Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Geography of the tea-shrub — Best tea districts of China — Names of tea-plants — Black and green tea made from the same variety — My Chinamen asked to make tea from Pongamia glabra — They succeed! — Difference between black and green tea depends upon manipulation — Method of making green tea — of making black — Difference in the manipulation of the two kinds Mr. Warrington's remarks on this subject — A familiar illustration — The tea-plant — Inferior teas made from Thea bohea — Best teas made from Thea viridis — The Woo-e-shan variety — The tea-plant affected by climate and reproduction — Tea cultivation in America and Australia — In English gardens.
THE cultivation of the tea-shrub, although confined, until very lately, to the eastern parts of Asia, is carried on over a large tract of country. Thunberg informs us that it grows plentifully in Japan both in a wild and cultivated state, and Dr. Wallich says that it is found in Cochin China. I have met with it in cultivation in China, from Canton in the south up to the 31st degree of north latitude, and Mr. Reeves says it is found in the province of Shan-tung, near the city of Tang-chow-foo, in latitude 36° 30' north.
The principal tea districts of China, however, and those which supply the greater portion of the teas exported to Europe and America, lie between the 25th and 31st degrees of north latitude, and the best districts are those between 27° and 31°.
The plant in cultivation about Canton, from which the Canton teas are made, is known to botanists as the Thea bohea, while the more northern variety, found in the green-tea country, has been called Thea viridis. The first appears to have been named upon the supposition that all the black teas of the Bohea mountains were obtained from this species, and the second was called viridis because it furnished the green teas of commerce. These names seem to have misled the public, and hence many persons, until a few years back, firmly believed that black tea could be made only from Thea bohea, and green tea only from Thea viridis.
In my 'Wanderings in China,' published in 1846, I made some observations upon the plants from which tea is made in different parts of China. While I acknowledged that the Canton plant, known to botanists as Thea bohea, appeared distinct from the more northern one called Thea viridis, I endeavoured to show that both black and green teas could be made from either, and that the difference in the appearance of these teas, in so far as colour was concerned, depended upon manipulation, and upon that only. In proof of this I remarked that the black-tea plant found by me near Foo-chow-foo, at no great distance from the Bohea hills, appeared identical with the green-tea plant of Chekiang.
These observations were met by the objection, that, although I had been in many of the tea districts near the coast, yet I had not seen those greater ones inland which furnish the teas of commerce. And this was perfectly true. The same objection can hardly be urged now, however, as I have visited both the green-tea country of Hwuy-chow, and the black-tea districts about Woo-e-shan, and during these long journeys I have seen no reason to alter the opinions I had previously formed upon the subject.
It is quite true that the Chinese rarely make the two kinds of tea in one district, but this is more for the sake of convenience and from custom than for any other reason. The workmen, too, generally make that kind of tea best with which they have had most practice. But while this is generally the case in the great tea districts, there are some exceptions. It is now well known that the fine Moning districts near the Poyang Lake, which are daily rising in importance on account of the superior character of their black teas, formerly produced nothing else but green teas. At Canton green and black teas are made from the Thea bohea at the pleasure of the manufacturer, and according to demand.
But I must relate an occurrence that took place on my arrival at Calcutta, which is more curious than the making of black and green teas from one variety or species of the tea-plant. I was then on my way to the Government tea plantations in the north-west provinces of India, with six Chinese tea-manufacturers, and a large supply of plants and implements used in making tea. Dr. Falconer, of the Calcutta garden, with whom we were staying for a few days, expressed a wish to see the process of tea manufacture, and asked me to communicate his wishes to the Chinamen. He also invited the late Mr. Bethune and some other friends to witness the operation. I told the Chinese what was proposed, and desired them to unpack a sufficient number of implements for the purpose. This was soon done, a little furnace built, and two pans fixed above the fireplaces, exactly as they are seen in the manufactories in China.
Thus far everything went on well, but where were the tea-leaves to be procured? There were none in the Calcutta garden, nor in any place nearer than the Himalayas. "How can we make tea without tea-leaves?" said the astonished Chinamen. I now explained to them that Dr. Falconer and his friends wanted to see the mode of manipulation only, that the article so made was to look at, not to drink, and that they must go out into the garden and try to find a substitute for tea-leaves. This explanation being deemed satisfactory, they went out to examine the trees of the garden. In a short space of time they returned bringing several parcels of leaves, one of which proved to belong to Pongamia glabra, and seemed the most likely to suit the purpose. Orders were now given, to some of the natives to collect a large quantity of these leaves and bring them into the room which had been fitted up for the occasion.
In the mean time the Chinamen had the fires lighted and everything in readiness to commence operations. The leaves were now thrown into the pans and heated for a few minutes, then taken out and rolled, then shaken out thinly on bamboo trays to dry off the superfluous moisture, and finally thrown again into the pans and tossed about by the hand until perfectly twisted and dry. They were afterwards sifted and sorted into the various kinds known as hyson skin, hyson, young hyson, imperial, and gunpowder. Some of the sorts were refired several times, and portions of some of them were coloured. When the operations were completed, the samples were so like the teas of commerce, that nineteen persons out of twenty would never have suspected them to be anything else. Here, then, were very fair-looking green teas made from the leaves of a large tree, as unlike the tea-shrub as it could well be. And an article as closely resembling black tea could have been just as easily made out of these leaves.
It is not my intention to enter minutely into the subject of the manipulation of black and green teas, but I will point out, in as few words as possible, the method of treating each kind during the process of manufacture. These methods, it will be observed, differ from each other in some material points, which are quite sufficient to account for the difference in colour. It is scarcely necessary to remark that both kinds of tea are gathered from the bushes in the same way, and are made from the same description of leaves, namely, those which are young and lately formed.
Green tea. — When the leaves are brought in from the plantations they are spread out thinly on flat bamboo trays, in order to dry off any superfluous moisture. They remain for a very short time exposed in this manner, generally from one to two hours; this however depends much upon the state of the weather.
In the mean time the roasting-pans have been heated with a brisk wood fire. A portion of leaves are now thrown into each pan and rapidly moved about and shaken up with both hands. They are immediately affected by the heat, begin to make a crackling noise, and become quite moist and flaccid, while at the same time they give out a considerable portion of vapour. They remain in this state for four or five minutes, and are then drawn quickly out and placed upon the rolling table.
The rolling process now commences. Several men take their stations at the rolling table and divide the leaves amongst them. Each takes as many as he can press with his hands, and makes them up in the form of a ball. This is rolled upon the rattan worked table, and greatly compressed, the object being to get rid of a portion of the sap and moisture, and at the same time to twist the leaves. These balls of leaves are frequently shaken out and passed from hand to hand until they reach the head workman, who examines them carefully to see if they have taken the requisite twist. When he is satisfied of this the leaves are removed from the rolling table and shaken out upon flat trays, until the remaining portions have undergone the same process. In no case are they allowed to lie long in this state, and sometimes they are taken at once to the roasting-pan.
Having been thrown again into the pan, a slow and steady charcoal fire is kept up, and the leaves are kept in rapid motion by the hands of the workmen. Sometimes they are thrown upon the rattan table and rolled a second time. In about an hour or an hour and a half the leaves are well dried and their colour has become fixed, that is, there is no longer any danger of their becoming black. They are of a dullish green colour, but become brighter afterwards.1
The most particular part of the operation has now been finished, and the tea may be put aside until a larger quantity has been made. The second part of the process consists in winnowing and passing the tea through sieves of different sizes, in order to get rid of the dust and other impurities, and to divide the tea into the different kinds known as twankay, hyson skin, hyson, young hyson, gunpowder, &c. During this process it is refired, the coarse kinds once, and the finer sorts three or four times. By this time the colour has come out more fully, and the leaves of the finer kinds are of a dull bluish green.
It will be observed, then, with reference to green tea — 1st, that the leaves are roasted almost immediately after they are gathered; and 2nd, that they are dried off quickly after the rolling process.
Black tea. — When the leaves are brought in from the plantations they are spread out upon large bamboo mats or trays, and are allowed to lie in this state for a considerable time. If they are brought in at night they lie until next morning.
The leaves are next gathered up by the workmen with both hands, thrown into the air and allowed to separate and fall down again. They are tossed about in this manner, and slightly beat or patted with the hands, for a considerable space of time. At length, when they become soft and flaccid, they are thrown in heaps and allowed to lie in this state for about an hour or perhaps a little longer. When examined at the end of this time, they appear to have undergone a slight change in colour, are soft and moist, and emit a fragrant smell.
The next part of the process is exactly the same as in the manipulation of green tea. The leaves are thrown into an iron pan, where they are roasted for about five minutes and then rolled upon the rattan table.
After being rolled, the leaves are shaken out, thinly, on sieves, and exposed to the air out of doors. A framework for this purpose, made of bamboo, is generally seen in front of all the cottages amongst the tea-hills. The leaves are allowed to remain in this condition for about three hours: during this time the workmen are employed in going over the sieves in rotation, turning the leaves and separating them from each other. A fine dry day, when the sun is not too bright, seems to be preferred for this part of the operation.
The leaves, having now lost a large portion of their moisture, and having become reduced considerably in size, are removed into the factory. They are put a second time into the roasting-pan for three or four minutes, and taken out and rolled as before.
The charcoal fires are now got ready. A tubular basket, narrow at the middle and wide at both ends, is placed over the fire. A sieve is dropped into this tube and covered with leaves, which are shaken on it to about an inch in thickness. After five or six minutes, during which time they are carefully watched, they are removed from the fire and rolled a third time. As the balls of leaves come from the hands of the roller they are placed in a heap until the whole have been rolled. They are again shaken on the sieves as before and set over the fire for a little while longer. Sometimes the last operation, namely, heating and rolling, is repeated a fourth time: the leaves have now assumed their dark colour.
When the whole has been gone over in this manner it is then placed thickly in the baskets, which are again set over the charcoal fire. The workman now makes a hole with his hand through the centre of the leaves, in order to allow vent to any smoke or vapour which may rise from the charcoal, as well as to let the heat up, and then covers the whole over with a flat basket: previous to this the heat has been greatly reduced by the fires being covered up. The tea now remains over the slow charcoal fire until it is perfectly dry; it is, however, carefully watched by the manufacturer, who every now and then stirs it up with his hands, so that the whole may be equally heated. The black colour is now fairly brought out, but afterwards improves in appearance: the after processes, such as sifting, picking, and refining, are carried on at the convenience of the workmen. 2
It will be remarked, therefore, with reference to the leaves which are to be converted into black tea, — 1st, that they are allowed to lie for some time spread out in the factory after being gathered and before they are roasted; 2nd, that they are tossed about until they become soft and flaccid, and then left in heaps, and that this also is done before they are roasted; 3rd, that after being roasted for a few minutes and rolled, they are exposed for some hours to the air in a soft and moist state; and 4th, that they are at last dried slowly over charcoal fires. The differences in the manufacture of black and green teas are therefore most marked, and I think fully account for the difference in colour, as well as for the effect produced on some constitutions by green tea, such as nervous irritability, sleeplessness, &c. This is shown in some observations made by Mr. Warrington, of Apothecaries' Hall, in his paper which I have already quoted.
"The question presents itself, then," says Mr. Warrington, alluding to the variation of physical and chemical properties in green and black teas, "from whence do these distinguishing peculiarities arise, and to what are they to be attributed? From observations made in other directions, in the course of the routine work of the establishment to which I am attached, I had formed in my own mind certain conclusions on this subject. I allude to the exsiccation of medicinal herbs; these are for the most part nitrogenous plants, as the Atropa belladonna, the Hyoscyamus niger, the Conium maculatum, and others. The plants are brought to us by the growers or collectors from the country, tied up in bundles, and when they arrive fresh and cool they dry of a good bright green colour; but on the contrary, it is found that if they are delayed in their transit, or remain in a confined state for too long a period, they become heated, from a species of spontaneous fermentation, and when loosened and spread open emit vapours, and are sensibly warm to the hand: when such plants are dried, the whole of the green colour is found to have been destroyed, and a red-brown and sometimes a blackish-brown result is obtained. I had also noticed that a clear infusion of such leaves evaporated carefully to dryness was not all undissolved by water, but left a quantity of brown oxidised extractive matter, to which the denomination Apothem has been applied by some chemists; a similar result is obtained by the evaporation of an infusion of black tea. The same action takes place by the exposure of the infusions of many vegetable substances to the oxidising influence of the atmosphere; they become darkened on the surface, and this gradually spreads through the solution, and on evaporation the same oxidised extractive matter will remain insoluble in water. Again, I had found that the green teas, when wetted and re-dried, with exposure to the air, were nearly as dark in colour as the ordinary black teas. From these observations, therefore, I was induced to believe that the peculiar characters and chemical differences which distinguish black tea from green were to be attributed to a species of heating or fermentation, accompanied with oxidation by exposure to the air, and not to its being submitted to a higher temperature in the process of drying, as had been generally concluded. My opinion was partly confirmed by ascertaining from parties conversant with the Chinese manufacture, that the leaves for the black teas were always allowed to remain exposed to the air in mass for some time before they were roasted."
Here, then, we have the matter fully and clearly explained; and, in truth, what Mr. Warrington observed in the laboratory of Apothecaries' Hall may be seen by every one who has a tree or bush in his garden. Mark the leaves which are blown from trees in early autumn; they are brown, or perhaps of a dullish green, when they fall, and yet, if they are examined some time afterwards, when they have been exposed to air and moisture in their detached state, they will be found quite as black as our blackest teas.
I must now make some observations upon the tea-plant itself. It has already been remarked that two tea-plants, considered to be distinct varieties, are met with in China, both of which have been imported into Europe. One, the Canton variety, is called Thea bohea; the other, the northern variety, is called Thea viridis. The former produces the inferior green and black teas which are made about Canton, and from the latter are made all the fine green teas in the great Hwuy-chow country and in the adjoining provinces. Until a few years back it was generally supposed that the fine black teas of the Bohea hills were also made from the Canton variety, and hence its name. Such, however, is not the case.
When I visited Foo-chow-foo for the first time in 1845, I observed that the tea-plant in cultivation in that neighbourhood was very different from the Canton variety, and apparently identical with the Thea viridis of Chekiang. Foo-chow-foo was not a very great distance from the Bohea hills, and I had good reasons for believing that the Bohea plant was the same as the Foo-chow one; but still I had no positive proof. Now, however, having been on Woo-e-shan itself; and over a great deal of the surrounding country, and having dried specimens of all these plants before me, I am better able to give an opinion upon this long-disputed subject.
I believe that the Woo-e-shan plant is closely allied to the Thea viridis and originally identical with that species, but slightly altered by climate. On the closest examination I was only able to detect very slight differences, not sufficient to constitute a distinct variety, far less a species, and in many of the plants these differences were not even visible. The differences alluded to were these — the Woo-e plant showed less inclination to throw out branches than the Hwuy-chow one, and its leaves were sometimes rather darker and more finely serrated.
But it is possible to go into a tea-plantation in any part of China, and to find more marked distinctions amongst its plants than these I have noticed. The reason of this is obvious. The tea-plant is multiplied by seed like our hawthorns, and it is perfectly impossible that the produce can be identical in every respect with the parent. Instead therefore of having one or two varieties of tea-plant in China, we have in fact many kinds, although the difference between them may be slight. Add to this, that the seeds of this plant are raised year after year in different climates, and we shall no longer wonder that in the course of time the plants in one district appear slightly different from those of another, although they may have been originally produced from the same stock.
For these reasons I am of opinion that the plants of Hwuy-chow and Woo-e are the same species, and that the slight differences observed are the results of reproduction and difference of climate.
With regard to the Canton plant — that called Thea bohea by botanists — different as it appears to be, both in constitution and habit, it too may have originally sprung from one and the same species.
These changes, however, do not alter the commercial value of those plants found cultivated in the great tea-countries of Fokien and Hwuy-chow, where the finest teas are produced; for, while the tea-shrub may have improved in the course of reproduction in these districts, it may have become deteriorated in others. For this reason seeds and plants ought always to be procured from these districts for transmission to other parts of the world where it is desirable to grow tea.
Of late years some attempts have been made to cultivate the tea-shrub in the United States of America, and also in our own Australian colonies.3 I believe all such attempts will end in failure and disappointment. The tea-plant will grow wherever the climate and soil are suitable, and, were it merely intended as an ornamental shrub, there could be no objections to its introduction into those countries. But if it is introduced to be cultivated as an object of commercial speculation, we must not only inquire into the suitableness of climate and soil, but also into the price of labour. Labour is cheap in China. The labourers in the tea-countries do not receive more than two-pence or three-pence a day. Can workmen be procured for this small sum either in the United States or in Australia? And if they cannot be hired for this sum, nor for anything near it, how will the manufacturers in such places be able to compete with the Chinese in the market?
The tea-plants of China are common enough in this country. In the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew they have been growing in the open air for some years. They are also to be met with in many other gardens, and almost in every nursery. They are pretty evergreen bushes, and produce a profusion of single white flowers in the winter and spring, about the time that camellias are in bloom. It is not, however, for the beauty of their flowers that they are grown — although there is much in them to admire — but on account of their being the plants which produce our favourite beverage.
Those persons in England who possess tea-plants, and who cultivate them for pleasure, should always bear in mind that, even in the tea-districts of China, this shrub will not succeed when planted in low wet land: and this is doubtless one of the reasons why so few persons succeed in growing it in this country. It ought always to be planted on a warm sloping bank, in order to give it a fair chance of success. If some of the warm spots of this kind in the south of England or Ireland were selected, who knows but our cottagers might be able to grow their own tea? at all events they might have the fragrant herb to look upon.
1 I am not now alluding to teas which are coloured artificially.
2 If the reader is desirous of obtaining more information upon this subject, he should consult Mr. Ball's 'Cultivation and Manufacture of Tea.'
3 I shall have to speak of tea cultivation in India in a future chapter.