As half the world edges towards chilly days and crisp winter nights, we bet we’re not the only ones with a warm cuppa on the mind.
One of the great things about travel is discovering how others in the world experience aspects of life we often take for granted. Take tea for example. Types of tea are as varied as the ways to drink and brew them. Tea has such an interesting story, brimming with history and cultural flavour (pardon the pun), and in fact, discovering a little about tea wherever you travel will provide special insight into the history of the area on the globe where you are trekking.
Tea is the most popular beverage in the world next to water, so it stands to reason we should try it wherever we travel. Where are the best places to try tea then?
The 10 best places to try tea
Japanese people love tea, but more than that, tea is an important part of the food culture. Be specific when ordering in Japan though, because the term “tea” on its own refers to green tea, not black tea, which in Western society is more often than not what’s expected.
One of the most authentic experiences a traveller can seek in Japan is a visit to a tearoom or teahouse, and the chance to partake in a traditional matcha ceremony. Perfecting the elaborate “art” of preparing and presenting this powdered green tea (matcha) takes years of practice. Also known as “The Way of Tea”, the ceremony is one of grace and etiquette, influenced by Zen Buddhism. Certainly a beautiful, cultural experience and a delightful way to taste-test tea.
It’s unclear exactly when the tea leaf was discovered, although we do know tea plants are native to East and South Asia, and the earliest records of drinking tea as a beverage for pleasure (rather than for medicinal purposes) hail from China.
According to (one) legend, Chinese emperor and herbalist, Shennong (2737 BCE), who liked to drink water after it had been boiled, was served with a glass of water into which had fallen a leaf from a wild tea bush. No one had noticed the water’s colour turn brown, and after drinking the beverage and feeling refreshed, Shennong insisted on drinking more, and with that, cha (tea) arrived!
China cultivates many different types of tea, thanks in large part to the vast country’s varying climates. The art of making tea here is called Cha dao, which is widely accepted as being an important process which the Japanese adopted from their Chinese neighbours. One of the most interesting places to drink tea in China is the country’s only national tea museum in Hangzhou, where you’ll not only take pleasure in a fine cup of tea flavoured to your liking, but have the chance to learn about how it fits into the fabric of China’s history too.
Indulge for a moment beyond the run-of-the-mill street cafe or home-brewed teabag, and enter a world of elegance and decadence − it’s the tea experience as only England can provide! Tea is always in demand in the UK – the Brits love it! However, afternoon is prime time, a ritual in fact, and what better way to try it than to treat yourself to a sitting at the famous Ritz or Claridge‘s in London? That said, there are hundreds of options across the country if these menus extend beyond your travel budget.
Apparently it was the seventh Duchess of Bedford who, in the early 1800s, grew weary coping with only two meals a day (as was custom at the time), so decided to take tea and a snack during the afternoon. Eventually friends joined her for this special time of day, and they enjoyed it so much that the idea spread.
While the origins of tea are often associated with Asian cultures, there’s also something very real and regal about the British experience, and we highly recommend you indulge too, if only just for one afternoon.
Over 400,000 tonnes of tea is produced in Kenya each year, making it the world’s third biggest producer of our favourite hot and healing beverage. Kenya specialises in producing and exporting black tea, and as one of the newer tea-producing regions of the world, has been able to learn from the experiences of other key producers and is now a major industry force on the international tea scene.
Kenya’s tea story began in 1903, when seeds from India were first planted on a small farm. The plantation flourished, and today you can enjoy Kenya’s specialty blends, which are usually bright in colour with a copper tint and characterised by a crisp, pleasant flavour.
Tea is culturally significant in Morocco, and is fundamentally linked with the locals’ sense of hospitality. Touareg tea, or Moroccan mint tea, is essentially comprised of sugar, fresh tea (usually strong Chinese green tea) and mint. There is a process to brewing this tea, and it is intriguing to watch as tea is poured into glasses from a height in order to swirl loose tea leaves to the bottom of the glass, while gently aerating the tea to develop flavour.
Tea here is served ceremoniously, as it is in Japanese teahouses, and when you try it you’re likely to be encouraged to take it three times – the first signifies “life”, second is “love, and the third, “death”. It is customary to drink each one in a leisurely fashion. This is definitely one of our favourite ways to immerse in a tradition that dates back to the mid 1800s – that’s when an enterprising merchant with a little left-over Chinese gunpowder green variety came across Morocco and discovered a market ready to be tantalised by tea!
Arguably the contemporary home of tea, India not only produces but consumes more tea than anywhere else in the world. You can taste-test chai tea all over the place because it’s literally sold on every street corner.
Characterised by its sweet and spicy flavour, chai tea is not only refreshing and tasty, but comes complete with a legendary tale of discovery. As the story goes, Gautam Buddha was five years into the promise he made to his followers to stay awake and meditate for nine years. Understandably, after all that time without sleep he was feeling rather drowsy, but Mother Nature intervened and he began to involuntary chew on some leaves that had fallen from a nearby tree. He immediately felt rejuvenated, so collected more of the leaves to take with him on his journey, eventually turning them into tea. Gautam Buddha spread the good word on this tea to other monks across the land, so they too could make use of the brew which helped them to stay alert during meditation.
If you too love a good story with your cup of chai, then among many other amazing spots in India, you might enjoy a visit to the very interesting and beautiful Tea Museum in Munnar.
As Westerners actively seek a healthier way of being, tea has undergone a renaissance of sorts, particularly in the USA. In 2014 tea was voted as being one of America’s very favourite non-alcoholic beverages, and with approximately 1.42 million pounds of tea consumed here a day, it’s not surprising to learn there are some wondrous options to try in America while on your travels. Everything from Japanese green to Chinese oolong, and unique concoctions like Vanilla Roolbos and Jasmine Orange are on the menu.
Health benefits associated with many of these teas abound, but what you will need to be prepared for is cultural differences when ordering. Specify if you want hot tea, because iced tea is popular in the States. Cream is served with black tea on request, and it is tasty, perhaps a little sweeter than milk (if milk is what you’re used to). Honey or a slice of lemon usually comes with an order of black tea too. We advise being adventurous though − try something new if you eye a unique item on the menu.
It may surprise you to discover Russians love tea as much as they enjoy a spot of vodka, and their affinity with tea dates back to the mid 1600s. It was during this period that the Chinese ambassador to Moscow gifted several chests of tea to Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich, and as a result tea quickly became a highly desired import. Initially reserved only for the upper-class, tea is now enjoyed by all, and here, expect the flavour to be strong – and served with cake!
What’s often presented is zavarka (particularly as part of a tea ceremony), an intensely flavoured tea which is prepared in a teapot that allows a host to serve guests in several rounds. Locals suggest that if your zavarka is too strong, you will not offend by adding hot water to your cup, which enables better control of the intensity of flavour as you enjoy a nice chat with new friends.
While travelling in sublime South America, you’ll inevitably be introduced to the local “tea”. It actually grows on a bush, and is called yerba maté, or simply maté. This national drink is an important part of everyday life, and is consumed morning, noon and night. Interestingly, the more you drink, the stronger the after-taste.
You may notice groups of friends passing a traditional gourd (or bottle/flask) with a metal straw around a dining table – this is usually filled (and refilled) with maté, and consuming the beverage in this way in a social setting is common. While it is an acquired taste (often described as a fusion of herbs, vegetables and grass, similar to that of some green teas), it is worthwhile having a sip (or few) as trying maté is a localised cultural experience and allegedly also comes with its own set of health benefits!
It’s the world’s fourth largest tea producing region, and you should seek out a fresh and delicious cup of ceylon while in Sri Lanka. It was in 1824 that the British transported a tea plant from China to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known. The little plant was left to prosper at the Royal Botanical Gardens in an area called Peradeniya. While this venture was non-commercial in nature, eventually it was recognised that tea was something which could thrive in the region. Indeed tea helped revive the area following the devastating collapse of coffee enterprises caused by a fungal disease (“coffee leaf disease”) which wiped out plantations. The local economy had been reliant on coffee production, but ironically tea was introduced around the same time as coffee disaster struck.
Records cite 1867 as the official birth year of the tea industry in these parts, which was when a gentleman by the name of James Taylor commenced work on a tea plantation in Ceylon. The rest, as they say, is history, and really, the only thing better than a heart-warming cup of tea is a good tale to accompany it.
Did you like this, or do you know someone else fascinated by history and a decent cup of tea? Then maybe our special presentation, The Story of Tea, will take your fancy.
Compiled by Sarah Blinco