The first cup of tea was made from loose leaf black tea. As legend goes, Emperor Shen Nung of China was boiling water one day when the leaves of a nearby plant came loose and fell into his pot. And that was how the first cup of tea was made.
Of course, that’s only a legend, but as history would have it, tea (the loose leaf variety was obviously the first type of tea made) goes way back nearly 5,000 years ago in China, though whether or not it was indeed discovered by the Emperor himself remains to be proven. Still, you can see how much tea has to offer – the history of human culture, no less!
All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen plant growing in warm weather. What determines the resulting types of teas is the processing of the fresh leaves from the tea plant. During oxidation, the tea leaves undergo natural chemical reactions that result in distinctive taste and color characteristics of the different tea types.
Green tea is not oxidized at all, so you can count on it for delicate taste and refreshing flavor. The leaves are merely steamed, rolled, and then dried.
Loose leaf black tea, on the other hand, is allowed to fully oxidize. The oxidation process of tea leaves takes about two to four hours. Afterwards, the leaves are then rolled and dried and the resulting loose leaf black teas are then packed into different shapes and sizes.
Oolong tea, the other popular Asian tea type, falls somewhere between green and black teas, in that the leaves are only partially oxidized.
In the early history of tea drinking, tea was produced and prepared in the loose leaf style. Court Society in China’s Song Dynasty particularly favored loose leaf black tea because of how the delicate character and distinctive taste of the tea was preserved.
During that time, other tea styles also flourished, including bricks and powdered tea. However, after 1391, Emperor Hung-wu, the first Emperor of Ming Dynasty, decreed that tributes of tea to the court were to be changed from brick to loose leaf form. This imperial decree quickly transformed how people drank tea in China, changing whisked teas to steeped teas. In addition, loose leaf black tea also required the creation or use of new vessels.
For instance, to steep the tea leaves properly, the tea pot was needed. Unlike in powdered or brick form where the tea leaves are merely whisked in the drinking vessel, the very nature of loose leaf black tea makes it impossible to perform the infusion in the same vessel. To get the proper concentration of loose leaf black tea, a tea pot had to be used and the tea must be kept warm at all times. The tea pot also comes in handy to separate the leaves from the infusion.
Another vessel created as a result of the loose leaf style is the tea caddy. Tea and containers are necessary because they contain the loose leaf black tea and in the process conserve its flavor. This was, after all, the reason why Chinese courtiers preferred loose leaf black tea.