A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Tea

While the history of tea is long, spanning thousands of years, it is commonly believed that it originated in China as a medicinal drink and so it is that we refer to China as the ‘home of tea’. It made its way to Japan in around 6th century AD, when Japanese monks returned from their travels to China, enlightened and inspired by what they had learned. Carrying tea seeds with them, these were eventually imported and cultivated under the encouragement of Emperor Saga.

Tea ceremonies in both countries have developed and flourished over the centuries since, as have the ways in which the tea leaves are processed, resulting in the unique differences between the two, joined by their birthplace in China, but translated in their own cultures, and beyond.

Sourcing

Map of China with Provinces

China

Offering the greatest variety of teas in the world, production in China is, without question, the original source of tea knowledge and carries some of the rarest, sought-after and expensive types. Staggering scenes befall the visitors of any of the tea-producing regions, each unique in their own terroir – from sub-tropical Yunnan with its snow-tipped mountains, deep gorges, rivers and jungle, to the rocky cliffs of Wuyi, Fujian – informing the flavour profiles of the tea leaves that result from feeding on such land, and their subsequent preparation.

Map of Japan with Prefectures

Japan

While China is home to all six varieties of tea types, Japan predominantly cultivates unique green teas. Ours are sourced towards the south of the country, from the low-lying tea gardens of Kagoshima ruffled by oceanic breezes – and with fertile earth rich from the ash of nearby volcanoes – to the natural and varied beauty of Shizouka, where you’re as likely to find coastline as you are rivers, lakes and mountains.

To find out more about our tea-sourcing regions visit our World of Tea.

Processing

A Handful of Tea Leaves from our 2011 Sourcing Trip

China

Contrary to Japan, China has refined the art of processing tea leaves in many different ways – from roasted, rolled oolong tea, to the smoke of Lapsang – by techniques handed down through the generations.

Our Dragon Well is a beautiful example of a tea baked by hand in a hot wok, pushed against the sides of the pan in dry heat giving it an iconic flat finish and wonderfully grassy colour. The final flavour is velvety and hazel sweet.

The richer Chinese Oolong Teas are often roasted over charcoal to finish the drying process. It’s what gives our Phoenix Honey Orchid it’s characteristic richness with a touch of acidity.

Chinese Green Teas are generally sweet, lively, and bursting with delicate spring flavour.

Smokehouse for the Organic Bohea Lapsang

Japan

Refining the art of production into their own particular way, the Japanese were the innovators of tea bushes grown not only within the shade of trees, but also the processing of tea leaves by the means of steam. The result? Rich, creamy, and vegetal-intense green teas, such as Sencha or Gyokuro, and the unique taste of Matcha, ground laboriously into a fine powder but well worth it for the sweet, soft textures this process elicits.

The significant difference between Chinese and Japanese Tea is that the latter is fixed by steaming, whereas the former is fixed* with drier heats such as pan-frying.

Japanese Green Teas are rich in umami and almost savoury in flavour.

*To find out more about fixing – or ‘kill green’ – visit our green tea education page.

Top Tea Picks from China and Japan

Sichuan Dew

CHINA

Sichuan Dew is a hand-picked and steamed green tea from the humid plains of central Sichuan. Many would more commonly associate steaming with Japanese green teas, whereas in actual fact the steaming process originated in China. The steaming process enhances the fresh grassy notes and natural sweetness of the leaf.

Organic Bohea Lapsang Loose Tea

Organic Bohea Lapsang

CHINA

The steep, rocky mountains of Wuyi in Fujian are the home of this famous tea. Drying the leaves slowly over barkless pine wood fires gives our Bohea Lapsang a soft, lingering smokiness, making it an incredibly easy-to-slip-down and sophisticated after dinner tea.

Loose Leaf Sencha Tea

Sencha

JAPAN

Picked in May on the banks of the sasama river in Kawane, Shizuoka, our Sencha is expertly steamed and rolled to give a satisfyingly thick texture and sweet, grassy-fresh taste. The tea has a deliciously refreshing fragrance and taste and is best infused with 70°C or even slightly cooler water.

Frothy Matcha in a Glass

Matcha

JAPAN

Our Matcha Supreme green tea has a deliciously sweet and deep flavour. Its vivid, bright green colour is typical of Matcha tea produced using the finest Sencha base leaves. Producing Matcha tea is famously labour intensive – it can take up to one hour to grind 40 grams of this tea, but the result, when made correctly is well worth the effort.

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