To the western mind, it is hard to imagine anything more quintessentially English than tea, and indeed any colonial era period drama will certainly feature the beverage and the accompanying refined accoutrements, amid the lush frivolities of the portrayed aristocracy.

In this context, the whole process of gathering with family and other guests around a tea service is synonymous with high cultural refinement and sophistication, which, in totality actually has its roots deep within Chinese culture.

Tea (Camellia sinensis) plants originated in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and the cultivation of tea in China stretches back to at least the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BC).

Tea plants take around three years to reach a state of harvesting maturity, when only the very topmost growth of the plant, known as a flush, is picked. During the harvesting season, a new flush will develop within a week or two, with the slowest growing, high altitude plants producing the best flavours but least yield.

There are countless cultivars originating from Camellia sinensis, which together with the subtle variations in topography, mineral content, altitude and climate and the varying styles of processing produce a wonderful array of flavours and properties.

Six basic tea types have been produced. Green tea is the unprocessed natural fresh leaves, which are steamed, quickly cooled and then carefully dried. Yellow tea is similar but yellowed by longer steaming and slower cooling. White tea is derived from wilted buds and is the least processed of all.

Oolong teas are produced from the best leaves by withering and partial oxidisation. Red tea, known in the west as Black Tea, is likewise prepared from wilted leaves, more fully oxidised and often crushed. Halting the oxidisation process through heating at differing times can produce differing intensities of colours and flavours. Fermented teas are produced from fermented green tea.

A particular quality of tea is its ability to imbibe additional characteristic tastes from surrounding odours, which therefore requires careful attention to the preparation and storage of tea. However, this very property has also usefully been employed in producing the many types of scented teas.

Many literary works have been written in China on the art of tea, which does not stop with the production but includes the preparation and imbibing of tea, which became a formalised ceremonious occasion, and different types of tea would be prepared using varying water temperatures and implements.

Because tea is a stimulant, it also became associated with philosophy art and poetry and, as such, became a feature in intellectual discourse within Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism and the wider underpinning of the framework of Chinese society.

The serving of tea became a precise, elaborate and meaningful social event from the Han Dynasty (206 – 220 BC), and for the wealthy and intellectuals gave rise to the creation of the tea set, creations artfully created from porcelain, though initially without the teapot, which first appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).

By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), tea drinking spread regionally to Korea, Japan and Vietnam, all of who likewise adopted the ceremonious rituals surrounding its preparation, which became infused with their own cultural values.

In particular, the Zen culture of Japan, itself arising from the fusion of Chinese Taoism and Chan Buddhism, not only regarded tea as a useful means of aiding meditation but its rituals became a central focus of Zen application.

The seeds of the European love affair with tea began with the arrival of Portuguese merchants in Macao during the sixteenth century, at the start of the ‘Age of Discovery’, and first arrived in Holland where it acquired a following, and later was introduced into Germany and France. Dutch tea even found its way to the new world to its settlement of New Amsterdam, the roots of modern day New York.

Tea was first made available in England from 1657, but was not initially widely taken up due to its expense, not least due to high taxation, though the proliferation of smuggling eventually began to make tea more affordable.

The British tax on tea was finally repealed in 1785, though it came too late for their American colonies, which protested against the exorbitant taxation during the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a spark that ignited the rebellion which would eventuate in American independence.

With the increasing demand for tea and China’s monopoly on its trade, the British hatched a plan to produce tea in India during the 1840’s using smuggled plants from China, which came to fruition in the production of Darjeeling Tea, but the later discovery of an endemic variety of Camellia sinensis in Assam, close to the Chinese border, began the mass production of Indian tea. Tea for the British market was also later grown in Malaya, in the Cameron Highlands.

With cheaper tea available, the drink quickly became the favourite of the British, and despite the fact that they had largely circumvented the Chinese market, it was highly fashionable to serve tea in the Chinese style, and one of the most prized possessions of any household was the ‘China’ tea service, though here too the British had emulated the long held secrets of porcelain and produced their own imitations.

The British taste for tea, until recently, was largely for the black type, usually muted with milk and often sweetened with sugar. Blended teas are also a common feature in western markets.

Nowadays, except to true aficionados, the art of tea in the west is almost entirely lost, and unceremoniously throwing a tea bag into a mug and pouring over boiling water is now an established norm.

However, in the original tea drinking cultures, refined sampling of all types of tea, carefully and lovingly brewed at their crucially appropriate water temperatures still prevail and are the essence of tea appreciation.

When visiting China, you can experience the art of tea in the teahouses of the various tea growing regions, one of the most famous and revered being the Red Robe Valley, home to many rare tea plants, producing the famous Oolong rock teas.