History of Green Tea: A Trip through Time

Tea plant

Of all the tea types, green tea has an extraordinarily long and complex history, far beyond what historical records can adequately cover. Tracing its development from what evidence we do have, however, gives us a fascinating cross-section of tradition and culture.

The discovery of tea in China is legendarily placed around 3000 BCE, by Shen Nong, the divine cultivator. Although the veracity of the date is impossible to confirm, written records indicate that tea was certainly being consumed for medicinal purposes by 59 BCE. Preparation would have been minimal compared to today’s processing, as tea leaves were simply plucked, ground, and then boiled with other herbs and spices into a thick and bitter concoction.

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), tea consumption was commonplace throughout the empire, gaining popularity first in the imperial courts, then spreading across the countryside and among the nomadic peoples in the north and west. By this point, tea leaves were processed after plucking by being steamed to stop oxidation, and then pounded into compressed cakes. Pieces of these cakes would be broken off when needed, and ground into a fine powder, which was then whipped into hot water (much like Japanese matcha, which was developed from this tradition). It was during this era that Chinese scholar Lu Yu wrote his Classic of Tea, an extensive treatise on tea types, philosophy, cultivation, and preparation, which laid the foundation for Chinese tea culture as we know it. Some of China’s most famous teas are mentioned in this work, including Dragon Well (Longjing) and Liu An Gua Pian (Melon Seed Tea). Green tea drinking became a Chinese institution, and gradually spread to its neighboring countries of Japan and Korea, whose people would go on to develop their own tea cultivars and tea-drinking cultures.

Tea fields in Fuding, China. In the history of green tea, this is one of the oldest growing regions.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) saw the rise in popularity of loose-leaf green tea, sometimes blended with ingredients such as onion, pickle juice, ginger, or orange peel. Throughout the long eras of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1279-1644 CE), loose leaf green tea gradually began to dominate the Chinese market, and producers began to pan-fry leaves to stop oxidation instead of steaming them.

By the time tea was introduced to Western merchants in the 16th century, the green tea being produced by China was almost entirely the same as the beverage we know today – the process of many centuries of careful refinement and long tradition.

By: Jen Coate

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