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Cultivation and Preparation
China, where state farms are being supplanted by private ones, remains the largest tea grower of the world; elsewhere, tea is usually grown on plantations. Tea culture requires a protected, well-drained habitat in a warm climate with ample rainfall. The leaves are picked by hand, principally during flushes (periods of active growth), the most desirable being those near the growing tip. They are prepared by withering, rolling, and firing (i.e., heating).
The many kinds of tea are usually named for their color and grade (the best teas using only the two terminal leaves) or for their district of origin, e.g., Darjeeling and Lapsang. Teas are sometimes scented by exposure to fragrant flowers, e.g., jasmine. Brick tea is made from tea dust or inferior tea pressed into blocks. Black teas (e.g., pekoes, souchongs, and congous) differ from green teas (e.g., imperials, gunpowders, and hysons) in having been fermented before firing; oolongs, intermediate in color and flavor, are partially fermented. Green teas are produced chiefly in China and Japan; black teas in China, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya; and oolongs in Taiwan.
Tea was cultivated in China in prehistoric times and was probably first used as a vegetable relish (as it was in American colonies and still is in some parts of Asia) and medicinally. By the 8th cent., cultivation had begun on a commercial scale in China, and shortly thereafter, in Japan. The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced from China in the 15th cent. by Buddhists as a semireligious social custom. Tea was first imported into Europe by the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th cent., and its subsequent popularity played an important role in the opening of Asia to Western commerce.
Until 1834 the British East India Company held a monopoly on imports to Great Britain, trading by direct and indirect routes exclusively with China. Only after this monopoly was broken did other tea-producing areas develop as major exporters—chiefly Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan. Leading importers of tea include Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Russia, and the Netherlands. The United States also is a large importer, although coffee has long been a more popular beverage.
See J. Shalleck, Tea (1972); J. Schapiro et al., The Book of Coffee and Tea (rev. ed. 1982).