The Modern Geography of Tea (and its Varieties)

Tea began in China. There are reports of some variant species of Camellia Sinensis (the tea plant) in surrounding areas such as northern India, but many early instances of the plant outside of China resulted from travelers or smugglers who wanted the tea for religious or medicinal reasons. Or both, as the case may be. However, in an extraordinary instance of globalization, diffusion, and the power of a trade commodity, tea is grown in upwards of 43 countries today. Some may only produce negligible amounts or have very small regions dedicated to the growth, but the plant produces the most consumed beverage on earth besides water and is tied directly to many a country’s economy.

Like wine grapes, tea allegedly takes on the flavor of the land it is cultivated in, resulting in distinct flavors from different geographical regions, especially due to the variation in climate in the farming areas. The difference in region also generally results in differences in preparation of the leaf into tea types and blends depending on how it is prepared and what it is mixed with. This is why black tea from different regions of India (Darjeeling, Assam, etc.) are all marketed as distinct types. In Japan alone there are at least a dozen (but probably a lot more) different types of preparation of green tea! It’s a fascinating subject, at least for me. Then again, I love geography, and tea both, so it works out that way.

Here is a map showing the geographical distribution of tea producers:

tea-production-map

For the most information compacted into the least amount of space, I’m going to go by tea type and explain what they are and where the largest producers are. If you happen to gain interest in the subject or want to be a tea connoisseur, I recommend more research on the matter. Here we go:

+ Black Tea:  The leaves of the tea plant are subjected to a long period of oxidation that turns the leaves a black color, and this type of tea has the longest shelf life of the tea “colors” (which are dependent on how the leaves are processed after picking). The largest producers of black tea are China, Kenya, India, and a number of small South Asian countries. Many varieties of black tea are named for the region they come from, as mentioned above. The UK tends to be the largest consumer of black tea.

looseleaf-black-tea-with-two-fresh-tea-leaves

+Green Tea: The leaves of the tea plant are minimally oxidized, resulting in drying of the leaves but a maintenance of the green color. Traditionally this was an eastern style of tea and not very popular in the West where black teas dominated, but it has gained wide popularity in modern times. This tea is primarily grown in Asia, with China and Japan being the largest producers.

800px-Leaves_of_green_tea

+White Tea: The leaves of the tea plant are picked before maturity, along with buds to make this type of tea. There is very little oxidation and is usually rather prepared by steaming and is considered the healthiest type of tea because of how minimally it is processed from its natural state. It is also mainly prepared in China and is less widespread than the other two variations.

White_Tea

It’s fascinating because tea in Asia tends to make up smaller and smaller amounts of many countries’ GDPs, but has risen in Africa as a hot commodity. In fact, Kenya is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and its economy is very heavily dependent on the tea farmers.

It should be noted here that many types drinks marketed as tea especially “Herbal Tea” is not actually tea at all. Tea is distinctly a beverage derived from the Camellia Sinensis plant, whereas other drinks brewed the same way but lacking the plant are called tisanes. Interesting but important distinction here. Does not make any of them less delectable.

Someday I think I ought to go on a tour around the world to sample their tea. What do you think?

For more info on where tea is grown and what kinds grow where, check out this website.

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