Worldwide tea remains top beverage

Although tea is the world’s oldest beverage, it has long struggled to be the most popular year-round drink. True, we enjoy iced tea in warm weather, but in winter, hot tea is not very popular as an all around drink. People are not willing to pay $3 to $5 for a cup of tea at a specialty store when it is just a cup of hot water with a tea bag.

However, worldwide tea remains the predominant hot beverage. This is because of tea drinkers in China, India, and the United Kingdom. According to international statistics, 1.7 trillion cups of tea were consumed last year, compared to 984 billion cups of coffee. However, sales of tea grew about 9 percent last year, meaning more people are drinking pricier tea.

Over the past 50 years, coffee drinking has boomed, due to specialty coffee shops. “Let’s go have a cup of coffee” has become a friendly gesture for socializing. When have you heard that about tea? With 24,000 Starbucks stores, it is no wonder that coffee is popular. Last year, Starbucks closed its 379 Teavana stores.

Tea merchants are hoping to increase tea sales with better tea bags and flavored tea, such as those enhanced with lemon myrtle from Croatia and Turkey, rose-hip peels and chamomile flowers. Starbucks began selling iced strawberry green tea and peach white tea last summer. There was even a TV ad campaign touting the “feel-good” benefits of tea.

Tea has a long and fascinating history. Sadly, the origins of tea drinking have been lost in antiquity. The earliest written reference to tea is in a Chinese dictionary of about 350 A.D. The tea plant is indigenous to Southeast Asia. Tea was brought to China and Japan by Buddhist monks. In the 16th century, it was brought to Europe by the Dutch, and, by the mid-18th century, tea supplanted coffee as the English drink.

The English East India Company held the monopoly for world trade in tea and played a major role in the introduction of China’s and India’s teas into England and colonial America. In an effort to continue this monopoly and to raise taxes, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773- one of the causes of the American Revolution. It precipitated the Boston Tea Party.

The Cantonese called tea “ch’a.” This word was used for tea in Japan, India and Russia, although early English references were to “chah,” from their Indian connections. This was later changed to “tay.” And, finally, in the 19th century, to “tea.”

Tea plants are much the same all over the world. The differences in the tea are due to manufacturing processes and variations in climate and soil. There are 1,500 different tea growths and 2,000 different blends of tea.

Tea is divided into three categories: fermented, usually referred to as black; unfermented, or green and semi-fermented; or oolong.

For black tea, the leaves are fermented or oxidized until they turn a warm copper color.

Green tea is steamed in cylinders or boilers, and the teas, which have some of the characteristics of both black and green teas, are partially fermented before drying. After the drying process, the teas are cut, sifted and sorted into four grades: orange pekoe (from the terminal buds and finest leaves); pekoe, pekoe Souchong and congou (from successively coarser leaves); and pekoe dust (fine broken tea) and “dust.”

The Chinese produce all three categories of tea. Black China teas include Lapsang Souchong, which has a rich, tart flavor obtained by smoking the leaves over charcoal. Keemun tea, originally a green tea but now black, has a superior smoky taste and an excellent bouquet.

The Chinese consider Keemun tea an excellent tea to serve with food. The most famous of the semi-fermented teas is Formosa Oolong, from the Chinese “wu lung,” meaning “black dragon.” It is a large-leaf tea with a flavor of ripe peaches.

Gunpowder tea, one of the finest of all Chinese teas, is a rare green leaf rolled into small pellets. Loong Ching is the best Canton green tea, and jasmine tea is delicately scented with dried jasmine flowers. It is the last survivor of a variety of flower-scented teas that include gardenia, magnolia and orange blossom.

The teas of India are black. Assam tea from northeast India is a bright, reddish-brown brew. It is full-bodied, with a strong, malty taste. Darjeeling tea grows in the high foothills of the Himalayas. It has a rich muscatel and black currant flavor. Tranvancore and Nilgiri teas, from the uplands of South India, are aromatic teas.

Ceylon teas have blue-black, shiny leaves, which produce a bright golden liquor when brewed. Japanese teas are traditionally black.

The tea plant, which is part of the camellia family, became popular as an ornamental shrub in America in the early 1700s. Commercial tea growing in America was first attempted near Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1700s by And re Michaux, a French botanist. His efforts did not prove economically successful, nor did those of others in subsequent years.

The first viable tea plantation was started near Charleston in 1890 by Dr. Charles Shepard, who continued to grow tea until his death in 1915. The Shepard tea received a special commendation for quality at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

It was not until 1963 that the next serious attempt to grow tea in America occurred, when the Lipton Company started a plantation on Wadmalaw Island, a small island south of Charleston. It was created as an experiment and as a hedge against unstable foreign sources. With the stabilization of the world tea markets in the mid-1980s, however, Lipton phased out its experimental operation near Charleston. The plantation was purchased in the spring of 1987 by Mack Fleming, who had been director of research at the plantation, and William Hall, a British-trained tea taster. That fall, they marketed their first harvest of American Classic Tea. Fleming and Hall pride themselves on being able to have their fresh tea on the market shelves in a matter of weeks, instead of the many months required for imported tea.

The Charleston Tea Plantation is located about 20 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, on Wadmalaw Island. Owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, it grows tea, which is sold under the brand name American Classic Tea.

Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of “Virginia Wine Country III” with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at

The tea plant, which is part of the camellia family, became popular as an ornamental shrub in America in the early 1700s.





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