Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

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An updated edition of the "World's Best Tea Book" acclaimed by the 2014 World Tea Awards.

This widely praised bestseller has been updated to incorporate the changing tastes of tea drinkers, developments in production, the impact of climate change, and an expanded and more highly developed tea market. This third edition improves Tea with this revised and extended content plus new photographs.

TeaTime Magazine called Tea "the reference work we've been waiting for", noting its value to students.

Library Journal praised Tea as a "definitive guide to tea (that) will appeal to die-hard tea enthusiasts."

Tea House Times found Tea "impressive, well researched, and complete."

Tea takes readers on an escorted tour of the world's tea-growing countries — China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam and East Africa — where they will discover how, like a fine wine, it is "terroir" (soil and climate) that gives a tea its unique characteristics.

The authors own the popular Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal which imports teas directly from producers in these countries. Each author focuses on specific tea regions where they travel every year to work with growers and producers, discover new teas and keep abreast of developments that might, for example, remove a tea from the tea house's menu.

The book covers black, green, white, yellow, oolong, pu'er, perfumed, aromatic and smoked teas and includes:

  • An overview of the history of tea
  • Tea families, varieties, cultivars and grades
  • How tea is grown, harvested and processed
  • The tea trade worldwide
  • Profile interviews with tea industry personalities.

Special features that loyal tea drinkers will especially enjoy are:

  • Local tastes and methods of preparing tea (e.g. macha)
  • Tasting notes and infusion accessories
  • Teapot recommendations
  • Caffeine, antioxidant and biochemical properties of 35 teas
  • 15 gourmet recipes using tea
  • A directory of 42 select teas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780228100270
Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date: 12/11/2018
Edition description: Third Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 246,918
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin Gascoyne, François Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais and Hugo Américi are professional tea tasters and the owners of Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal, Quebec.

Read an Excerpt



Firefly Books

Copyright © 2011 Les Éditions de l'Homme
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55407-937-7

Chapter One

The Cultivation of Tea

The tea plant is an evergreen tree of the genus Camellia, one of 30 members of the Theaceae family. In its wild state, the tea tree can reach a height of 98 feet (30 m), and, although it also bears flowers and fruit, only the leaf is used to produce tea. Dark green in color and elliptical in shape, tea leaves have crenellated edges and can measure from 1/4 inch to 10 inches (5 mm to 25 cm) in length. Although it is indisputable that the tea tree originated in Xishuangbanna, in the Chinese province of Yunnan, where it still grows in great abundance in the wild, it is now cultivated on all five continents between the 43rd parallel in the northern hemisphere (Georgia, in Eastern Europe) and the 27th parallel in the southern hemisphere (the Corrientes region of Argentina).

Tea tree varieties

Among the 200 species of Camellia theaceae registered today, only one, Camellia sinensis, is used to produce tea. This species includes three main varieties: sinensis, assamica and cambodiensis.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

"Sinensis" means "from China," the country where tea was first discovered. This variety is thought to be the most ancient variety used in the cultivation of tea.

In its natural state, the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis tree can grow to a height of 20 feet (6 m). Its small, dark leaves are light in body. It is a sturdy plant that has greater resistance to cold and drought than other varieties, so it is often grown at high altitudes as well as in regions with difficult climatic conditions, such as parts of China, Japan, Iran and Turkey.

Its productive life is relatively long and in some conditions can last well over 100 years.

Camellia sinensis var. assamica

Discovered by Scottish Major Robert Bruce in the region of Assam, India, in the first half of the 19th century, Camellia sinensis var. assamica is grown extensively in India, Africa and Sri Lanka. Highly suited to a tropical climate, it is grown mainly on plains and in regions that enjoy abundant rainfall.

Less aromatic than C. s. var. sinensis leaves, its large, thick leaves produce a liquor that is quite robust and very dark when oxidized. C. s. var. assamica is the tallest of the C. sinensis varieties. In the wild, some trees can grow to a height of 98 feet (30 m) and live several centuries. Under plantation conditions, however, the productive life of C. s. var. assamica lasts no longer than 30 to 50 years.

Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis

Large and flexible, the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis can grow to a length of 8 inches (20 cm). Its sensorial properties are less appreciated than those of the C. s. var. sinensis and C. s. var. assamica, therefore, C. s. var. cambodiensis is rarely used for tea cultivation. However, thanks to its excellent capacity for natural hybridization with the other two varieties, it is occasionally used to create new cultivars.

The Cultivar

The term "cultivar," a contraction of the expression "cultivated variety," is used to define a plant species that was created through hybridization or mutation and selected for its specific characteristics. As these characteristics are not necessarily transferable by seeding, the cultivar must be reproduced through cuttings in order to retain the same genetic profile.

As we will see a little farther on, there is a wealth of cultivars that are hardly mentioned in Western botanical registers but are officially recognized in Eastern botanical lore. For, as well as being highly capable of natural hybridization, the tea tree has been frequently crossbred to make it better adapted to its environment and more resistant to disease, as well as to develop unique aromas.

The Terroir

In addition to the choice of plant material, growing season and quality of the picking, the characteristics of a plantation — its soil, climate, altitude, latitude — are important factors that greatly influence the quality of a tea. Each region has specific agricultural properties, so the same tea tree will produce different-tasting teas depending on the conditions in which it is grown. The plant will constantly adapt to its environment, producing substances that, notably, can create interesting flavors. The notion of a "terroir" helps define the specific characteristics of a particular region or expanse of land, by examining its soil, climate, altitude and latitude in combination with the expertise of the local growers.


The quality of the soil and the subsoil, which is an essential element in the cultivation of the tea tree, varies enormously from one region to another. Fortunately, the tea tree is endowed with a formidable ability to adapt, and it will thrive just as well in sedimentary as in volcanic soil. However, for optimum growth, it needs an acidic soil (pH 4.5 to 5.5) because acidity will help it absorb nutrients. Ideally, it should also have a soil that is rich in minerals (nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, etc.) and covered with a deep layer of humus. In addition, its central root needs to get a solid grip at a depth of up to 6 feet (1.8 m), so the soil must be loose, not limestone or clay. As tea trees need a lot of rain, the most favorable soil will be permeable and drain well but still have good moisture retention. A mountainous terrain is often ideal.


The tea tree grows best in a tropical or subtropical region. It needs plenty of rain, a minimum of about 60 inches (1,500 mm) a year, and a dry season that lasts no longer than three months. The ideal average temperature is around 65 to 68°F (18 to 20°C), with a minimum of five hours of sunshine a day and a relative humidity of 70 percent to 90 percent.

Tea trees are not very resistant to frost and wintery conditions. With the exception of some cultivars, especially those developed to resist the cold, a tea tree is likely to be killed by temperatures below 23°F (-5 °C). Moreover, if the temperature is too low over the course of the year, its growth will slow considerably.

Tea trees do, however, benefit from climatic variations, which can help develop flavors. The stress caused by weather changes disturbs the chloroplasts in the leaves and triggers a reaction from the plant, which strives to retain chlorophyll in its leaves, improving the flavor of the tea. Even the presence of certain insects may improve the flavor.


It is not unusual to see tea plantations on the steep slopes of high mountain ranges in Asia for a very good reason: these terrains produce tea of unrivaled quality. While the difficult climatic conditions found at these altitudes can stunt the growth of a tea tree, they are excellent for the development of aromas. Warm days give way to cold nights, and sun exposure is often reduced to a couple of hours a day because of the constant mist during certain seasons. Under these conditions the tea tree's growth is slowed, but the new shoots it produces carry a higher concentration of the aromatic oils that create richer flavors. At an ideal altitude of around 3,300 to 5,000 feet (1,000 to 1,500 m), mist can even be an advantage for a tea tree as, even in the dry season, the new shoots will have the moisture they need to grow. In Taiwan, as in Darjeeling, some of the best harvests are found above 6,500 feet (2,000 m).


Latitude also has a major impact on the growth of tea trees. It can even be said to determine, to a certain degree, the life rhythm of the tree.

Tea is a perennial plant and, in certain regions close to the equator, its leaves can be harvested all year round. But in regions located beyond 16 degrees north or south, where daily sunlight is less than 11 hours for a period longer than five weeks, the tea tree's growth will slow down, and it will become dormant. The harvest is then postponed until the following season. This period of dormancy is highly favorable for the production of good-quality tea. When the plant awakens in the spring, the aromatic ingredients it secretes are more concentrated and often confer an exquisite taste to the tea from the first harvests of the year.

The Gardens

The domestic cultivation of tea began in the fourth century, and the first plantations probably appeared in Sichuan Province in China. Previously, tea was harvested in the forest from ancient trees growing in the wild. There are still ancient tea trees in the forests of Yunnan Province, whose leaves are used to produce rare or unique vintage teas, but today, as a general rule, tea is grown on plantations that are called "gardens" or "estates."

The size of these plantations varies enormously. Some cover less than a couple of acres, others spread over thousands of acres. Either terraced or simply covered in scattered plants, each couple of acres (1 ha) usually holds 5,000 to 15,000 tea trees. In China, the smaller gardens may belong to independent growers who carry out all the different stages of production themselves, but the several-hundred-acre estates are usually the property of large corporations that own many other estates and employ thousands of workers.

Most larger tea gardens have a name, as in Darjeeling, but this is not always the case. Elsewhere in India, such as the Nilgiri Hills, and Sri Lanka, many small-scale growers will bring their fresh leaf and sell it to a local manufacturer. These harvests are less specific and often produce lower-grade teas. These teas will often be named after the region or factory that transforms the leaf.

The largest plantations are found on the plains of Assam, Kenya and the other more industrial regions of Argentina. The smallest gardens are usually spread over the hillsides of very steep mountains at altitudes of up to 8,500 feet (2,600 m).

Plantation Maintenance

The cultivation of tea requires a lot of work and skill. This is why, in most tea-producing countries, there are research centers devoted to the study and creation of new, more resistant cultivars that are capable of adapting to a given climate and offer more interesting sensory characteristics. This work has led to the development of a new growing technique that makes it easier to hybridize and clone the best cultivars. Previously, seeding techniques were quite risky and did not allow the production of uniform crops, especially since the tea tree's prolific natural capacity for hybridization generated new strains that were vastly different from one another.

As well as the constant work of clearing, draining, plowing and weeding that is essential to all agricultural endeavors, tea growers must wait at least three to five years before they see any return on a young tea tree. During this time, the young plant is cared for so that it will become a strong tree. Since, in its natural form, a tea tree can grow to a maximum height of 50 feet (15 m), it is regularly pruned so that it grows no higher than about 3 feet (1 m), thus making it easier to harvest the leaves. In addition to stimulating the growth of new shoots, this pruning, which is called "shaping," forces the plant to branch out and develop along a horizontal plane, forming a so-called "picking table."

Throughout its average life span of 30 to 50 years, a tea tree will undergo regular pruning to help maintain a healthy yield. In addition to the frequent shaping, the tree will be more heavily pruned every five years to stimulate regeneration, strengthening the plant's structure and increasing its growth.

In order to filter the sunshine and introduce essential nitrogen into the soil, "shade trees" of other species are used. Pruning waste and straw are strewn between the plants to protect and develop the topsoil.

Tea Harvests

Picking tea leaves is a simple yet critical activity that involves detaching the young shoots from the plants. In almost all countries, this task is entrusted to the delicate hands of women. The pickers must pinch the delicate shoots between their thumb and forefinger, according to the type of picking desired, and then place the leaves in a Bamboo basket or bag that they carry behind them. It is a critical operation because the quantity of aromatic substances found in the leaves varies according to their degree of maturity. The younger the leaf, the higher the concentration of desirable aromatic compounds; however, the younger the leaf, the smaller it is and the smaller the harvest will be. Therefore, the yield of a garden and the taste quality of the tea will depend to a very large degree on the moment chosen to harvest the leaves.

In tropical regions where the climatic conditions are favorable, tea trees grow continuously. Therefore, the leaves can be harvested all year round, at intervals of 4 to 15 days. In more temperate or mountainous regions, picking follows the rhythm of the seasons and weather and usually takes place from April to November. However, certain times of year are more favorable for the blossoming of aromas. For example, because the delicate and tender leaves from the first harvest of the year contain more concentrated aromatic oils, they are the most highly prized.

The Three Traditional Tea-Picking Styles

The term "pekoe" is used for the young shoot located at the end of each stem (also called the terminal bud). As this bud has not yet unfurled, it is usually covered with a fine down. In fact, "pekoe," from the Chinese pak-ho, is often used to describe the fine down on a newborn's skin. This pekoe serves as a reference for the three types of tea-leaf picking: imperial picking, fine picking and medium picking.

As it includes only the bud and the first leaf below it, imperial or "super-fine" picking is the most prestigious. It is, in fact, for this reason that in the China of ancient times it was reserved for the use of emperors and high officials, hence the name. It is usually harvested once per year, in the spring. Also of very high quality, fine picking harvests the bud and the first two leaves. Medium picking harvests the bud and the following three leaves.

Today, there are many machines for harvesting tea, but they are less practical on sloped terrain and cannot carry out the delicate picking achieved by the hands of an expert. This is why, to obtain the best harvest in the small gardens on high, steep slopes or in countries where labor costs remain low, manual picking is still prevalent.

It takes 10 pounds (5 kg) of fresh leaves, about 12,000 shoots, to produce 2 pounds (1 kg) of tea. In India, a tea picker will harvest on average 65 to 110 pounds (30 to 50 kg) of leaves per day.

The Tea Families

Before Robert Fortune discovered the "secrets" of tea in the mid-19th century (see page 156), Europeans believed that green teas and black teas came from different plants. We know today that it is the phenomenon of oxidation that modifies the natural state of the leaves, changing the color and taste.

Oxidation is produced by oxidase, enzymes that reacts when the cells of a tea leaf are broken. Reacting with oxygen, these enzymes trigger the oxidation of the leaf, so it is possible to change freshly harvested leaves into any type of tea.

If how the leaves are picked is one of the determining factors regarding the quality of a tea, mastering the process of transforming those leaves, often done through traditional knowledge, is the decisive factor regarding a tea's final taste. First, oxidation must take place shortly after harvesting, which is why most plantations have their own processing plant (a factory) to process the leaves as soon as they arrive from the garden. Smaller growers who do not have their own factory often join together to send their harvest to a larger producer who can process the leaves.

Each family of teas comes from a particular method of processing the leaves, which we will review in greater detail in relation to each country. For example, to obtain a green tea, the leaves must be "fired" or steamed to disable the enzymes that causes oxidation. A light and controlled oxidation is permitted in the case of wulongs. Whereas with black teas, oxidation is often fully encouraged, with leaves exposed to humidity (80 percent to 90 percent) and to an ambient temperature of 71 to 74°F (22 to 23°C).

There are six main categories or families of tea: white, green, yellow, wulong (or oolong), black and Pu er (or sometimes Pu-erh).

White Teas

The best white teas come from prized harvests consisting entirely of buds. White teas also undergo the least handling. The leaves are dried naturally or with the help of fans to eliminate some of their moisture. The liquid they yield is delicate, extremely refreshing and less likely to contain much caffeine.

Green Teas

Produced mainly in China and Japan, where over 1,500 varieties can be found, green teas are the preferred beverages of these countries. The fresh leaves are dehydrated to prevent any possibility of oxidation, which increases the "green," plant characteristics of the beverage.

Yellow Teas

The rare yellow teas undergo slight post-oxidation by steaming under a damp cloth while the leaves are still warm from being dehydrated. This produces a slight enzymic oxidation, giving the leaves and the liquid obtained from them a yellowish hue.


Excerpted from Tea by KEVIN GASCOYNE FRANÇOIS MARCHAND JASMIN DESHARNAIS HUGO AMERICI Copyright © 2011 by Les Éditions de l'Homme. Excerpted by permission of Firefly Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Part One: From Garden to Cup

    The Cultivation of Tea
    Tea Harvests

Part Two: From One Terroir to Another

    Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam and the East African Coast

Part Three: From Cup to Plate

    The Art of Preparing Tea
    A Short Tasting Guide
    Tea in Gastronomy

Part Four: Tea and Health

    The Chemical Components of Tea
    The Virtues of Tea
    Biochemical Analyses of 35 Teas

Photo Credits



Tea is the ultimate universal beverage. Whether in a Mongolian yurt, a Berber encampment in the middle of the Sahara, a house in Azerbaijan, admiring a verdant Irish landscape or in the heart of the mountains of New Zealand, it is tea that warms us when we are cold and cools us when we are hot. It welcomes the arriving guest and is a promise from the departing guest to return. From China, where it originated, tea has crossed all the borders of the world. It is known and respected for its virtues and appreciated for its taste.

Celebrated by poets and adored by emperors, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world today and forms an integral part of the diet of millions at all levels of society. With its history that spans several millennia, a wealth of cultures that have influenced it and traditions that have raised it to its noble stature, the world of tea is so vast that it can never be completely known.

Whether it comes from the precious first harvests of spring, the sacred mountains of China or the highest gardens of Darjeeling, every cup of tea tells a story, reveals knowledge and conjures up a landscape. If we add in the expertise of master craftspeople who have passed on these traditions over several centuries we have a vast diversity of unique and exotic products.

For many years now, our approach as tasters and importers has led us to discover the terroirs of tea, the way in which it is grown and processed, the role each plays within its own culture and the economy of the country where it is produced, the evolution of the rituals that accompany its serving, and the reasons it came to be considered such a noble beverage. These discoveries have enriched our enjoyment of tea as well as our knowledge of it. This book reflects a progression that we hope will accompany you on your future taste travels.

What we offer you here is naturally a Western approach to tea, but we attribute as much importance to the plant and the places where it grows as to the master producers who devote their lives to its cultivation. For we must not forget that, just like wine, tea represents one of humanity's most fabulous achievements, using precious knowledge inherited over generations and taking advantage of the most distinct properties of its specific growing environment.

— Hugo, Jasmin, François, Kevin and the team at Camellia Sinensis Tea House

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