Steeped to Perfection Part 2: A Tea by Any Name…
Updated: May 4
In our previous blog, we defined what tea is, and how they are generally classified. We also discussed the varieties of tea.
This time, let’s explore how the names of certain teas came about; as well as dwell a little with the history of this wonderful beverage. Let’s begin your second lesson in relation to tea.
The very first tea leaves were produced in the Yunnan province in China and all tea comes originally from that country. The word "tea" originated from there as well.
There is actually a story on where the word Tea came from.
Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas
It was 1662 and Catherine of Braganza had just arrived in England from Portugal. She won the hand of Charles II and was to be the new Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland. When she arrived, her dowry consisted of spices, money, riches, and caskets labeled Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas.
Theory suggests that this was later abbreviated to T-E-A.
Tea has only been used in the country as a form of medicine but the Portuguese at this time had been importing tea to Europe since the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Catherine had grown up drinking tea as her preferred beverage.
The ladies of the court were of course intrigued by this use of tea and followed suit. Soon enough Catherine’s fondness made it fashionable in England.
An excerpt from Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (1840), mentions the following regarding the Queen and her association with the beverage:
“… the Duchess of York came from London in her barge, to offer her homage to her royal sister-in-law. When she landed, King Charles received her at the garden gate by the waterside, and leading her by the hand, conducted her to the queen, who received her in her chamber. The duchess offered to kiss her hand, but the queen prevented her, by raising her in her arms and saluting her. The royal family then seated themselves near the queen’s bed, and conversed with her. It is probable that they then partook of Catherine’s favorite beverage, tea, which became a fashionable refreshment in England soon after her marriage with Charles II, though not exactly introduced by her.”.
Despite this tale of how Catherine influenced tea, that abbreviation of Transporte de Ervas Aromatics as the origin of the name tea is just a theory.
Tea by Any Other Name
Dialect played a huge part in this beverage being named tea.
Since all tea originated in China, the name 'tea' came from there as well. In mandarin, tea is called cha.
The first-ever international traders of tea, the Dutch purchased their tea from the port of Amoy in the Fujian province. In this dialect tea is pronounced te (pronounced "tay").
Since they did not have a name for the leaves themselves they co-opted the word they heard, but pronounced it like the Old English word thee.
This resulted in everyone they traded the product with calling it the same.
The Germans started calling it thee whereas the Hungarians, Spaniards, Italians, Danish, and Norwegians called it te. In French tea grew to be called thé, tee in Finnish, teja in Latvia, and tey in the Tamil language.
The English referred to cha as tea. Being a widely used language and it spread far and wide becoming what we call it today.
Of course the Dutch were not the only ones who traded in tea. Remember that the Silk Road covers China as well and it has grown roots in the territories it passed through.
In India and the Hindi language as well as the Persians and in the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan tea is referred to as cha the same way as the Chinese.
This is true with the Japanese as well.
The people in the Middle East have their own name for tea: shai in Arabic. Tea is ja in Tibet, the Russians call it chai and it is chay in Turkish.
In the Philippines, we call it tsaa.
Wherever it landed, tea took a life of its own. The stories on how tea came to be adopted by these cultures are interesting in themselves and we’ll touch on them in a later blog.
Like Naming a Child
So how come I have names such as Darjeeling and Earl Grey and should English Breakfast be only taken in the morning?
As it is, there are around 3,000 varieties of real tea which would be categorized into one of the main 6 we discussed in the previous entry. Each of these have their own characteristics and naming tea can be quite confusing because there are a lot of factors to consider.
Region name or where the leaf came from. Darjeeling is a famous one. Darjeeling, India was where Sir Robert Fortune took the tea trees and workers he stole from China in his covert mission under orders of the British East India Company. Well discuss more about this in a later blog.
History/ Legend – some teas have a story or a legend behind their names. Here are a few examples:
The Tie Guanyin is named after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Guanyin. It is said that the goddess gifted this tea to a farmer after he helped repair her temple.
Long Jing means Dragon Well. It is named after a village and the spring there. The ancient people there believed that there was a dragon living in their well hence the name.
Lover’s Leap Ceylon is from a tea garden in the foothills directly below the Lovers Leap waterfall in Nuwara Eilya district. The Lover’s Leap waterfall bears a tragic legend of two lovers, a prince and a beautiful maiden who were forbidden to marry and so they leaped together into the waterfall pledging their eternal love for each other.
Description of pluck shape – some leaves have a distinct shape when plucked and the tea are named after these. Guapian is such an example. It means Melon Seed referring to the shape of the leaves when plucked.
Association of appearance – some tea leaves are named after the appearance they have like the Baihao Yinzhen Tea translated as White-hair Silver Needle which is a white tea. It is called that because the leaves remain upright in water when steeped.
Modified product form - the final product can be dramatically different from the leaf form. Take for example matcha or moa cha which is a green powder packed into cakes made from ground up tea leaves.
Production process - teas can be named after the way they were created like Sencha or steamed tea
Marketing name – some are simply made up names for marketing purposes. Where do you think English Breakfast came from?
Cultivar name. Cultivars are a specific group of tea trees or plants that have been bred by farmers for desirable characteristics. Much like how rice is handled in the Philippines with specific characteristics such as hardiness against rain or the heat of the sun, the same is true for tea. More on this below.
Like what was mentioned earlier, cultivars are a group of tea plants that have been bred by farmers because of their desirable characteristics. Like rice, these characteristics can be hardiness toward a specific weather or climate or they can have a distinct flavor when steeped.
There are cultivars are preferred for specific types of tea but keep in mind that you can make any kind of tea from any cultivar. The types of teas generally vary only by how they are processed.
And that’s how tea got its name as well as the names of all its variants. Your second lesson in tea is now complete.
As you may have observed in the past two articles, the entire Tea Industry evolved from farmers just plucking leaves and drying them into a multi-billion dollar industry today. It’s amazing to think that wars were caused by one unassuming plant. There was even a time when a covert operation was done in order to ensure that those in power and those that had more than enough wealth could gain so much more at the expense of human lives.
It is undeniable that tea has become an intrinsic part of humanity’s history and we will discuss how it has affected us as a people and as a civilization in the next blog, here at CentrAsia Tours.