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The Green Tea Revolution

Ancient China, Japan, and Then the World!

For thousands of years, tea has been baked, boiled, steamed, blended, filtered, steeped, and poured in a myriad incarnations. The distinctive “liquor” from the evergreen plant Camellia sinensis (and variety assamica on the Indian subcontinent) has not only been long sought after for its healthful properties but also simply enjoyed for centuries as a refreshing and stimulating beverage. Tea comes in many forms, but only leaves plucked from the species Camellia sinensis can be officially called tea. Furthermore, how those leaves are processed and prepared after harvest determines the type of tea. And while some varieties of the tea plant are better suited for a particular final product, all tea plants could potentially end up as one of the many types easily recognizable in the store today: white, green, oolong, and black.

The type of tea called “green tea” has long been consumed by the Chinese and Japanese almost exclusively, with cultural ties dating to the first millennium A.D. and, in particular, to tea ceremonies from the twelfth century. Gradually, green tea has become more widely consumed in the West, where black tea remains the most popular type. This increase in green tea’s popularity is due in part to the special heath characteristics that have become more widely known through extensive scientific study. Green tea is minimally processed and has a long tradition of consumption in the East. In the West, however, tea has competed with coffee for a place in the mug for a long time and, like the surge of interest in specialty coffee of recent years, the specialty tea industry is currently undergoing a revolution of its own. In particular, American interest in loose-leaf tea has spurred an influx of high-quality and exotic-sounding single-origin teas and blends, hand selected by specialty producers and tea sommeliers of the modern teahouses.

Ancient Legend, Etymology, and Green Tea Production

Records of the consumption of tea date to the third century B.C., but tea was clearly consumed prior to that. Though many stories abound, an interesting one suggests a plausible scenario wherein a scholar and herbalist named Shen Nung was boiling water in order to safely drink it in 2737 B.C. According to the legend, Shen Nung was resting under a tree while his pot of water boiled when a breeze stirred overhead branches causing leaves to drop into the water. The resulting “brew” was refreshing and stimulating (Pettigrew 2004).

Textual evidence through the third century A.D. suggests tea was administered for increasing alertness, as well as alleviating the effects of depression, digestive, and nervous conditions. It appears the primary usage of the fresh green tea leaves was medicinal until early cultivation and processing developed, especially into in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. And though producers had started steaming tea leaves, they were usually still baked and compressed into cakes and infused with strong flavors such as onions, ginger, and orange.

About this time, tea cultivation and trade rapidly increased, leading to a period considered the “golden age” of tea during the Tang Dynasty of A.D. 618-906. Steaming of the leaves became standard practice, along with clearly defined rules for processing the leaves and brewing the mild, subtly sweet beverage that was now consumed both for pleasure as well “as for its restorative powers” (Pettigrew 2004). The tea rules and ceremony developed during its golden age lead to publication of the earliest treatise on tea by tea master Lu Yu (733-804) called Cha Chang or The Classic of Tea. Lu Yu’s work transformed the process of tea into an art, and the manual became the standard for cultivation and production in China as well as the foundation of the kind of ceremony that would eventually emerge in Japan (Moxham 2003).

Modern words for tea descend primarily from two common ancestors: cha and te (pronounced “tay”). Cha is the Japanese word for tea, as in sencha, which is the primary type of tea produced in Japan, accounting for three-quarters of total production (Hara 2001). Cha originates from the Mandarin dialect in China that evolved into ch’a in Cantonese and passed via direct trade routes into Japanese, Persian, and Hindi (and later evolved into shai in Arabic and chai in Russian and elsewhere). Cha also passed into the Portuguese language through trade at Macau, where Portuguese settlers arrived in the sixteenth century. However, other languages across Europe adopted variations of the Amoy Chinese dialect’s te, which Dutch traders first heard in the early seventeenth century. For example, the Dutch and Germans use thee, the British use tea, while the Italians, Spanish, and Scandinavians use te (Pettigrew 2004). Finally, “green tea” refers directly to the color of the final processed product and has parallel in other countries, such as the Japanese ryokucha meaning, literally, “green tea” (Hara 2001).

Indeed, green tea is minimally oxidized and, therefore, largely retains the original color of the tea leaf, while oolong and black teas have undergone significant fermentation and through oxidation have darkened in color. Most of the world’s green tea production occurs in China and Japan, though there are dozens of tea-producing countries in the world. Some green tea production occurs on estates and farms in Taiwan (Formosan tea) as well as in Australia, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Even Indian Darjeeling estates known primarily for their black tea have begun producing green tea. This new Darjeeling tea, like other green teas from around the world, may see an increase in production with current trends in consumption that have arisen as a result of the interest in green tea’s health benefits (Pettigrew 2004).

Cultivation, Process, and Ceremony

Though mechanization has replaced handpicking in some large estates and lower-quality tea production, for quality purposes the standards of harvesting established during the Tang Dynasty have remained largely intact. It was also during the Tang period that subtler flavors were merged with tea, including the essential oils of jasmine and lotus. Tea had become the undisputed national drink of China, and only green tea was produced until the Ming Dynasty which began in 1368. Black and flower-scented teas and loose-leaf styles emerged to help preserve delicate green teas that quickly deteriorated in quality. Through fermentation, producers could halt decomposition and though the tea took on different qualities than its green counterparts, the flavors were still much more subtle, delicate, and exotic than the baked compressed cakes of earlier centuries.

For the most part, the harvesting of quality green tea is simply described as “two leaves and a bud” plucked from every new shoot. Camellia sinensis, most suitable to hot-and-humid climates, is cultivated in low, table-high rows for easy harvesting of its dark green, shiny, leathery leaves (Pettigrew 2004). Generally speaking, higher altitudes result in higher quality teas...and when combined with the proper humidity, the result is flavorful tea from slow-growth trees. In other words, as with wine and coffee, terroir (or the total culmination of factors such as soil, climate, and weather conditions from individual seasons or harvests) is critical to how the connoisseur perceives the final tea product. While fermentation made export of tea easier (and a principle factor in the West developing a taste for black tea), green tea remains the preferred tea in the East and is referred to as “unfermented” tea.

In China, leaves are allowed to dry naturally before being briefly roasted in pans (or sometimes steamed) so the natural moisture evaporates from the leaves. The heat treatment halts fermentation and softens the tea in order to be rolled by hand on bamboo wicker tables to twist the leaves and help remove additional moisture. Rolled leaves are then again hot roasted with constant movement and then rolled again, a drying process that takes about another hour. The final loose-leaf tea product is now separated and graded. The Japanese employ a steaming method along a moving belt before rolling, twisting, and drying the leaves over repeated cycles, sometimes by hand, but often mechanized (which is also true in China, but to a lesser extent).

The Japanese green tea ceremony called chanoyu emerged because of renewed cultural relations with China in the twelfth century. At that time, the Song Dynasty ruled China, and compressed tea cakes were finely ground and whisked with boiling water. This custom later died out in China but persevered in Japan, evolving to become “a precise pattern of behavior designed to create a quiet interlude during which the hosts and guests strive for spiritual refreshment and harmony with the universe” (Pettigrew 2004).

Grand Master Sen Sōshitsu’s (1923 - ) dream to make chanoyu an international cultural phenomenon has been helped by the availability of tools and new translations of old texts. Special shade-grown, high-quality tea called tencha is powdered and whisked with hot water to make the frothy matcha. Tea preparation, however, is only part of the total experience in hospitality and tranquility; the ceremony can take up to four hours encompassing numerous disciplines and courses. Sen Sōshitsu’s primary work has been to make available the teaching of Sen Rikyū (1522-1591), the father of the ceremony. The art and ceremony of Sen Rikyū draws heavily on Taoism and Zen Buddhism for purposes of harmony and balance while implementing time-honored Chinese traditions of preparation dating to The Classic of Tea. The overarching mission is the promotion of world peace through a spiritual aesthetic that encourages simplicity and humility (Sen 1998). Today, matcha is widely available worldwide for use in ceremony as well as for new culinary applications from baked goods to iced lattes.

Heath Benefits of Green Tea

Production and trade of tea has been extensively conducted for hundreds of years. And while tea has been increasingly consumed over the centuries, making it the single-most consumed beverage in the world, green tea research has been extensively conducted only in recent years. The well-publicized results of such research have been available only since the early 1990s but as a result, green tea appears to many in the West to be a recent phenomenon (Pettigrew 2004). People have been prescribing tea for a number of ailments for hundreds of years, as well as consuming it daily as a refreshing beverage that is also believed to be preventive of future health problems. The result of recent research is scientific evidence of green tea’s benefits on human health understood by generations of people around the world. Its most notable health benefit is its powerful antioxidant properties which, at the molecular level, help prevent cell damage from certain oxidation actions in the body. Chemical substances called polyphenols are found in numerous plants, but some polyphenols are found only in tea leaves and are called tea catechins.

Though catechins have been found in other plant derivatives such as cacao and grapes and pomegranates, those found in tea have been proven to be among the most effective antioxidants known. Tea catechins have also been linked to helping fight bacterial infections and the formation of plaque, have been shown to be an antiviral agent and regulator of cholesterol, and have proven useful in the prevention of some of the major causes of death, from diabetes to cancer to heart disease. Perhaps as a result of this research, tea is no longer strictly for drinking enjoyment. Green tea and its extractives have become widely used to enrich energy drinks, juices, vitamins, and countless other food products all over the world. And industrial applications for tea have also emerged with tea catechins being used as preservatives in food, cosmetics, and deodorizers, again especially due to their antioxidant and antibacterial properties. (Hara 2001).

In its purest, most unadulterated form, brewed tea (called “the liquor” by professional tea tasters) steeped from carefully harvested and prized green tea leaves from a delicately maintained tree is treated with the same respect as a prized wine, an aged Scotch, or a rare coffee. Moreover, as studies continue to acclaim green tea for its health benefits and connoisseurs seek out specialty teas, the tree with ancient roots will continue to be sought after by more and more people and green tea will continue to find new homes throughout the world.

-- Posted March 1, 2008


Hara, Yukihiko. 2001. Green Tea Heath Benefits and Applications. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Moxham, Roy. 2003. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Pettigrew, Jane. 2004. The Tea Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Sen, Sōshitsu. 1998. The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū. Translated by V. Dixon Morris. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.