The history of how green tea spread across the globe is a truly fascinating topic. If you love history and tea then this series of blog posts can bridge the gap between your two loves. Unfortunately, as I do not have a thousand reams of paper handy I will be concentrating on how green tea grew to become such an integral part of both Chinese and Japanese culture.
The accepted truth is that tea was discovered in its greenest form over 5 thousand years ago. Some versions depict a flower falling into a cup of hot water while another has a man eating a leaf and realising how delicious it would be steeped in water. For centuries, all tea was green tea. Green tea is simply the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant place to steep in hot water. The leaves had not undergone any oxidation process like the tea leaves of today, so it was tea in its most natural form. This version of green tea is still enjoyed around the world as are many other versions of the same tea-leaf.
The tea plant known as Camellia sinensis is in actual fact native to China so that is where we will begin. More than 3 thousand years ago. When the tea leaves were initially being chewed and eaten by people as a way to increase their energy levels whilst working, much like how coffee was first used by people eating the beans directly in Ethiopia. However, over time, the use of leaves and buds of the tea tree gradually expanded as indigenous people begun to use them in cooking and when added to boiling water to flavour the water they drank.
The popularity of tea only began to soar during the period of the Wei Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 220-589). Slowly tea began to change from a luxury item into a staple drink commonly consumed by the public, as simple basic drying processes were introduced that increased its availability and allowed the introduction of scented teas, which helped lessen the bitterness green teas had at that time. And therefore, far more palatable.
By the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) tea drinking became ingrained as a fundamental part of daily life in Chinese society, with a whole culture of tea drinking springing up and the introduction of formalized “tea ceremonies”. During this time, the process of steaming the tea leaves was gradually refined, allowing the production of better tasting, less bitter, green teas.
During the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) the use and production of so-called “tribute teas” – those produced to be presented to the emperor and other high officials – became an important part of the royal culture and a source of government taxation. The production of these tribute teas, such as Xihu Longjing and Dongting Biluochun, had fueled rapid innovation in the types and quality of teas produced, as people competed for royal favour. One of the most famous of these tribute teas was dragon-phoenix ball tea, which was commonly grown and presented to the royal family. A special type, called Miynlong tea, was especially packed in a yellow silk wrap and commonly presented to the emperor.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the first emperor, Zhu Yanzhang formally abolished the tradition and government control of giving tribute tea. Once that happened, and a golden age of green tea innovation resulted. Production flourished and new production techniques, types and styles of tea were quickly tried. It was during this period that the use of loose-leaf tea became dominant. Roasting (dry heating) of the tea to “fix” it to stop oxidation was introduced during the 16th century and remains to this day the primary technique used to make green tea.
Alternatively, green tea was first brought to Japan in 805 A.D. by two Buddhist monks, Saicho and Kukai, who, after studying abroad in China returned with some young tea trees. This is after tea had already become an ingrained part of Chinese culture.
In 1191 A.D. another Buddhist monk, Eisai, popularised the idea of drinking tea for good health after studying in China for a period. Around the same time, Japanese farmers began growing green tea in Uji, Kyoto.
Eisai then went on to write the first Japanese book about tea, KISSA YOHJYOH KI, in 1211 A.D. Also, entitled “How to stay healthy by drinking tea” and describes the positive effect that tea can have on the vital organs.
Obuku area in the Ujiawara region of Kyoto had its first tea trees planted in 1271 A.D. by a Buddhist monk, Kohken. Obuku is a small area of land with a diameter of just 0.4 miles (600 meters). Even today, Obuku is known for producing very rare, the highest grade Sencha. In Japan, there are only a few places where the top grade Sencha is produced, and the Obuku area in Uji is one of them. Obuku is located in mountain ravines, where tiny streams run, and the soil is full of minerals. The misty climate, sloping hills, warm days and cool nights provide an ideal setting to grow the highest grade tea. Indeed, Sencha produced in the Obuku area was presented to the Japanese Emperors for many years. One special advantage of the Obuku region is that it never frosts, even on very cold winter mornings; because of Obuku’s unique geography, it is always mildly windy. It is said that the wind blows the frost away and that this is the reason why there is no frost in Obuku.
In the 16th century shading from sunlight by a canopy called TANA began, to prevent damage by frost; where the tea leaves were covered by a canopy in February and March just before the sprouts appear. However, it is believed that tea farmers discovered by accident that tea leaves grown in shade have a mellow taste, and then began to shade tea leaves from sunlight after sprouts appear to create the mellow taste. Today, tea leaves for Matcha are shaded from sunlight with Tana canopies, for 20 to 30 days just before harvest, to create Theanine in the tea leaves the source of the mellow taste.
During the late 16th century Rikyu Sen popularised the Japanese tea ceremony. In the tea ceremony, even today people celebrate aged Matcha in the ceremony called Kuchikiri no Gi every autumn. Kuchikiri no Gi means the ceremony of opening a special jar of tea. Matcha and Gyokuro used to be placed in a large tea jar. This tea jar was then sealed and stored in a cool place like the top of a high mountain or in the ground after harvest until autumn. People would first enjoy that year’s Matcha and Gyokuro in the autumn after the Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony. And it was said that when the jar lid first opened in autumn, the delicious fragrance of the tea filled the room and was so wonderful that there were no words to describe it.
In Ujitawara, Kyoto, Soen Nagatani developed a new process of steam drying tea leaves, in 1789 A.D. The new process, known as the Uji method, resulted in fresh, flavorful tea. It quickly replaced the traditional method of roasting and drying tea leaves.
In 1841 A.D. the Ogura area of Uji in Kyoto, Shigejyuro Eguchi perfected the Gyokuro processing method based on the process that was currently being used to process Sencha, invented by Sohen Nagatani in 1738. The tea leaves used for Gyokuro were the same as those used for Tencha. On the other hand, tea leaves used for Matcha, before they are ground into fine powder, but after stems and veins are removed, are known as Tencha.
Don’t forget to have some tea on me.