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Chinese Tea-making History

Tea is consumed more than any other drink worldwide except for water. People of all ages have historically enjoyed the leaves from the Camellia Sinensis tree as a beverage as well as for its medicinal properties. Modern research has shown that tea does indeed have many health affecting qualities; and numerous publications extolling the benefits of tea have contributed to the tremendous growth in its consumption in the U.S.
Historically, tea's origins date back to around 2700 BC. It is thought to have first been discovered in the mountainous areas of China's far western Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. It was originally taken as a detoxifying medicine though it grew to great social prominence during the Tang (620-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD) Dynasties. In addition to tea's attributed health benefits, the high level of "tea culture" was appealing to people outside of China as well. Since the fifth century AD, tea has been exported by land and sea throughout Asia and reached Europe in 1610. It was Dutch traders that first brought tea to Europe but the British who greatly developed it, transplanting it to India in the early 1800's.

Tea aficionados are often surprised to learn that all tea comes from the same source: the Camilla Sinensis bush. While there are hundreds of varieties of Chinese teas, most fall into four basic categories. Reputed to provide the most health benefits, white tea is made from immature tea leaves that are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened. Green teas are not fermented during processing and thus retain the original color of the tea leaves. The most famous green tea is the expensive Dragon Well tea, grown in the hillsides of Hanghou. Also known as red tea, black teas are made from fermented leaves, which explains their darker colour. Popular varieties of black tea include Bo lei, a Cantonese tea often drunk with dim sum and luk on - a milder tea that proves popular with the older generation. Finally, oolong teas are partially fermented, resulting in a black-green tea. Examples of oolong tea include Soi sin, a bitter tasting brew cultivated in the Fukien province.

There is also a fourth category known as "scented teas", which are made by mixing various flowers and petals with green or oolong teas. The best known among these is jasmine tea. White tea, made with unripened tea leaves that are still covered with downy, silvery fuzz, is growing in popularity.

While most of us have neither a pavilion nor a lily pond conveniently situated in our garden, we can still indulge our penchant for this centuries-old beverage. With a little practice it's easy to brew the perfect cup of tea. Budding fortune-tellers who eschew tea bags can hone their skills in the art of tasseomancy.