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Geography of Tea

Tea is the World's Most Popular Beverage


Tea Harvest

A Burmese woman picks Oolong #17 tea leaves during a harvest at the Suwirun Tea farm in the hills outside of Chaing Rai, Thailand.

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Excluding water, tea is the world's most popular beverage, with a global consumption that exceeds all other manufactured drinks put together, including coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol. Tea production is a multi-billion dollar industry and many economies are foundationally tied to it. The way tea is made and consumed differs depending on geographic location. Some countries tend to import a large amount of a particular type of leaf, while others exclusively export a certain variety.

Black Tea

Black tea is made from leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush when it is exposed to an extended period of oxidation. It typically has a stronger flavor and a longer shelf life compared to other teas. For this reason, it is the world's most popular and traded variety.

South Asia, along with China and Kenya, produce the majority of the world's black teas. Due to their large size, China and India have great diversity in climatic conditions, allowing them to produce an assortment of leaves at different locations and elevation.

Most sub-varieties of tea are named after the regions they are cultivated in. Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon are three of the most popular types of black teas and they are grown exclusively in South Asia. The Darjeeling region is located in the tiny strip of Indian territory that is north of Bangladesh and between Nepal and Bhutan. Due to its hilly and unique agro-climatic conditions, the leaves here have a distinctive natural flavor that is internationally recognized as a geographical indicator. Darjeeling contributes to 7% of India's tea output.

In contrast to Darjeeling, India's Assam tea is typically grown near sea level, in the valley of the Brahmaputra River just northwest of Burma. During the monsoon season, this part of India receives a lot of precipitation and becomes extremely humid. The tropical climate contributes to Assam's unique malty taste, which is a feature the tea is known for. Due to its high caffeine content and strength, Assam is most often served as a morning tea. The popular "Irish Breakfast" is typically made from Assam leaves and the "English Breakfast" uses Assam and Ceylon as parts of its blend.

Ceylon tea is grown exclusively in Sri Lanka, particularly in the southern regions of Uva and Dimbula. Although the country officially changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972, its colonial name remains today in the world of tea. Ceylon simply refers to any tea that is grown in Sri Lanka. The taste and flavor depends on the altitude at which the plant is grown and the length of its oxidation. Ceylon tea has an international reputation for quality, especially for its orange pekoe grade black teas- not actually orange in flavor, but refers to the quality, size, and condition of the leaf - which has a woody, floral aroma.

Due to their colonial history, a large share of South Asia's black teas are exported to the United Kingdom. The British are among the world's most prevalent tea drinkers, culturally recognized for mixing their teas with milk. Much of South Asia's tea plantations were established by the British and the country continues to hold a stake in region's tea industry today.

Green Tea

Green tea is made when the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant goes through minimal oxidation. Historically, green tea has been associated with East Asia, but lately, the leaf has become more widespread in the West, where black tea has been the traditionally consumed type.

Although green tea has expanded globally, the leaf is still primarily grown in Asia. China is the world's top consumer, producer, and exporter of green tea. Eighty percent of the country's tea exports are of the green variety. In 2011, China exported over 250,000 tons of green tea, with Morocco as their leading import market, followed by the United States, Japan, the European Union, and Russia. Almost all of China's 18 tea producing provinces grow green tea, with Zhejiang province being the most famous. The region is known for its "Dragon Well," an ultra- high quality tea that is roasted early to stop the oxidation process and sold at a premium. A mid-grade batch of Dragon Well sells for over five dollars an ounce in the United States. (Teavana)

Japan is the world's second largest grower of green tea, contributing to approximately 9.5% of the global production. The country produces almost exclusively just the green variety with 97% of it consumed domestically. The most well-known places for cultivation in Japan are Uji, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima prefectures, which are all located in the south. Although green tea originated in China, it has become far more significant in Japan. Much of the country's food culture revolves around the leaf and its powdered form. The tea is not only consumed as a beverage, but it is often made into ice cream, candy, and used as a savory ingredient. Green tea is also the central element of the country's famous tea ceremonies.

White, Yellow, and Oolong Tea

White, Yellow, and Oolong teas also share their origins with the Camellia Sinensis. White tea is made from immature leaves that are picked before the buds of the plant blossoms. The sub- varieties of white tea depend on the proportion of buds to leaves in the mixture. White tea leaves undergo even less processing than green tea leaves, and instead of air-drying, they are usually steamed. As a result, white tea gives off a sweet silky flavor and is considered to be healthier than even green tea, since it is closer to its natural state.

Yellow tea is processed similarly to green tea, but with a slower drying phase. After letting the damp tea leaves sit for an extended period of time, it starts to develop a yellow-green appearance. Although similar to both green and white tea, yellow tea gives off an aroma that is resembles black tea.

Oolong is somewhere between green and black tea in the oxidation process. The process usually includes withering the leaves under a strong sun and letting it oxidize before it curls or twists. Depending on the sub-variety and production style, the degree of oxidation can vary greatly. Oolong is especially popular in East and Southeast Asia, but it has not caught on in the West in the manner black and green teas have.

Most of the world's white, yellow, and oolong teas are grown in China. India also has a small share in production and Taiwan has a reputation for exporting high quality Formosa, Taiwan's former name, brand of oolong teas.

Red Tea

Red tea often refers to rooibos, a tea made from the leaves of the Calicotome villosa plant. Rooibos is exclusively grown in a small region within the Western Cape province of South Africa. The locals commonly prepare rooibos in the same manner as black tea, by adding milk and sugar. Due to its health benefits, rooibos is becoming more popular in Europe and the United States.

In the East, tea classification is often based on the color of the liquid, where as in the West it is based on the color of the leaves themselves. Therefore, in most Asian countries red tea actually refers to traditional black tea, because when steeped in water, it turns red. When rooibos is oxidized, its leaf turns to reddish-brown in color and thus is categorized as a red tea in the West.

Rooibos is not considered to be a true tea (black, green, oolong, etc) since it is not made from the Camellia Sinensis brush. It is a classified as a tisane, which is a term used to describe any non-caffeinated drink made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant materials. Other popular examples of tisanes include chrysanthemum, chamomile, and dandelion teas.

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