The first tea was cultivated in Southwest China from where it spread all over Asia and to other continents.
Most tea producing areas are located between the latitude of 40° degrees North and 40° degrees South. The plant grows best in subtropical climates (China bush or Hybrids, especially in high altitude) or tropical zones (Assam hybrid).
The best qualities are harvested at a higher altitude between 600m-1800m. Because of the slow growth, the plants can develop a more complex flavour (like the difference between a greenhouse tomato and a garden tomato).
The map below shows all tea producing countries. We are going to focus only on the main regions like China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and the African countries.
Other regions like Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia or the South American countries often produce mainly for inland consumption.
It is worth mentioning that tea is also grown in the UK, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and some other, non-classical tea regions. As much as we admire and support any tea growth worldwide, we are still waiting for distinctive teas to emerge from those countries.
It is said that there are about 8000 different types of tea produced in China. Eight Thousand!
About 80% of the production is green tea, most of it for the Chinese market.
China also produces world-class Black, Oolong, Pu-Erh, White and Yellow teas (for further information, please see also chapter Tea types and Tea production).
Flower flavoured teas have a long tradition in China. Jasmine tea was the first scented tea in the world, and other favourites are Rose, Lychee, Orchid, and Osmanthus enriched teas.
The tea harvest starts at the beginning of April and lasts until Autumn (with the exception of Oolong teas which are also picked in the winter time for the very best qualities).
Especially the Spring season around April has a great significance in the tea manufacturing. It is divided into four periods:
- Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea (harvested before April 5th )
- Before the Rains or Yu Qian tea (harvested before April 20th )
- Spring tea or Gu Yu tea (harvested before May 6th )
- Late spring or Li Xia (harvested before May 21st )
The cultivation of tea is concentrated in the South. A favourable climate, ideal soil and elevation create excellent conditions to grow high-quality teas.
Some of the famous tea producing areas with their best-known teas are:
Henan - Xinyang Maojian, Liuan Guapian
Jiangsu - Pi Lo Chun
Guangdong - Gulao, Liubao, black Lychee
There is a long tradition in China to press tea leaves into various shapes. Tea bricks for example (see picture to the right) were produced for easier transport and to use as a currency. This tradition still exists today, and one can get tea pressed into bricks, cakes, nests, roses or other shapes. Recently I was even shown an example of a business card made from pressed Pu Erh tea.
Today India is the worlds biggest producer of black tea. The tea is sold through auctions and then shipped mainly via Kolkutta, Mumbai or Chennai to every corner of this world. Hugh amounts of tea remain inland and are consumed by almost every Indian. The picking season starts as early as February with the First Flush, followed in June/ July with the Second Flush (times might vary from region to region). There are also In Between teas (April/May/June) and Autumnal pickings. The best known Indian tea plantations are in Darjeeling and Assam in the North West and Nilgiri in the South.
Named after a little town in the Northern part of West Bengal, India. Only teas produced in the 87 estates can be called Darjeeling. This is important because this tea is regarded as the best in the world.
The elevation, soil and climatic conditions are unique and so is the tea. The yield of the tea gardens is much lower than in other regions, but the quality is superior. Darjeeling teas have a distinctive taste depending on the season.
The First Flush is referred to as "springtime teas." It is harvested from late February to mid-April and yields a light tea with a delicate aroma and flowery taste. Second Flush, or the "summer teas" are picked in June-July before the monsoon. They produce a darker, more full-bodied cup with an exquisite muscatel flavour. The best qualities fetch maximum prices on the International market. Autumnal Darjeeling is picked late in the season just before harvesting seizes for the year. Although not teas of the highest quality they still possess a refined, spicy character.
With over 200.000 ha fields the largest tea growing area worldwide.
It is located in the very North East of India (province Assam) on both sides of the river Brahmaputra. The soil is very fertile, and plenty of rain ensures best conditions for the tea plant.
After the British discovered a native Tea tree (camellia sinensis assamica) in the 1820s, they tried to cultivate it to reduce the dependence on Chinese tea imports. In 1834 the Assam Company was founded, and in 1838 the first tea was shipped to London.
The Assam tea plant and its hybrids yield a strong, rich, coppery red cup of tea. At its best, the tea is full bodied with a malty undertone. All Assam teas or blends are excellent morning teas and go well with a bit of milk.
The Nilgiris, or Blue Mountains, are a mountainous area in South India. The best teas are harvested in the plantations up to 2000m in January. Not many Nilgiri teas appear on the International market, and most tea is consumed inland.
Sri Lanka - Ceylon
Teas are still known under their colonial name Ceylon. Today Sri Lanka is an independent island Southeast of India and the second biggest producer of black tea in the world. The quality of the tea depends on the region, the elevation and the season:
Low grown: below 600m, blending/tea bag quality, also often exported for ice tea (dark colour but rather neutral taste).
Medium grown: 600-1300m, medium to good qualities.
High grown: 1300-2300m, very fine, characteristic citrus like aromatic teas.
Main tea growing areas are Uva, Kandy, Dimbula and Nuwara Eliya.
A country with a proud tea tradition for 1500 years.
Japan only produces green teas. The quality ranges from average daily teas to high grown top qualities.
Some of the best Japanese teas are the shadow teas which are protected from direct sunlight to allow a slow growth (e.g., Gyokuro which can fetch prices up to Eur 400/kg). They taste tangy (some even say fishy) and almost like spinach, the way most Japanese prefer their tea.
Often referred as too bitter for the European taste which is mostly a result of the wrong way of brewing (wrong water temperature and/or brewing time).
A Japanese specialty is Match, a powdered tea still used for the Japanese tea ceremony.
Nepal borders on Darjeeling to the South and has similar conditions.
For a long time, the tea was only for consumption in India, but recently good Nepal teas have reached the foreign markets.
The qualities are similar to medium Darjeeling teas but often better priced and therefore a good alternative.
Just 180km off the Chinese South coast with a subtropical climate and elevations up to almost 4000m - ideal for tea cultivation. Most of the exported green tea goes to Japan and America. Some of the worlds best Oolong teas are produced here. Taiwan is also known for their exquisite green teas (Sencha, Gunpowder).
Tea cultivation in Africa started at the beginning of the 20th century in the British colonies. Most of the English teas today (especially tea bags) come from African plantations. They are highly automated and produce predominately tea bag qualities. Kenia is by far the biggest tea producer in Africa followed by Malawi.
Indonesia consists of many islands along the equator in Southeast Asia. The first tea gardens were planted on Java in middle of the 19th century and on Sumatra about 70 years later. The tropical climate makes a harvest throughout the entire year possible. The tea quality is very consistent but rather average, and a lot of Indonesian leaves are used for blending. The best teas are picked on Java from July to September with a fine, slightly fruity aroma.