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Green Tea: The Early Years

When I was a younger feller I was not particularly aware of tea. But I knew enough to know that “tea” and black tea were one and the same. I’m sure there must have been a few people here in the United States – even in those unenlightened days – who drank other types of tea. But in this part of the world the recent fad for green tea and less popular types like oolong, puerh, white, and yellow has only come around in recent years.

China Tea Sampler (ETS image)
China Tea Sampler (ETS image)

Of course, in the greater scheme of things, green tea is hardly a flash in the pan. It’s likely that something like it has been around as long as there’s been tea. But I thought it might be interesting to try to look at some of its origins. In an old tea book that I wrote about for this site recently, a book that was published in 1868, the author noted that “Green Tea” began to be used in Great Britain around 1715.

Of course, given that green tea is closest to tea in its natural state, it stands to reason that it has been around longer than the other more processed types of tea like black, oolong, and puerh. In The True History of Tea, authors Victor Mair and Erling Hoh, write that loose leaf green tea had become the most popular type in China in the late Song dynasty, which ended in the latter years of the thirteenth century. Among the other types of tea that were popular at the time were powdered tea and wax tea. The latter was made by shaping tea leaves into a cake – as is often done with puerh – and then sealing it with camphor or some other type of aromatic oil.

Of course, when you talk about green tea you have to mention Japan, where they produce some of the best green teas and where black tea is something of a curiosity that’s only been produced in small amounts for the last century and a half. Tea is thought to have come to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty, sometime during the eighth century. But the sencha variety of green tea, which is one of the green teas that are so closely associated with Japan, actually came about during the early Ming dynasty in China, thanks to some changes in how green tea was processed.

In Europe, contrary to the aforementioned date of 1715, it’s likely that green tea was present from the very beginning, about a century earlier. In 1702, as Mair and Hoh relate, a cargo of tea shipped in from China consisted primarily of various types of green tea. But, as a harbinger of things to come, particularly in Britain, a portion of the cargo was given over to black tea.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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