Tea is the most consumed beverage around the world, after water. In almost every corner of the world there are cultural traditions and ceremonies that celebrate this beautiful beverage.
The first written reference to tea was in 350AD, and described tea as a beverage made from boiling leaves, often with accompanying spices and produce such as ginger or oranges. Tea was predominately consumed for medicinal purposes, including treatment of digestive and nervous conditions. Tea was sold in bricks – leaves were steamed, crushed and fired before being pressed – and in China’s interior, tea bricks were used as currency.
Tea preparation became an art form during the Tang Dynasty; Lu Yu wrote Ch’a Ching (Tea Classic) in 780 AD. The book covered all aspects of tea, from cultivation to brewing, and included a detailed tea ceremony requiring 27 tools. The complexity of the ceremony made it accessible only to those of higher classes and connoisseurs, who could afford servants and specialized equipment.
During the Song Dynasty tea was further refined; the best tea was sent to Emperor as a tribute. Tea was hand-picked (the young women were required to keep their fingernails a certain length to ensure their skin never touched the tea), then pressed into bricks. Brewing tea involved breaking the brick, grinding the tea and whisking the powder with a bamboo whisk. Tea became a social and spiritual activity; many tea rooms and houses were built. Competitions developed where quality of the tea leaves, brewed tea, and ceremony were judged. Further advancements in tea tools led to deep tea bowls, making whisking the tea more efficient. The tea from this era was light green; black and deep-blue bowls were used to enhance the tea colour. In this era of Zen philosophy, tea preparation became easier and more peaceful. This is also when the Japanese art of tea took root.
Tea became a beverage for all during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ming dynasty emperor Taizu Zhu abolished tea cakes, because of the extra work it imposed on the workers, and replaced it with loose tea. Other innovations included the development of different tea types (such as oolong, white tea, yellow tea etc) through new processing methods and skills. Eventually this lead to the steaming method of tea.
Although China has the most prominent tea history, tea in other areas, such as India, may have also played a crucial role in the discovery of the beautiful camellia sinensis plant (the tea plant).
The tea tradition continues in the daily offerings from the sample pot at the Loose Leaf – come in for a taste and tell us about your tea traditions.