A traveler’s guide to tea culture around the world

by Apr 15, 2023Recipes

Serving Tea At Kiambethu Farm In Kenya

In many countries, tea is far more than just another hot drink. It has become a cultural expression of hospitality, spirituality, peace, or harmony. It is often a reason to gather socially. Discover the different tea cultures around the world.

Growing up in a British household, I was fairly immersed in tea culture at a young age, at least as it pertained to afternoon tea, high tea, and my favorite as a boy, cream tea. But it was not until I began traveling the world that I truly began to gain an understanding of just how important tea is to various cultures.

It was in Kenya, while in college, that I discovered and fell in love with chai tea, which was served anywhere I visited. In China, while I was traveling in the Yunnan Province, I gained an appreciation for green and white teas, and the ceremonial importance of tea. And in Morocco, every visit to a family or entry to a hotel was accompanied by serving mint tea, poured with ceremonial flare. So strong is the tea culture globally that it came as no surprise to me when I learned that tea was considered the second most-consumed beverage in the world, behind water.

Fiona Talking To Tour Group At Kiambethu Farm

Fiona speaking to a tour group about the history of tea and the history of the Kiambethu Tea Farm during a tour at Kiambethu Tea Farm in Kenya.

However, it was not until I paid a visit to Kiambethu Farm, just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, that I truly began to understand how tea is grown and made. And that bit of knowledge is important to really understanding global tea culture. Read on to find my abbreviated guide to tea manufacturing and tea culture around the world.

To understand culture, you must understand tea

Tea was first discovered in China more than 5,000 years ago in 2700 BCE. The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is in the same genus as the popular flowering Camellias seen in gardens around the world.

The tea plant is a hardy evergreen bush or tree with two varieties — Camellia sinensis sinensis is grown in northern climates and Camellia sinensis assamica is grown in more southern climates. Tea leaves are harvested as leaves begin to emerge at the top of the bush by harvesters who know how to pick the delicate leaves without bruising or breaking them.

Farm Worker At Kiambethu Farm Picking Tea Leaves

A farm worker demonstrates how tea leaves are picked at Kiambethu Farm in Kenya.

White, green, oolong and black tea varieties all come from the same plant. The difference is in how the leaves are grown, picked, and processed. Smaller, more tender, and younger leaves are used for making green teas. Larger and older leaves are used to make oolong and black teas. And the buds are what are used to make white tea. Like grape varieties used to make wine, the soil and climate affect quality and taste of tea leaves greatly. But with tea varieties, the real differences in flavor, color and aroma are created during processing.

A Farm Worker Showing Picked Tea Leaves At Kiambethu Farm

A farm worker shows what picked tea leaves look like during a tour of Kiambethu Farm.

Once tea leaves are brought into a factory, the initial processing is the same for all types of tea. The leaves are spread out to dry to reduce the water content, either in a room with very good ventilation or under the sun. This is known as withering. What happens next, though, also lends to determining what type of tea it will become.

Green tea – Leaves are steamed to stop any oxidation and to ensure the leaves retain the green color and to lock in a fresh, delicate flavor. Gunpowder tea is a type of green tea that is rolled into tiny pellets after steaming so it actually looks like gunpowder. The taste is somewhat smokey, but this is not why it is called gunpowder as some have stated. Matcha is a Japanese version of the green tea. The plants the leaves come from are artificially shaded before picking and then, once processed, the stems of the leaves are removed. What remains is ground into a fine powder.

Black tea – After withering, leaves are broken up and then either fed through a so-called CTC (cut, tear, and curl) machine or tossed, crushed and rolled manually. Cutting, tearing, crushing, and rolling all help to break down the cell walls of the leaves so air can react with them. The cut and bruised leaves are oxidized for various lengths of time (depending on the flavor a factory is trying to achieve). During the oxidizing period, oxygen reacts with enzymes in the tea leaves, changing the chemical composition of the leaves. The leaves gradually darken, just as an apple does when left cut and exposed to the air. Finally, the oxidizing is stopped by drying the leaves under heat and the result is a dark brown or black tea leaf.

Various Grades Of Black Tea Kiambethu Farm

Four different grades of Black Tea beside a raw tea leaf shown during a tour at Kiambethu Farm.

Oolong tea – The processing is similar to black tea; however, the tea leaves are repeatedly oxidized and rolled for shorter durations and then the leaves are steamed rather than dried.

Yellow and dark tea – These are both types of fermented teas. For yellow tea, the leaves are fermented before they are dried, which lends a yellowish color to the leaf. For dark teas, most common is one called Pu-erh, the leaves are fermented after they are heated, making them darker and very rich in flavor.

White tea – This tea is made only from buds and young, tender leaves. The drying process is very gentle with minimal oxidation. The tea’s name comes from the fine silver-white hairs on the buds and not the color of the tea when brewed. The brewed tea color is actually a pale yellow.

Now I’ve shared with you how the various types of tea are made, I feel the need to dispel a tea myth, one that continues to be repeated around the world. Green and white tea is not caffeine-free. All leaves from a tea plant contain caffeine. There is no getting around that fact. The amount of caffeine that will end up in your cup of tea will depend on the tea quality, how old the leaves that went into the tea were, what temperature you brewed your tea at, and how long you left your tea to steep. In general, white and green teas will have less caffeine since they are, or should be, steeped at a lower temperature (180°F) and for a shorter period of time than black tea (212°F).

And finally, let’s talk health: Tea has long been touted as having various medicinal properties and just being good for overall health and well-being. Green tea, black tea, white tea — it doesn’t matter. All teas made with the tea plant contain various levels of polyphenols, or flavonoids, with their antioxidant benefits. Of course, the minute you start adding sugar, honey, milk, or cream, you counter the health benefits with less healthy characteristics.

HITT Tip: Therese discovered a delicious version of tea in Ukraine, that can be served hot in the winter and cold in the summer. It’s not made with tea leaves, but rather ginger, lemon, mint, and cloves, with a generous amount of honey. Here is the Ukrainian tea recipe.

The culture of tea around the world

The culture of tea is intrinsically linked to its history and global trade. The Dutch first imported tea from China to Europe in the 1600s and soon tea became a drink enjoyed by aristocrats and wealthy families. Once the British East India Company began importing tea and looking for other sources beyond China, tea plantations sprung up in India and Sri Lanka, at that time part of the British Empire. In the 1908, the United States added its contribution to tea culture with the invention of a tea bag. I could ramble on, but you’re here to learn about tea culture, not just tea history. So let’s begin.

Acres Of Tea Leaves At A Tea Plantation

The green fields of tea leaves waiting to be picked at a tea plantation in Kenya near Nairobi.

China

Perhaps because the country is considered the birthplace of tea, the drink is interwoven with the lifestyle. It is as much about art, harmony, balance, and health as it is about drinking. Tea plays a central role in any gathering, at home or in a restaurant, so expect to be served tea when you are visiting. It is also served at weddings, with a more formal tea ceremony that is intended to demonstrate the bond between two families. The Chinese wedding tea ceremony is often emulated in Western culture. Tea is also used to show respect – a younger person pouring a cup of tea for an elder – or as an apology with one person pouring tea for another to symbolize “I’m sorry.” Oolong, jasmine, and gunpowder are the most likely tea types a tourist will encounter, but there are literally hundreds of varieties of tea, some very localized.

Chinese Tea Culture Yunnan Province

Our driver and our tour guide enjoying tea during a break on our visit to the Yunnan Province in China.

Japan

To be a tea person in Japan means you are cultured and well-versed, at least according to the Global Japanese Tea Association. Chado (“Way of Tea”) is a centuries-old formal tea ceremony one can experience in Japanese teahouses using matcha tea, served in a stone bowl, and whisked into frothy perfection. Sencha is another popular Japanese green tea and the ceremony around it (Senchado) is far less formal, and leans toward the Chinese tea ceremony.

India

Tea was not a part of the Indian culture until the mid 1800s when British East India Company planted the first Camellia sinensis bushes in Darjeeling and Assam. Perhaps you have heard of Darjeeling tea, now so famous for its quality and flavor that it is a registered trademark and only certified growers can use it. Darjeeling tea has a light, floral and fruity flavor, and is often referred to as the “champagne” of tea.

When you travel through India, you will find tea offered everywhere, from street vendors to cafes to restaurants to fancy hotels, and often served with crispy snacks. But this will be no ordinary tea. Think chai, the Indian gift to the world that is a blend of either black, white, or green tea, milk (soy or almond, if you must), sugar or honey, and infused with spices like ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and pepper. And each region of India has its own popular versions. Drinking chai has become such a part of the culture that chai stalls along the street are gathering places to sit and discuss the latest news, weather, politics, sports or anything else.

Morocco

Tea is a very important part of Moroccan culture, is used to welcome guests into a home and is a symbol of hospitality and friendship. I can almost guarantee that when you check into a hotel in Morocco, and certainly if you visit someone in their home, you will be served Maghrebi mint tea – most often made with gunpowder tea, mint leaves, and sugar. And do not refuse as that is considered impolite.

Morocco Tea Is Served

The tea will be served on a large tray with a beautifully engraved silver teapot full of the steaming hot tea. The host will serve the tea by pouring it into a glass, often from quite a distance above the glass. He (typically it is a male doing the pouring although in restaurants and hotels, women pour the tea, too) will then hand you a glass and begin to pour one glass after another until everyone has been served. Traditionally, the higher the teapot is above the glass while pouring, the more important the guest is. This pouring action, while often photographed and spectacular, also serves a purpose of oxygenating the tea which improves its flavor. Expect the tea to be very sweet. Traditionally, the sweeter your tea is, the more important you are as a guest.

Morocco The Repose Riad Rabat Pouring Tea

Kenya

Kenya is yet another country where British colonialism influenced tea culture. Tea was first introduced to Kenya by a British settler who started a tea plantation in the early 1900s. Today, Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of tea and tea has become the drink of choice in the country. In fact –again in a nod to British colonialism — teatime is still worked into the daily lives of Kenyans at work and at school. However, this is typically chai, not simply a pot of tea. When you travel around Kenya, it is not uncommon for locals to invite you into their home for chai. This will typically be served in very large mugs or glasses and do expect to be poured more than one cup – meaning it pays to know where the nearest toilet it.

Drinking Chai Tea With A Local In Mbokishi Conservancy

I’m enjoying a cup of chai in the home of an Mbokishi Conservancy local. An invitation for chai is a welcome to a home that you do not turn down.

Argentina

While Argentina is a leading producer of tea, and in larger cities, such as Buenos Aires, you will find tea shops and British afternoon teas to be very popular, it is a different plant and brew that has caught the fancy of Argentinians – yerba mate. The yerba mate plant is an evergreen tree native to subtropical regions of South America and a member of the holly family. Mate is made by steeping dried leaves of the yerba matte plant in hot water, just like any tea.

Yerba Matte Cup And Drinking Straw

A well-used yerba mate cup full of freshly brewed mate. The drinking straw allows one to drink the liquid and not the chopped up leaves.

But drinking mate is unlike most tea socials. At gatherings, the host brews the mate in a large mug, and takes the first sip. Once he or she is satisfied with the flavor, he passes it to someone in the group who will take several sips. The mug is then passed to the host and more water is added and the mug is once again passed off. It is a communal event and wonderful to experience.

United Kingdom

In the 1600s, the Dutch introduced the British to tea, and that evolved quickly into a love affair. It was the Brits who started adding a dash of milk to tea in the 17th century, partly to mellow the astringent nature of black tea and partly to prevent the fine bone china cups from cracking when freshly brewed and very hot tea was poured into them since the milk is added to the cup first.

When you visit the United Kingdom, you’ll encounter tea in a multitude of ways, although even here coffee culture is growing. First, do expect to be offered tea if you are visiting anyone. If you are invited to an afternoon tea, be prepared for snack food and sweets. Afternoon teas are served at tea houses, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and the like all over the United Kingdom and typically mean tea (of course) served with an assortment of sweets (such as tea cakes or scones) and small sandwiches (such as egg or watercress, usually with loads of butter). These come either on a platter or a tiered “etagere.”

You also might be invited to a “high tea,” which differs from afternoon tea in that it is more of a meal, replacing dinner, and served with tea and an assortment of other food like meat, vegetables, and bread. Though frankly, after consuming a plate of small sandwiches and desserts at an afternoon tea, I’m pretty sure I’d call that a meal too.

Afternoon Tea With Clotted Cream

My favorite, as I mentioned at the start of this post, are a so-called “cream tea.” Cream tea does not actually refer to adding cream to a cup of tea. It means tea served with scones and a side bowl of strawberry jam with another bowl of Devonshire clotted cream (which is a bit of a cross between heavy whipped cream and butter). Healthy? Of course not. Delicious? Absolutely.

Tea connecting the world

Even as a life glued to smartphones, fed by fast food joints, and motivated by an ever-faster lifestyle threatens to trample many traditions, tea has managed to remain a point of social connection in many countries. It is a drink around which cultures gather and take time to enjoy a slower pace, even if only for a few moments. And it is something travelers to these tea cultures should be sure to experience to find a deeper understanding of the country they are visiting. Tea, shaped by diversity and global commerce is, in many ways, helping keep many wonderful traditions alive, and that’s a very good thing.

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