Where once it was only grown in China, the Opium Wars of the 1800’s encouraged the British, who were fearful of losing their now beloved brew, to seek new areas to grow tea. Assam in Northern India was found to be growing wild tea, the variety Camellia sinensis assamica and by 1839 we began importing to the UK from India. Tea is now grown commercially in around 40 or 45 countries. The main growing nations are China and Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Japan and Kenya, with other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, Malawi and Uganda in Africa and even Argentina in South America growing good cuppas.
The tea plant thrives best in a hot, humid climate with high rainfall, so the main growing regions tend to be around the equator at 300 – 2,100m above sea level. Although, we’re now seeing Camellia sinensis thrive in unexpected places and even Britain proudly grows tea in Cornwall. The best plantations are usually around altitudes of 1,200 – 1,800m, where mountainous mist and cloud shields the plants from too much sun and a cooler air temperature means the buds and leaves grow more slowly – giving them more flavour. A Chinese saying indicates the Chinese belief that tea grown high on mountainsides produces the best tea “High mountain yields high quality tea”. This doesn’t mean that tea grown at lower altitudes is bad – on the contrary, what’s interesting is that it will have a different flavour and character, which you may enjoy more. We’re going to show you more about the differences each month so you can make your own mind up.
Tea is grown in tea plantations, also known as estates or gardens. Small-holdings are privately owned and where very small, co-operatives are formed amongst small-holders to build a central tea-processing factory so each farmer can be protected and have a buyer for the tea. Larger estates are often self-contained, with staff houses, schools and hospitals – a small community.
Tea is planted following the natural contours of the landscape and in mountainous regions, tea terraces are created. They’re planted in rows kept at around 1.5 – 2m high to make plucking easier – and the patterns look beautiful from above. Where wild tea trees grow in China, they are much less uniform and are left to their own devices. To bring biodiversity, shade the tea and introduce new flavours to the tea, other plants and trees are planted amongst the rows.
The different varieties of tea plant prefer growing in different locations. The Chinese variety, Camellia sinensis sinensis, happily withstands the cold and thrives in China, Japan, Tibet, Taiwan, the Darjeeling region of India and other high-growing regions. The Camellia sinensis assamica variety however, likes it hot and humid. Native to the Assam region of India, it also grows in lower regions of Southern China, Sri Lanka and Africa.