The finest tea is handpicked as part of a time-honoured tradition and tribute to the natural essence of each leaf but did you know that it takes around 2,000 tiny leaves to make just one pound of finished tea?
Legend has it that tea only became known as a beverage by sheer coincidence when leaves from a tree landed in the late Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water in 2732 B.C. He liked the pleasant scent of the resulting brew so much that he named it after the Chinese character ch’a (meaning to check or investigate).
Much has transpired since. Tea is now the second most consumed beverage in the world and the global tea trade has served as an important source of jobs and incomes for thousands of centuries. The tea sector not only bears economic relevance but also has a long history of deep cultural significance.
Every year on 21 May, we commemorate International Tea Day. This year however, we turn the spotlight to tea-producing countries where the tea industry serves as one of the main sources of income for the citizens. The global tea trade impacts not only workers and growers, but also rural development, poverty reduction and food security in developing countries on the macro-scale.
Our support of these tea-based livelihoods extends to the plantations and the shops that sell fair trade tea. To observe this day, we hope to help raise awareness for the sustainable production and consumption of tea by highlighting some noteworthy destinations that have had a hand in shaping the tea industry.
Descendants of the earliest tea farmers live in Yunnan, a province located along the Southwestern frontiers of China. Beyond simply planting and drinking tea, the locals of “the land of tea” also have a deep appreciation for tea culture.
Lu Yu, a Chinese tea master who has been dubbed the Sage of Tea, described tea drinking in his book The Classic of Tea as “a religious ceremony with a set ritual and particular implements which are endowed with individual significance”. He posits that there are guidelines on the appropriate state of mind for the tea drinker and an atmosphere in which the beverage should be enjoyed. Appropriately, tea is sometimes gifted, other times served when entertaining guests or fetching the bride or even used as a condiment in the kitchen.
Ancient Tea Tree in Bangwei of Lincang Prefecture
At the root of tea cultivation in Yunnan is the Three Ancient Tea Trees that have been around for centuries. Widely regarded as the ‘living fossils’ of Yunnan’s aboriginal tea plants, these ancient tea trees are a sight not to be missed when visiting the homeland of tea trees.
Pu’er’s namesake tea in particular is a beverage so popular that it has put Yunnan on the global map by seeing it through strong economic growth. If you’re wondering how the Chinese tea industry can be the bread and butter of more than 10 million locals, allow us to take you on a visit to a tea master’s tea house for a private tea appreciation session where you can learn more about the origins of pu’er and the rituals the locals have for brewing and tasting the beverage.
Formerly a British colony known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka produces some of the finest black tea in the world. Contrary to popular belief however, Ceylon Tea did not have entirely Ceylonese roots. In 1824, a tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes.
When the plantation-dependent economy was in peril in the 1880s, tea became a feasible cash crop. Scotsman James Taylor made the Loolecondera Estate home to the first commercial tea plantation in Ceylon by planting 19 acres of tea in the city of Kandy. In a bid to save the withering plantation industry, planters from all over the hill country flocked to Loolecondera Estate to learn how to grow and manufacture tea.
The Ceylon tea landscape is best explored through trails that take you around the century-old tea factories and their lush tea fields. At nightfall, the weary traveller can choose to wind down with butler service and gourmet cuisine available in restored historic tea planter residences otherwise known as bungalows.
As the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea today, Sri Lanka upholds its tea to high standards. A Lion Logo on your pack of tea certifies that it is 100% Pure Ceylon Tea that has been packed and grown in Sri Lanka. Legislation and industry rules have also been put in place to ensure responsible tea cultivation practices. Sri Lankan tea planters now follow the standards set out by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, an international body that recommends best practices for sustainability.
How the tradition of mint tea came to pass in Morocco is to date unclear with several varying accounts. Some say it was the first nomadic Berbers who imported it from Asia, while others claim that it was the Spanish and Portuguese invaders who brought it with them. Perhaps the most famous tale was the one of Queen Victoria offering tea to a prominent representative of Morocco.
Regardless of the backstory, mint tea is undeniably a mainstay in every Moroccan home. Yet, stepping into a riad, guests often do not realise that the tea leaves from which the tea is prepared are not actually grown locally. Non-tea-producing countries too play a part in driving sustainability efforts by ensuring that the tea they import have Fair Trade Certification. In fact, Morocco is one of the largest tea importers in the world and has a say in how tea trade can benefit community wellbeing, individual empowerment and environmental stewardship.
Our Moroccan partner and friend demonstrates the art of brewing traditional mint tea.
In the video above, Karim, our Moroccan friend and partner, graciously welcomes us to partake in the art of brewing traditional mint tea. Tea brewing is an integral aspect of Moroccan culture and one as important as the beverage itself. Having learnt the art of tea preparation from his ancestors, Karim pours – with precision and detail – the tea from a height as an indication of respect towards his guests.
For the Moroccans, tea represents generosity of spirit, hospitality, and friendship. An invitation to partake is by extension a welcome of the highest order. With an exclamation of b’Saha! (meaning ‘good luck’), let’s toast to the hopes of one day joining Karim and his family in imbibing traditional Moroccan mint tea in their beautiful riad when travel borders reopen.
The ubiquity of tea in Japan today belies the elitist associations it bore back when it was first introduced to Japan in the 700s. Tea used to be a luxury product only available in small amounts to priests and noblemen as a medicinal beverage. Collecting and showing off prized tea utensils was also popular among the affluent.
Tea ceremonies, where only a few guests gather in a small room to enjoy the tea served by the host, were thus developed with an emphasis on etiquette and spiritual discipline. They have been ritualised to the extent that the act of preparing and serving tea consists of a series of predefined movements and gestures.
In a traditional tea ceremony, having tea is an entire experience that includes the architecture, landscape, tea utensils, paintings, flower arrangements and more. Quality tea is defined not only by an excellent taste, but also by its environmental footprint all through the various stages of its production.
If you’re looking to indulge in an authentic Japanese tea experience, do consider establishments that have farm-direct relationships and provide the tea farmers who make a conscious effort to help preserve the natural environment where tea is grown with a stable income.
Here in Singapore, you can find a unique blend known as Nanyang Tea, with history dating back to the end of the Ming Dynasty. It was specially created to suit the warm, humid tropical climate and it’s often enjoyed with local delicacies such as Bat Kut Teh.
These stories remind us how tea can play a significant role in our lifestyle – from production through to consumption. Traditionally enjoyed warm, the consumption of tea has evolved into many variations in recent years such as the Taiwanese Bubble Tea, Cold Brew Tea and Kombuchas (fermented tea).
In commemoration of International Tea Day, let us be mindful and share our sense of gratitude towards the passionate tea growers and artisans who dedicate their time to preserving our connection with tea.
For lovers of tea, consider the abovementioned “tea nations” for your first post-pandemic outbound journey. Learn the way tea is produced and brewed, and embrace the rich history behind each tea culture. Get in touch with us to embark on your journey of discovery.