André Simon Awards: The Life of Tea

In the run-up to the 40th André Simon Awardsthe drinks business is running an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the drinks category. In a departure from the usual alcoholic theme, this time Michael Freeman and Timothy d’Offay introduce us to the wide and varied world of tea.

From Earth to Cup

The tea plant is a type of camellia, and its pretty, small, white flowers with distinctive, yellow stamens are very similar to those of ornamental garden camellias, only smaller at around 3cm (1¼in) in diameter. Also, like most camellias, the tea plant is believed to have originated in areas south of the Himalayan mountains, in a belt that includes parts of northeastern India, northern Myanmar, southwestern China, northern Laos, Cambodia and northern Vietnam. This is the area where the oldest living tea trees are found, many of them in the Yunnan province of China. Several of these ancient trees are known to be 1,000–2,000 years old, and some can grow as high as 15–20m (50–66ft).

In all but southernmost areas of Asia, tea plant growth slows down in late autumn and stops in winter as the temperature falls below 12°C (54°F) and the days shorten. As temperatures rise again and the daily hours of sunlight increase, the tea-growing season begins: in March and April in northern Indian and China before reaching Japan in May. By late summer, as well as much new leaf growth, the tea plant has started to produce large, brown, spherical seeds in pods of two or three. Their relatively large size, up to 1.4cm (½in) in diameter, hinders their dispersal by wind and small animals, but, luckily for tea, humans have helpfully transported its seeds to new locations both within China and beyond.

By imposing their own tastes on evolution, people have also played a significant role in creating the many tea cultivars that provide the teas we enjoy today. Most tea plants are self-incompatible, meaning that they need the pollen of another tea plant to reproduce. Such cross-pollination is mainly by bees, wasps and syrphid flies, and the result is that each seed produces a unique plant, so there is a high level of genetic exchange.

This, together with the way in which plants evolve in different habitats, has resulted in hundreds of tea cultivars that are locally adapted to specific terroirs and have unique characteristics. Added to these are the hundreds of wild or landraces – varieties not yet classified, but which growers recognize locally. Until the mid-20th century, most propagation and cultivation of tea plants was done by seed and, if the resulting tea was deemed good, the plant would be kept, but if not it would be quickly replaced by another. These methods helped develop almost all the famous teas we know, and also provided a biodiversity beyond the landrace tea trees.

However, there are new dangers. For reasons of uniformity and to propagate new, high-yielding or disease-resistant varieties developed in tea research stations, clonal tea from cuttings has now broadly replaced cultivation by seed. As clonal teas have become more widespread, there are fears that popular clonal cultivars could be wiped out by a disease or pest particular to that cultivar. Moreover, a trend toward fewer commercial clonal cultivars would reverse centuries of diversification and lead to a uniformity of taste. This might suit commercial tea growing, but it runs counter to the rich diversity of flavour and aroma that makes tea drinking so enjoyable.

In the tea belt centred on southwest Yunnan and surrounding areas – the heartland of tea – there are actually 12 species of tea camellias, including Camellia taliensis, which also contains caffeine and is used for local production.

However, by far the most dominant species is C. sinensis, which has two major botanically distinct varieties: the broadleaved C. sinensis assamica and the smaller-leaved C. sinensis sinensis – usually referred to simply as assamicaand sinensis.

Both assamica and sinensis varieties can be used  to produce any type of tea. Historically, however, white, green and oolong (from the Chinese wulong) teas were most often produced from the small-leaved sinensis variety, which tends to be sweeter and more aromatic than the broadleaved assamica variety. The latter was mainly used for black and puer tea production for its stronger, more astringent taste. It is also possible to produce hybrids of both varieties to combine their characteristics, such as the Japanese benihikari cultivar.

Within the tea belt, the assamica variety evolved in warm, tropical and subtropical environments while the sinensis variety grew in more northern regions in more temperate conditions. Given these differences, tea shows remarkable versatility, growing from sea level to mountains of more than 2,500m (8,200ft). Camellia sinensis likes abundant rainfall, ideally more than 1,500mm (60in) a year, and an annual average temperature of 18–20°C (64–68°F). Somesinensis cultivars can cope with a little snow and frost, but prolonged frosts and subzero temperatures will kill all tea plants.

Good drainage is important, given the high rainfall that tea plants want, so mountain slopes are ideal, and the plants’ broad root systems have evolved for this. Today, tea plants are cultivated commercially in terraced landscapes around the world on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

 

Reprinted with permission from ‘The Life of Tea: A Journey to the World’s Finest Teas’ by Michael Freeman and Timothy d’Offay, copyright © 2018. Published by Mitchell Beazley

the drinks business and the André Simon Awards will also be offering readers the chance to win a copy of each of the shortlisted books over the coming weeks. Stay tuned to our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for further details.

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2018 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. www.andresimon.co.uk

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