guangdong.
- Scented tea is tea that has been infused with the scent of aromatics such as jasmine, rose petals or other flowers, in a complex process that results in the leaves naturally infused with the scent, without actually having the flowers left in the cup. Flavored tea is tea blended with any form of flavoring, such as herbs, spices, oils and extracts. Scented tea might be called "flavored", but never vice-versa. Blended tea is any combination of different (usually regional) tea varietals which may or may not be flavored/scented afterward.
- A peculiar variety of flavored tea would be a smoked tea, the most famous of which is Lapsang Suchong (or Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, its correct Chinese name). It's a tea infused with wood smoke, giving it a characteristic "campfire" aroma. There are two conflicting theories of its origin. One said that during a particularly difficult voyage, a tea caravan lost some cargo into a creek, and a merchant, keen on saving his profits, tried to dry it up on the campfires. Another is that during a collection season, some Chinese tea factory couldn't meet the deadline, so they tried to speed up the process by drying the half-ready tea by the open fires.note In any case, despite such tea being an acquired taste, there turned out enough aficionados — particularly in East Asia, Russia, and to a lesser extent other parts of Northern Europenote — for the technology to be reproduced and refined, it remains in production up to this day.
- Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, and in fact tea and chai come from different Chinese dialectical pronunciations of the same word (te in the Amoy dialect of Southern Min/Hokkien Chinese, cha in Mandarin and Cantonese, among other variations). Masala chai is the proper name for the popular tea drink flavored with spices (and, conversely, chai masala is the blend of spices used to make it). However, outside of India (and particularly in the U.S.) masala chai has sometimes been marketed as chai tea or simply chai.
- Matcha is high quality, powdered green tea best known for its use in the Japanese tea ceremony, but lately popular mixed into a variety of other drinks and even desserts. Storing tea leaves in tea bricks and then crushing the brick into a powder to form mǒchá (Chinese name for matcha) was once popular in China. Chan Buddhists (also known as Zen) would prepare and consume the powdered tea as a part of their tea ceremonies. This tea ceremony eventually fell out of favor in China as did using powdered tea in general during the Southern Song as the importance of Buddhism had declined since the fall of the Tang and the newer emperors preferred loose leaf tea. However, during the Tang Dynasty a Japanese monk named Eisai had brought matcha and the tea ceremony back to his homeland and in Japan it flourished.
- Tea bags are an affront to most serious tea drinkers. The tea is lower-quality, it's processed smaller leading to more air exposure (and flavor deterioration), and it's crammed into a space too small for the water to diffuse through properly. But in several parts of the world, including the U.K. and the U.S., tea bags are much more popular than "loose leaf" tea - they're easier to prepare since they come in premeasured quantities, and you won't end up accidentally drinking the potent-tasting leaves. Even places with advanced tea cultures can't resist the sheer convenience of tea bags. Tea aficionados in America consider them a necessary evil, as loose-leaf tea can't really be found outside specialty stores. The technology is improving, though, and larger "pyramid bags" and "tea sachets" are modest improvements as well.
- Paranthetically, tea bags were invented completely by accident. A tea manufacturer, wanting to taste-test a new blend, hit upon the idea of sending free one-portion samples to some of his best customers. He sealed each sample in a little muslin bag — muslin was just a material he had handy — with the idea that the customers would open the bags and use the tea loose. He was surprised when the feedback said nothing about the new blend, but that the bags were a great idea, because they made it so much easier to dispose of the used tea.
- Instant tea, resembling instant coffee, exists. Tea does not lend itself to the process of dehydration and reconstitution, and the results range from utterly undrinkable to merely poor. The main advantage is in its ease of distribution; even in Japan, where tea is Serious Business, you can easily come across instant green tea. Instant iced tea also has its defenders, who often treat it like more of a soft drink.
Tea, like wine, also varies greatly in taste and quality depending on where and in what conditions it was grown. Serious and aspiring tea nerds are encouraged to look elsewhere for distinctions beyond those given here. We could fill untold pages if we tried to cover anything but the most common terms.
As for preparing tea, we leave that discussion to others. However it's worth saying this about what you put in tea: ignoring the bizarreness that is the green tea latte, generally only black tea is suited for drinking with milk, although you could make a case for the darker oolongs being acceptable as well. Sweetener is a matter of regional and personal preference, but really good tea doesn't need sugar to be drinkable. This isn't to say that putting a little bit of sugar in your good tea is an abomination, as long as you're respectful to the drink. Hey, some people just have a sweet tooth.
A popular trivia question concerns the relative caffeine content of tea and coffee. It's true that most varieties of dry tea contain more caffeine by weight than dry coffee, but a typical cup of tea still contains less caffeine than a typical cup of coffee. The polyphenols in tea also moderate and slow down the effect of the caffeine, so drinking lots of tea is much more relaxing than drinking lots of coffee.
All things tea can be traced back to China. The tea leaf, the teapot, the teahouse and tea garden, even the tea ceremony — not one like in Japan (although the Japanese one derives from a Tang Dynasty Chinese tea ceremony that is no longer practised in China), but its own tradition called gongfu, where oolong or black tea is brewed several times over the course of several minutes, with short brew times and small cups to experience every nuance of flavor the tea has to offer. Like in Britain, the proliferation of tea in Tang Dynasty China also contributed to a population boom because it got people in the habit of boiling water; not surprisingly, the Tang era also saw the proliferation of many great artists and philosophers.
How They Drink It:
- The choice of white, green, oolong or black tea as a favorite varies regionally.
- Almost invariably, though, it's drunk straight and hot. Chinese tea is weaker than the Indian black tea common in Britain, and most Chinese are lactose intolerant. But they also do this to strong and astringent teas from central China, albeit served in small shotglasses.
- Adding milk to tea, though, probably originated from the Mongol Empire of the Yuan, whose Central Asian masters were among the few lactose-tolerant peoples in Asia. It's likely from here that the custom moved west to Europe. Tibet also has its (in)famous yak butter tea, which is as much a food as it is a drink.
- Pu erh tea comes from the one-time Muslim provinces in the southwest, Sichuan and Yunnan. It's pressed into bricks and aged in caves, like cheese. This gives it a unique mushroomy or umami flavor, and it's rather an acquired taste.
- "Milk tea" is popular in Hong Kong, a former British colony. It's hot tea with evaporated milk, usually of the "Black & White" brand. Sugar is often added, and it's also frequently served iced. It's also common in Hong Kong to mix this milk tea with coffee to make a drink commonly called yuenyeung,note a sort of compromise position between the traditional caffeine options. Both the milk tea and yuenyeung are staples of Hong Kong dai pai dong (food stalls) and cha chaan teng (cheap Greasy Spoon diner-style restaurants serving a unique Canto-Western fusion cuisine).
- As in many other places, it's honorable and a sign of hospitality to pour tea for others. According to legend, this was so ingrained that the Qianlong Emperor of Qing, while traveling incognito around the country, would pour tea for his servants to maintain his disguise. This was such an immense honor that the servants would ordinarily be expected to kowtow in this situation; they couldn't do that without giving the emperor away, so they tapped the table with three fingers bent in imitation of a kowtow pose. To this day, this is a traditional gesture of thanks for being served tea.
- The dim sum-like tradition of yum cha literally means "drink tea". Like afternoon tea in Britain, it's got little snacks with it (in the form of buns and fried tidbits), but these were largely a later addition.
- Ancient Buddhist monks were often associated with tea-drinking. Though we might imagine that they did so to enhance their spirituality, in fact the reason was more mundane: to stay awake while meditating for long periods at a time. This is why Bhodidharma's eyelids figure into the tea origin myth.
- Chinese teas are among the most expensive in the world and high quality teas are reserved for special guests or given as gifts.
Britain, Ireland, and miscellaneous former colonies
There's a reason the poster children for the Spot of Tea trope are the British. The British demand for tea drove, among other things, the monopoly of the uber-powerful Dutch-style British East India Company, and the 1840-42 and 1856-60 Opium Wars. The media portrayal of the Brits as tea crazy pales next to many of the real life accounts. No shortage of British writers, including George Orwell (in his essay "A Nice Cup of Tea"), Douglas Adams (in a post from 1999), Neil Gaiman, and a panel of British scientistsnote have written essays on the subject of proper tea preparation.
Less Laconically: In 1660, King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland married Princess Catarina de Braganza of Portugal. Part of her dowry was the Portuguese outpost at Bombay, which was sold in turn to the English East India Company. Consequently, ever greater quantities of tea and textiles were imported directly to Britain from India and China. By 1750, the British had fallen in love with it.
As a relative latecomer to the transcontinental trade, the East India Company had to make do with the proverbial scraps left over from the Portuguese, and then the Dutch (the world's great merchant-shipping power in the 17th century). However, Dutch supremacy could not last forever, and it was in the field of textiles and tea in particular that their early advantage counted against them. The Dutch had moved, ruthlessly, to monopolise the supply and transportation of spices, which were quite easily the most valuable goods to be found in the East. However, the demand for spices proved limited; people can only eat so much of them, and their value eventually went down as the European market became saturated. On the other hand the British had almost completely borrowed the Dutch financial system, added small but significant improvements (particularly the invention of modern shipping insurance), more or less gotten over their political troubles, and invited a Dutchman over to... kind of... be King in 1688. With this, Britain managed to get enough money to exploit an unnoticed niche in the market: they would realise and capitalise upon the price elasticity of demandnote for cotton and silk clothing (leading directly to the catastrophic collapse of the British wool-textile industry). And for this other thing they were importing from the East—tea.
The East India Company was largely able to flood the market with Wulong tea; they had so much of it, production costs were relatively low, they could make it a little cheaper, and they could see how long they could go until it became unprofitable. They were not disappointed. By the 1750s, it was already a national drink in Britain. It also improved the health of its citizens, as people also took to boiling their water before drinking it.
(A factor sometimes quoted as being responsible for the adoption of tea in the UK was a series of crop failures in coffee plantations owned by the HBEIC in the 1740s, leading them to switch to growing tea instead. While it is true that coffee was popular in Britain in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (Lloyd's of London started at—indeed, as—a coffeeshop in 1686), tea was at least as popular already, and there are no records of this occurring. Even if it had, it is unlikely to have been part of it as at the time most British coffee came from Dutch and Portuguese colonies,note while Chinese tea dominated the British market into the 19th century.)
Interestingly, though, Britons wouldn't commonly add milk to their tea until the latter half of the 19th century. There are two reasons for this. The first is the transition from Wulong tea, imported from China, to darker and more astringent Indian teas, as British investment in Indian plantations began to pay off. While oolong teas certainly don't taste bad with milk, the flavour doesn't benefit as much from the richness milk brings the same way that fully oxidised black tea does. The second is that it wasn't until then that it was viable and cost-effective to get fresh milk to big cities.
The craze also spilled over into Ireland (part of the UK at the time), which mostly mimics British tea consumption patterns. They're even more tea-crazy than the British; by weight, Ireland is the second-biggest consumer of tea per capita, beaten only by Turkey. When Britain stopped exporting tea to Ireland during the "Emergency" (widely suspected as punishment for Irish neutrality) a tea ration only one-quarter the amount of the British ration had to be introduced, regarded as one of the greatest privations of the warnote and even caused a strike or two. The two indigenous brands are Lyons and Barry's tea, and there are the inevitable long-running arguments over which is better. The Irish for tea is tae ("tay") and you're equally liable to hear someone refer to a "cuppa tae" in rural areas.
Australia and New Zealand are similar to the UK, but they're much closer to Asia and tend to be quicker to adopt modern Asian tea crazes, like Taiwanese bubble tea. The role of tea is also lessened by the prominence of coffee in Australia, which has a strong coffee culture from both immigration (lots of coffee-gulping Italians and Greeks came to Australia in the 20th century, and the Italians in particular brought their whole espresso-based culture with them) and climate (Australia is a great place to grow coffee, but not so much tea).
How they drink it: Black, hot, and in large quantities. Typically, they use teabags, although stores are more likely to have fancy loose-leaf teas as well than in other places. Beyond that, it can vary a lot, and it's entirely possible to divine a Briton's class, upbringing, and even politics by how they drink tea.
- Adding milk is the common way of drinking it; the ongoing holy war is whether the milk or the tea goes into the cup first. Some people avoid the debate altogether by squeezing lemon into it instead. But don't do both; curdled milk tea is not a nice thing.note
- There's a whole mid-afternoon light meal called "afternoon tea", famous for tiny sandwiches, scones, and precise etiquette. It's typically an upper-middle class thing, and it was essentially an invention of a rising middle class looking to feel "posher". Lower-middle class people just call it "tea". The upper class has multiple tiny meals it calls "tea", with afternoon tea being "low tea" and the later, middle-class timing "high tea". It gets confusing sometimes. The formal "afternoon tea" is very rare now in Britain, and generally something that posh hotels do for foreign tourists at sky-high prices.
- "Tea" is also sometimes used to refer to, in Wiktionary's unimprovable phrasing, "The main evening meal, irrespective of whether tea is drunk with it." So "tea" can refer to something that some people have every day that only has an idiomatic connection to the drink. Try not to get too confused.
- "Builder's tea" is a staple of the working classes; it's cheap tea brewed extra strong, with a generous amount of milk and sugar (jokingly, enough for the spoon to stand upright in the mug).
- Polite Britons will typically offer tradesmen (e.g. plumbers, carpenters), firemen, and policemen a Spot of Tea if they're staying as guests for more than an hour. As more and more tradesmen in Britain are immigrants, this is starting to cause some confusion, but as you'll see below, this sort of offering is not unheard of in other parts of the world.
- Flavours are numerous, but Earl Grey is one of the most common. It's flavoured with oil of bergamot, a bitter citrus fruit, and in some varieties it might also have orange or lemon peel, or flowers like lavender, verbena, or rose petals. The blend was originally concocted as a scam—the flavourings were added to cheap teas to pass them off as the more expensive Fo Shou or Keemun, teas which naturally tasted of bergamot; but nevertheless, the Britons developed a taste for it. It's named after The Earl Grey, Prime Minister 1830-1834 who (may or may not have) received a shipment of it as a gift.
- "English Breakfast" and "Irish Breakfast" are both popularly named tea blends you might encounter, but the actual teas in them may vary. What matters is that they're strong, hearty concoctions that can stand up to the full English/Irish breakfast of eggs and fatty cured meats.
- Tea is popularly made with electric kettles rather than stovetops or microwaves. Such electric kettles are that much more popular in Britain than in the U.S. (where it didn't catch on outside college students making instant ramen).
- It helps that British power standards are different from those in the U.S., allowing powerful appliances that are generally rated at 3 kW, which an American kitchen probably couldn't handle. But sometimes everyone wants tea at once, which has necessitated rapid-response power stations like Dinorwig, which can come online in seconds to meet sudden surges of demand. These surges typically coincide with the end of soap operas (Britain from Above once showed a National Grid employee nervously waiting for the end of EastEnders). Major one-time events, like the wedding of Prince William and Duchess Kate, after which British utilities recorded a surge of 2,400 megawatts. If you're wondering, the all-time record is 2,800 megawatts, after Germany knocked England out in the semifinal of the 1990 FIFA World Cup on penalties, and the nation needed a freaking Spot of Tea.
- Tea figures in hugely in the military in Britain.
- During World War I, the British used water-cooled machine guns. They quickly learned that they could use the hot water in their guns' cooling jackets to make tea, sometimes firing off hundreds of rounds at a time to do so. British tanks from World War II onwards also had on-board water boiling vessels, which were designed mostly to disinfect water or cook "boil-in-the-bag" rations, but which were mostly used for a Spot of Tea. This has continued to the present day, nearly every military vehicle has one fitted, up to and including the Challenger 2 main battle tank.
- Tea distribution within the country during World War II was a big deal, for morale if nothing else. One of the Luftwaffe's biggest blows to British morale was a 1942 bombing attack on Mincing Lane, the largest centre of the tea trading businessnote in the British Empire. In response to shortage fears, the British government decided to buy all the tea. That is not an exaggeration; the British government bought every ounce of 1943's global tea crop that was available to them at wholesale. They sent more tea to British troops, by weight, than anything save bullets — even more than artillery shells. They also assigned civil servants to coordinate the dispersal and movement of tea stockpiles throughout the country, a job Arthur C. Clarke describes having done in his autobiography.
- World War II soldier Spike Milligan observed that they were damn lucky that Rommel never tried baiting minefields with tea. He describes a mate, Harry Edgington, who showed bravery under fire in North Africa — by protecting his still-brewing tea from German aircraft with his own helmet.
- Tea is also commonly used as a coping mechanism, sometimes for things as trivial England's admittedly frequent sports humiliations, but also for things as serious as riots and disasters. Rescue volunteers distributed tea to victims of the 2005 terrorist bombing of The London Underground, and during riots in London in 2011, bystanders made tea for the police officers at the scene.
Japanese green tea gets the honorific "O" prefix to its name: Ocha. This is the clearest indicator of Japanese reverence; any other kind of tea is simply "cha". In fact, the hot water required to brew tea (and make baths) also gets the "O" (oyu — any other water is just "mizu").
Tea in Japan has always been deeply intertwined with Buddhism and Shintoism. The rituals that have developed around serving tea have become a deep and exacting discipline over the centuries. In the Japanese tea ceremony (or chado, literally "the Way of Tea"), the preparation and drinking of tea is treated as a quasi-religious ritual, and the prescribed movements are as exacting as in a dance. The study of the ceremony can literally take a lifetime.
Also, their word for brown is cha-iro, which means "tea-colored".
How they drink it:
- Green tea is king, of course. Tea ceremony aside, the most common form of tea served in Japan is brewed loose-leaf sencha. For everyday use, it's commonly brewed in a side-handled teapot, or kyusu, and served in mugs, Western-style, while high-grade teas may be brewed in a small, handleless vessel called a houhin and served in thimble cups. However, there are many varieties of Japanese green tea, including:
- Sencha — Japanese steamed green tea. The most common tea in Japan, comprising ~70% of Japanese tea production.
- Bancha — A lower-grade tea than sencha, made of larger and more mature leaves.
- Gyokuro — High-grade green tea that was shaded while it was grown, producing a tea with more caffeine and more theanine than a typical sencha and a distinctive umami flavor. Gyokuro is shaded for three weeks.
- Kabusecha (also called kabuse sencha) — A shaded tea that is shaded for less long than gyokuro, usually for two weeks, giving it a flavor between the umami of gyokuro and the sweetness of sencha.
- Matcha — Powdered green tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony; also widely used in cooking or drunk on its own. Matcha is shaded even longer than gyokuro, for four weeks, and is thus very rich in caffeine and theanine. The pre-ground tea leaves from which matcha is made are called tencha. Though typically made into matcha, tencha can sometimes be found on the market, and can be infused and drunk like a normal tea.
- Hojicha — green tea which has been roasted over charcoal for flavor. Typically made of bancha, but higher-grade hojicha can also be made of sencha. Despite having a brown/copper color from the roasting, it is still considered a green tea. Typically low in caffeine.
- Kyobancha — A low-grade roasted green tea made of the large, mature leaves grown over the winter, which are plucked in the early spring to allow the spring harvest to grow. Due to it being exceptionally low in caffeine, it is sometimes called akachan bancha, or "baby bancha".
- Genmaicha — tea mixed with toasted rice
- Kukicha — a nutty-tasting tea that includes the stems and twigs left over from matcha and sencha production
- These days, Japan will also supplement its tea supply with Chinese imports as well.
- Other popular varieties include wulong and black tea. The latter is usually served as "milk tea" — with milk and sugar, similar to British "builder's tea" (although the tea and milk are boiled together as with Indian chai or Hong Kong milk tea). It's often drunk in cafés and in bottled form. Teabags and instant tea are also popular, largely for their convenience and cheapness (and making use of Japan's ubiquitous vending machines). Japanese-grown black tea is called wakoucha, and can sometimes be found alongside green teas from Japanese tea vendors.
- Japan produces several lesser-known dark teas, including batabatacha, which has an earthy taste like Chinese pu-erh.
- Though Japan drinks relatively little scented tea, jasmine tea is made and drunk in Okinawa, where it is called sanpincha.
- Because tea is so popular, hot water boilers and British-style electric kettles are ubiquitous in Japanese kitchens and offices. They're also handy for making instant ramen.
India and Neighbors
For years, the Indians knew about tea and had access to tea plants, but they thought of tea mostly as a medicinal herb. For better or worse, it was the British who were responsible for turning India into the tea-growing juggernaut it is today, smuggling techniques and plant cuttings out of China (under pain of death if they were caught) and learning to cultivate the Indian tea varietal as well. British colonial rule ended in the 1940s, but chai remains a big deal, especially in the famous Assam and Darjeeling growing regions.
India is the big consumer in the region, but its neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh also enjoy various styles of chai. Pakistan in particular likes the varieties from Kashmir (a region disputed between India and Pakistan).
How They Drink It: Like the British, they drink it with milk and sugar. Unlike Britain (and rather like Hong Kong), they more often than not use evaporated milk. Also unlike Britain, Indians make tea by boiling everything — tea, milk, and sugar — all together in one pot. Also, there are several Indian preparations involving various combinations of spices and herbs.
- The best known is masala chai, which includes black tea and a variety of spices; cardamom, ginger, and sometimes black pepper feature prominently.
- Kahwah is green tea with almonds and spices; it originates from the Kashmir region.
- Noon chai, also from Kashmir, has cardamom, pistachio, a pinch of salt, and baking soda, which turns it pink.
- Darjeeling tea, called the "champagne of teas", is one of the highest-quality teas you can find. As such, it's not made with milk and sugar; in its pure form, it needs no alterations. Although sold as black tea, it tends to be less oxidized, making it technically an oolong. Be careful, though; most cheap "Darjeeling tea" is not the genuine article.
- Kadak tea (literally "hard" tea) is popularly made by roadside tea vendors, called "chai wallahs", who are ubiquitous on Indian streets. To save on utensils and materials, chai wallahs will just make all the tea in a big pot, adding water, sugar, tea, and milk as they go along (and conveniently needed to use less tea with each subsequent batch) until they get the color they want. The end result is generally stronger than usual. People also replicate it by slow-boiling the tea after adding the milk. Traditionally, Kardak tea is served in an unglazed (and one-use-only) earthenware bowl called a Kulhar, which gives the tea an earthy taste that is considered highly desirable.
The United States and the Americas
Let's face it; the U.S. is primarily a coffee culture. Despite being British at one time, Americans abandoned tea because coffee was more easily available in Central America (and they were more enamored with the French at the time anyway). It used to be that finding a good cup of tea in the U.S. was an uncertain proposition, but things are changing.
Tea in America is often associated with the "Boston Tea Party", an event which took place before the clean break with Britain. Bostonians were just as big on tea as Londoners, but it was hard to get back then; much of it was smuggled in to avoid heavy import duties, which Parliament largely levied on the colonies without their permission. Ironically, the Tea Party itself — a protest where an entire shipment of tea was thrown into Boston Harbor — came as a result of a tax decrease, which cut into the smugglers' profit margin. The pissed-off British responded with the "Intolerable Acts", and the rest is history.
Some tea culture has been around all along, just in small doses. The upper class in the Northeast, especially New York, tended to drink British-style black tea. Then a New Yorker accidentally invented the tea bag in 1907, after which it became such a big deal that it was the only kind of tea you'd find in an American store. The South has also had a long-running tea culture, but with its own variety of iced sweet tea.
Starting in The '90s, tea culture finally started to take off in the States (again), possibly due to the growth of anglophilia. Loose-leaf tea started to appear, albeit mostly limited to specialty stores, tea shops, and mail order but you're also now seeing experimental brands of premium tea, like Tazo. (You can find British and Irish brands, but they tend to be significantly marked up.) You're even starting to see more electric kettles like in Britain. Asian tea varieties are also making an appearance, meaning that for British visitors, their best bet at finding tea they'd actually be impressed with would be in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant.
The West Coast has large populations of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, and this has had an effect on tea culture in the region. Asian tea crazes like Taiwanese bubble tea have become popular there.
Canada, being a rather cold place, sees a lot of hot beverage consumption. Like the States, the allure of cheap coffee turned the country into a coffee country. Tea is most common among the First Nations, who in earlier generations were largely supplied by the then-British Hudson's Bay Company. These days, tea is seeing a revival in Canada like in the States, and loose-leaf tea is starting to make serious inroads, but mostly you'll find store-bought varieties or stuff you can get from ubiquitous coffee chains like Tim Horton's.
How They Drink It:
- Hot tea is normally sweetened to taste throughout the country. Milk is rare though, even in hot tea; Americans prefer lemon instead. It might be a panic over kidney stones. Expats and anglophiles will be happy to learn that the major British brands, Tetley, Twinings and PG Tips, are readily available in U.S. supermarkets.
- Southern-style sweet tea is very much an acquired taste, largely because it's very sweet. It's made by brewing the tea with sugar added to the pot, resulting in a concoction that can have twice as much sugar as Coca-Colanote . Lemon is commonly added as well. Iced tea is common elsewhere in the country (and was invented in St. Louis, Missouri, for the 1904 World's Fair, which also gave us the ice-cream cone), but it's nowhere near as sweet as the Southern variety. True to tea's association with Sacred Hospitality, sweet tea evokes Southern hospitality. Within the South, there's some debate as to whether you add the sugar when the tea is cold or hot (the latter slightly caramelizes the sugar for flavor). Despite being in the South itself, New Orleans (borrowing from Cajun culture) drinks its tea like the North, much to the consternation of other Southerners passing through town. (Alton Brown, who is from Georgia, was truly stunned when he found this out firsthand in his Feasting on Asphalt series.)
- The "Arnold Palmer", named for the golfer, is a sweetened iced tea variety found outside the South which is made of equal parts iced tea and lemonade.
- Masala chai, as described above, is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas as a comfort-drink alternative to hot chocolate or caffe latte. In the States, it's usually made with a concentrated tea-and-spice syrup (or sometimes a powder, like hot chocolate). As such, it tends to be sweeter and a bit heavier than the Indian original.
- Green tea is largely seen as a "hipster" drink, with matcha in particular being the "authentic" high-quality Asian tea. Not being all that concerned with authenticity, some coffee shops also offer green tea lattes. shops. Green tea is also becoming popular as a health food.
- Oddly, green tea was common in the United States before World War II—Southern sweet tea was usually made with green tea before the war. However, once the US entered the war, the major sources of green tea (China, Japan, and Southeast Asia) were either enemy territory or at least across enemy lines—the Japanese and Americans weren't about to do tea trading when they were fighting for control of the Pacific. Consequently, Americans switched to black tea bought from British Empire sources (mostly in India and Ceylon) and haven't looked back since.
- South of the U.S. border, iced, sweetened hibiscus tea, known agua de Jamaica or simply Jamaica, is one of the staple aguas frescas of Mexican taquerias. Along with horchata, it's also widely available in Tex-Mex restaurants.
Tea first came to Russia through Siberia in the 17th century, as fur trappers in Siberia made contact with Qing Dynasty China. (Previous contact was largely with the Mongols, who were largely hostile to the Russians and not interested in tea.) The Qing embassy gave a gift of tea to Tsar Alexei I; he and his court loved it, but it still took a while to make inroads. Alexei's son Peter the Great didn't like it (wanting to do all things Western European, he preferred coffee), and there was already a popular traditional warm drink called sbiten', a hot herbal brew sweetened with honey or jam. Even after tea became more popular, sbiten' brewing techniques would often be ported over to making tea.
Tea only spread out from the Imperial court to the general populace as caravans to China became more frequent and tea became cheaper. By the early 1800s, it was an institution in Russia; by 1915, Russia was buying 65% of the tea produced in China; today, it can fairly be called Russia's national beverage, even more so than vodka. Russia consumes the third most tea per capita in Europe, behind only tea-crazy Ireland and the United Kingdom. There's even a Russian Tea HOWTO, in which Linux geeks codify the perfect cup in excruciating detail.
The theme of tea-drinking coinciding with better health applies to Russia, too. During the Russian Civil War, the Red Army insisted on tea instead of alcohol (not least of which because the Whites controlled most of the vodka distilleries anyway), which helped them avoid typhoid and gave them an advantage. It was also rationed and distributed during World War II with the same care as the British.
How They Drink It:
- Russian tea is hot and often sweet, usually black, but sometimes oolong.
- Older Russian teas often had a smoky taste; the tea they could get from central Asia usually wasn't high-quality, so "smoking" it like lapsang souchong was necessary to make it taste good. Russians developed a taste for it and kept doing it even when they didn't have to. These teas got much harder to get after the Sino-Soviet split; now, most Russian tea comes from India (with a little domestic production in Krasnodar, in the extreme south of the country but still one of the northernmost tea-producing parts of the world).
- Like the British, there's a class distinction in tea. The upper class (including the Tsar when that was a thing) drank more delicate blends, but sweetened; more sophisticated drinkers preferred it unsweetened; and the working class preferred a strong, sweet concoction similar to "builder's tea".
- The traditional method of sweetening tea was with raspberry or blackcurrant jam, similar to traditional sbiten'. Lemon tea is often made with lemon jam or candied lemons; this combined with a lot of juice creates a much stronger flavor than Western lemon tea. Sometimes, tea is sweetened by drinking it while holding candy or sugar in one's mouth (a practice borrowed from Persia). It was said that there were three main ways to add sugar back when it was expensive: for the rich ones, vnakladkunote , for the less well off, vprikusku note , and for the poor ones, vpriglyadkunote These days, though, sugar or honey is the most common sweetener.
- Green tea is popular among Central Asian migrant workers. They drink the pressed "brick tea" popular in the region.
- Chifir is an incredibly strong variety made in Russian prisons. It's so strong as to cause caffeine poisoning, wreck your kidneys, or even kill you. It's accordingly drunk in relatively small quantities and used as a substitute for drugs.
- Tea is often drunk right after a meal; when it isn't it's usually accompanied by "tea stuff" — the cakes, pastries, and biscuits that are a staple of British afternoon tea.
- Like in many other tea cultures, guests in Russia will always be served tea as a sign of Sacred Hospitality.
- Traditional Russian black tea is brewed in advance as a tea concentrate called zavarka. This can sit on the leaves indefinitely and diluted to taste. It would sit on top of another pot of hot water, which was traditionally kept in a samovar. These would often be lavishly decorated; the modern equivalent, though, would be an imported Japanese automated hot water dispenser.
The Middle East and Africa
Tea is grown in parts of Africa such as Kenya, but it's mostly a cash crop for export; locals will drink a few cheaper blends, but it's not very culturally important. But tea matters intensely in the Islamic world, where it's as popular as coffee — and where consuming alcohol is very strongly socially discouraged, and in fact totally prohibited in Islam (not that the prohibition is law outside a few countries, but the religious ban creates a social stigma, although how much of one has varied greatly over time).
How They Drink It: The region can be divided into four camps: Eastern, Western, Southern, and Israel.
- The Eastern camp includes Turkey, Lower (i.e. northern) Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf states, and parts of Saudi Arabia.
- Tea here is black; green tea arrived only recently and is seen as either a novelty or an aberration. It's prepared by pouring boiling water on tea leaves or powdered tea, sometimes adding mint or other herbs, and adding sugar to taste after brewing. Middle Eastern tea tends to be on the sweet side, sometimes as sweet as in the American South, to the point that people might think there's something wrong with you if you take your tea unsweetened.note Milk is not unknown but still uncommon.
- Iran and Turkey borrow from the Russian samovar tradition and keep the tea on a low fire on top of a larger teapot of water to strengthen it.
- Again, tea is important to Sacred Hospitality in the region. It's offered not only to houseguests, but also in the workplace for business meetings. Oddly, the threshold for when tea is offered is not how long the meeting lasts, but whether you would be expected to sit down and chat with someone: a bank customer spending half an hour depositing funds into multiple bank accounts standing at a teller window will not get any tea, but one who sits down for ten minutes at a banker's desk to sign an already finalized loan contract will. This also means that tea bags are popular here, as they're more convenient for workplace kitchens.
- Electric kettles are popular in the region, especially in Egypt; the only problem is that not all parts of the country get reliable electricity. Fortunately, Egyptians prefer to watch football in a café and drink their tea there, rather like a British pub-goer.
- Turkey calls tea çay (pronounced "chai" — fittingly, as both India and Turkey borrowed the word from Persian). It's almost always a black tea called "Rize tea", named after the province in northeastern Turkey it comes from, and it's drunk whenever the mood strikes. Almost all restaurants and cafés will serve it in small, tulip-shaped glasses, and it can be drunk straight or with sugar. It's not uncommon to see men with trays running around the streets and bazaars in the busier parts of town delivering tea to the shopkeepers, and chances are if you sit long enough in any shop, someone's going to offer you a glass.
- Iran popularized drinking unsweetened tea while biting on sugar or candy. Iran has had cane sugar for longer than anyone other than India, so it's likely that the custom originated there. It's a distinct experience, to say the least. Russia borrowed the tradition from there, and in turn it left a variant of the samovar tradition.
- The Southern camp includes Upper (i.e. southern) Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. Tea here is also black, but instead of pouring boiling water over tea leaves, large quantities of leaves and larger quantities of sugar are put into the pot together, and the mixture is boiled over a strong flame for at least five minutes. This makes it a sort of decoction rather than an infusion (the same process as Russian prison chifir, albeit at significantly lower concentrations); even the Iranian and Turkish practice of leaving the tea heated doesn't do that. It's so strong that it can perceptibly increase your heart rate, leading some Westerners who tried it to dub it "suicide tea". Even the locals have to commonly add milk to dilute it. This recipe is best known for being drunk in Upper Egypt, where it's called "Saidi tea" ("Saidi"="from the Sa`id", Sa`id being the Arabic word for Upper Egypt), but the original recipe was probably Bedouin; it's also found in Bedouin-influenced parts of the Maghreb.
- The Western camp includes Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania.
- Here, green tea is preferred to black. There are a number of theories as to how they got it. One claims that Barbary corsairs took it from a European ship they captured on its way back from China; another claims that it had to do with the the Crimean War, where the British, unable to sell their tea to the Russians, dumped it on the Moroccans, who loved it; before then, tea was largely unknown in the Maghreb.
- Moroccans traditionally drank a mint tisane, finding that mixing mint and green tea leaves produced a very nice result: sweet, light on the tongue, cool-tasting even when served hot, and pairing excellently with traditional heavy foods.
- It's prepared the same way as Bedouin-style suicide tea, but the result is far less dangerous with the weaker green tea, and fewer tea leaves are used to begin with because of the mint leaf mixture. Wormwood or lemon verbena is sometimes used instead of mint, or as an addition to it, but Maghrebi tea is always a mix of tea and one or more herbs.
- The Maghreb also has a variety of tea with milk: instead of brewing black tea with water and adding milk to it, they heat up milk, add black tea leaves to it, and add sugar to taste, producing unique and very interesting results.
- Morocco even has a tea ceremony, albeit not as elaborate as Japan's. When tea is being served to an honored guest, the host makes a big show of bringing in a tray with premeasured amounts of tea, mint (or other herb), and sugar in their own special plates alongside the kettle filled with the water, ceremoniously putting the kettle over the fire and adding the tea and herbs to the pot, then gradually adding the sugar, tasting the tea halfway through boiling, and pouring it at least a meter high (to obtain the optimal mixture and aeration). Because Moroccan tea is very sweet (a joking saying in Morocco is "Moroccans don't drink tea, they drink honey"), they have special sugar "cubes"—really bricks about 10 cm long by 1.5 cm wide and 1 cm deep—to provide the massive sweetness the ceremonial pot of tea requires. Moroccans will also insist on the highest-quality water so as not to detract from the flavor. In southern parts of the country (which are mostly desert), the tea preparation process can take as long as an hour and a half — for just tea!
- Israel, being the Middle East's regional oddball owing to the Mizrahi Jews - Jews from the Middle East and North Africa - being pretty much there and nowhere else, is a blend of the Western and Eastern camps tea-wise. However, since the Mizrahim are only half of Israel's overall population, with the other half being coming from Europe and being predominantly (yep, you guessed it) Ashkenazi, their tea culture is also much more thoroughly europeanized, and particularly patterned after the Russian tradition — in fact, Wissotzky, Israel's leading tea brand, was founded in 1849 by Russian Jews, and was even the official supplier of tea in the Czar's court.
- Then there's the rest of Africa — East Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of which once had something to do with Britain (or Germany, France and/or Belgium). With colonialism came Chinese and Indian teas. Eventually lots of the British black-and-milky variety and all its associated cultural rituals muscled in, although it has always had the home-grown coffee to compete with. Yet, there are also many localized, usually low-caffeine, tisanes that also have made the crossing to being served in the same ways and to pretty much the same degree as both coffee and tea. Let us argue for ages about the relative teaness of our elvevenses staples of rooibos (redbush/ red tea) and supervisor (*sighs* "honeybush" — which is actually a whole group of debated relatives found all over, not just a single species of plant: packaging lies, if it even says anything) that have even spread globally, shall we? Or the many and various blends of Camellia sinensis teas with more local additions (not just the aforementioned bossies or too many mints to list). Or rooibos masala chai served iced-latte-style?
The Rest of Asia
- Indonesians drink iced jasmine tea, sweetened or unsweetened, especially on hot days. Traditional hot tea is also quite popular in Indonesia, especially in the countryside. And there's a recent commercial product called Tebs, Teh BerSoda — sweet jasmine tea with soda water. Whatever tea lovers elsewhere may think of that idea, Indonesia loves it.
- Heavily sweetened iced tea with canned milk has become popular in several Asian countries, probably picked up from colonial Europeans. Perhaps the most famous form is Thai iced tea, flavored with star anise, vanilla, and other spices. It's served cold, the canned milk is sometimes replaced by fresh whole milk, cream, or coconut milk, and it feels more like a dessert than a drink; but it's not that different from masala chai.
- Vietnam has a rather unique type of green tea, using fresh tea leaves. This is an everyday beverage, especially for the older generations; dried tea, typically flavored with jasmine or lotus, is reserved for special occasion or friends.
- Malaysians drink a variant of milk tea called teh tarik (literally "pulled tea"), in which the milk tea is aerated by pouring it repeatedly between two containers. This pouring process is called "pulling" (tarik), and it's said that the higher one pulls the tea, the better it tastes.
- In Myanmar, formerly a British colony (and then known as Burma), tea is typically drunk hot, strong, and sweet, with milk or cream. It's similar enough to British "builder's tea" that some speculate that the British may even have derived it from the Burmese style. Burmese tea is typically lingered over with friends; teashops are social hubs, serving food or at least simple snacks, and it's very common to spend half an hour or more in the tea shops — sometimes most of the day. Myanmar is also one of the few places where people eat tea as well as drink it—tea leaves are fermented to make a product called lahpet, which is typically consumed in salads.
- Mongolians drink brick tea with milk called suutei tsai, which unlike what you might expect, is salted rather than sweetened.
The Rest of Europe
- Tea isn't very common in most of Germany, but it's very popular in East Frisia, a subregion of Lower Saxony.
- East Frisian tea has one or more lumps of rock sugar, called 'Kluntje', added to the cup, then tea, then cream; one drinks it without stirring, giving the flavors an interesting layered effect. Napoleon banned tea (and all other goods that could only be acquired from Britain) when he annexed East Frisia to France, and that offense is still remembered today. During World War II, tea was treated as a staple food, unlike coffee.
- There is also a specific East Frisian blend of tea, called 'Ostfriesentee', the secret of which is generally jealously guarded by tea dealers, but which cynics say consists mainly of "Assam tea for the colour, and Java tea for the price". Here's a recipe.
- During the occupation after World War II, the district of East Frisia had its own unique food rationing cards. The main difference was that tea was treated as one of the basic necessities like bread and potatoes, instead of a luxury good like coffee.
- East Frisia is also home to a popular Trolling method where the locals feign offense at the most trivial things. This may have contributed to the bizarre yet elaborate "East Frisian Tea Ceremony".
- Frederick the Great of Prussia liked a bit of tea too and built a "Chinese" teahouse in the park near his palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam. Coincidentally or not, this was about a decade after he inherited East Frisia in 1744. At the time, Prussia imported its tea and other Chinese goods via its North Sea port of Emden in East Frisia.
- In the German-speaking Alpine regions — Austria, parts of Switzerland, and parts of southern Germany — Jäger-Tee (lit. hunter tea) is a popular beverage among hunters, skiers and other outdoorsy types, praised for its ability to restore warmth to the body after a day out in the cold and wet. Jäger-Tee is a grog consisting of hot, black tea with a tot of rum, just big enough to add some sweetness and a bit of "zip".
- Portugal is the country that brought tea to England (Catarina de Bragança loved tea, which Portugal imported from Japan and India, so she asked her husband to import some from Portugal; she shared it with the court, and the rest is history); but it doesn't have any particular interest in tea today (except when one gets a cold; then everyone drinks it. And sometimes just because one likes it). It's probably because of the climate; Portugal is as dry and hot as England is cold and wet, and Iberians tend to prefer cold drinks instead of hot ones in the heat (although we also drink lots of coffee - our brews are second-best to Italy's). Portugal is also famous for its wines, which are as popular locally as they are abroad. Canned, cold iced tea is popular among young people in modern Portugal — being neither alcoholic nor carbonated — but there's no particular historic tradition. The Azores Islands have their own tea plantations and factories (Gorreana and Porto Formoso, although the latter stopped producing tea in The '80s and is just a museum today), making them the only part of Europe that produces its own tea.
- The Dutch were the first to sell large quantities of tea in Europe (primarily as a health drink); but while they drink a fair bit of tea, it doesn't have much cultural significance. You'll find most Dutch tea varieties in teabags in coffee houses.
- Hey, you! Yeah, you! Tea! It's Coffee! I need to talk to you...