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Home > Information Index > Early Attempts at Cultivating China Tea

Spring, 2005 Newsletter - "The Struggle over Camellia Sinensis"

The Rolling Process

From Robert Fortune's Three Year's Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China. London: John Murray, 1847.

Part 1: Early Attempts at Cultivating China Tea

   In their book All the Tea in China, Kit Chow and Ione Kramer narrow the number of teas currently available to "between 350 and 500", of which some 50 popular types are described with some detail.1 The teas in Chow and Kramer's list are often produced in a variety of grades, and many types are produced in more than one province. Considering each of these variations unique might seem pedantic to the casual observer, yet closer comparison suggests that variant forms of a single type of tea often deserve separate classification, and are invariably given different names.

   Most of our readers are aware of the fact that all real tea comes from a single plant species, Camellia sinensis. Most are also aware of the fact that the manufacturing process, not the variety of tea plant, determines whether the tea will be green tea, Oolong tea, or black tea (also called red tea when referring to China Congou). These two fundamental facts, however, lead to only three broad classifications of manufactured styles of tea, ignoring white teas and Pu-erh teas, as well as scented teas (e.g. jasmine). This can also lead to the erroneous conclusion that the variety of C. s. used to make tea has little to do with the final product. However, it's not that simple.

   If you consider that cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohlrabi and cauliflower belong to the species Brassica oleracea, it is easy to see that varieties of a plant species can have distinct appearance and flavor. Among the varieties of Camellia sinensis, one finds differences of comparable proportions.

   Botanists are still wavering on the number of different varieties of C. s. which exist. The simplest division would classify C. s. into two varietal groupings, C. s. assamica and C. s. bohea (a.k.a. C. s. sinensis). These are often referred to simply as Assam and China varieties. There are hundreds of strains of C. s., both natural and hybrid, that defy simple classification. To quote Ukers, "In the case of any widely cultivated plant, it is usual for the growers to recognize many strains differing slightly in their qualities, and, for commercial reasons, well worthy of distinction, which, however, are not capable of botanical definition; that is, they do not possess sufficient constant characteristics to permit their separation with scientific exactness."2

   The evolutionary forces of millions of years produced the different natural strains of C. s. Thousands of years of experimentation taught the Chinese which variety of the tea plant produced the best teas. Some were found best suited for green teas, some for black, and some for the semi-fermented teas. In some instances the discoveries have been quite recent. According to Chow and Kramer, China's Qimen (Keemun) county, in An Hui province, first switched from green tea production to black tea in the late 19th century. This newcomer to the world of teas was an immediate success as an export tea. The finest Keemun teas are considered by many connoisseurs to be the best black teas in the world.

   Tea is one of China's great gifts to the world. Were it not for the Chinese, Camellia sinensis might be little more than an inferior variety of a flowering evergreen shrub. The flower of C. s. is unspectacular by comparison to those of many other camellias. Yet because it is the source of tea, C. s. has been one of the most aggressively studied plants in history. The interest in C. s. rose to near panic when the British Empire was threatened with the loss of their only supply of tea in the early 19th century.

   Tea was first introduced to Europe by the Dutch in 1610.3 In 1669 the British East India Company brought 143 pounds of tea to England. Nine years later a shipment of merely 4,717 pounds "glutted the market for several years".4 It was a classic supply/demand problem. With a pound of tea selling for roughly a month's wages, the demand for the product among the average wage earner was nonexistent.

   The commerce of tea during the next century and a half provides abundant material for several articles. In the interest of maintaining our focus, we simply note that worldwide demand for China tea grew steadily as the product became affordable. Largely due to the practices of the British East India Company, England became one of the largest importers of tea. By the year 1834 annual imports reached 32 million pounds! Inevitably, a serious imbalance of trade developed; there was simply nothing being produced by England that was of commercial interest to China.

   These not being the most altruistic of times, one unwholesome solution to the imbalance was illicit drug trafficking. The escalating demand for tea was financed with silver earned from the sale of opium which was grown in British controlled areas of India. In essence, China tea was traded for British East India opium.

   If not officially sanctioned by the British government, the opium trade was at least ignored. In 1833, China chose not to renew the expiring treaty with England and it would only be a matter of time before war ignited. This is precisely what followed when a large consignment of British opium was destroyed by the Chinese in 1839.

   Cultivation and manufacture of tea in territories under the control of the British Empire had been attempted for decades prior to the outbreak of the infamous Opium Wars. Several early attempts to bring plants to Europe failed, either because the plants perished in transit or because the plants which were transported successfully turned out to be camellias of another species. By the year 1763, the French Academy of Sciences had determined "that the tea bush was so peculiar to China it could not be raised elsewhere...".5 Concurrent to this declaration, however, Swedish and English botanists were achieving limited success in the cultivation of C. s. in botanical gardens. Success in cultivating tea on a commercial basis under the control of European management would be nearly a century away. The difficulty had less to do with the idiosyncratic nature of the tea plant than with the obstacles placed in its path.

   What was so enigmatic about growing tea? After all, C. s. assamica was indigenous to India. Why not simply cultivate native tea in India rather than opium poppies? Wild Assam bushes were thought to be inferior, and it would take many years for the British to develop indigenous India tea. Meanwhile, the objective was to grow China varieties in India. Equally important was learning the mysteries of the processes used to make the finished leaf. However, the thought of cultivation and production of tea by "foreign devils" was even more loathsome to the Chinese than continued trade, so the road to success for the British was fraught with obstacles. The Chinese guarded their tea secrets and seedlings closely.

   In the next issue of the Quarterly, we will see how perseverance prevailed, and tea ultimately became the premier export crop of India, Ceylon, and other countries. Annual imports to England alone would eventually reach half a billion pounds.

1Chow, Kit and Kramer, Ione. All the Tea in China. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1990. p.78.

2Ukers, Wm.H. All About Tea. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1935. vol.1, p.500.

3Ukers, Wm.H. The Romance of Tea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936. p.52.

4Ukers. All About Tea. vol.1, p.73.

5Ibid. vol.1, p.206.

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