There are more than 100 tea cultivars in Japan alone, and there are an enormous number of cultivars in the world.
However, there are only two groups of tea plants that are the origin of so many tea cultivars on the earth.
Assam group and China group
Tea is a member of the Camellia sinensis family, with the scientific name Camellia sinensis (L)O.Kuntze and black tea, oolong tea, and green tea are all made from this plant.
All tea cultivars including black tea, oolong tea and green tea, are roughly divided into two groups: Assam group (large leaf tea) and China group (small leaf tea).
Branched from these two groups, various kinds of tea cultivars have been produced.
By the way, almost all of Japanese tea belongs to China group.
As of 2019, there are 119 cultivars registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in Japan. In Japan, which is a relatively cool tea-growing region, almost all tea grown in Japan belongs to the Chinese cultivar. Still, some cultivars result from crossbreeding between the Chinese and Assamese varieties.
Characteristics of Chinese group
The Chinese cultivar originates from Yunnan Province in China. It is widely used for green tea because of its low content of catechins, an astringent component, and weak oxidative enzyme activity, which makes oxidative fermentation difficult.
Compared to the Assam cultivar, the tea leaves are smaller, and it is a bush-type variety that grows to a maximum height of only about 3 meters.
It is cultivated in Japan, China, Taiwan, and the highlands of India and Sri Lanka because it has high cold tolerance and can grow in cold, dry places and in hot, humid places due to its high adaptability.
History of China group
The origin of tea is China. The history of tea is started before Christ. The tea has existed since ancient times and it appears in ancient mythology.
There are various theories about the origin of tea, but the theory that the first tea tree was found in the southwest area of Yunnan is widely accepted.
Around this time, tea leaves were recognized as a medicine and began to be consumed as a luxury around 59 B.C.
Around 760, the world’s oldest tea book, Chakyo (The Classic of Tea) was completed, and the way of drinking and brewing tea became close to the current style.
Chinese tea arrived in Japan in 805. The history of Japanese tea has started from here.
A long time later, around 1610, Chinese tea was imported to Europe for the first time.
Chinese tea was brought to Taiwan even later, around 1810.
Assam group was discovered more than 10 years later.
The history of Assam group is much shorter than that of the China group, and it is a very new variety that was discovered less than 200 years ago.
Characteristics of Assam group
The Assam cultivar originates from the Assam region of India. It is mainly used for black tea and oolong tea because it contains a large volume of catechins, astringent components, oxidative solid enzyme activity, and is easily oxidized and fermented.
The tea leaves are more significant than the Chinese cultivar, and deep creases characterize the leaf surface. Unlike the Chinese cultivar, it is a tall tree type and can grow up to 10 meters tall.
It is grown mainly in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India because it is sensitive to cold and it likes hot and humid climate.
“Benufuuki,” “Benihikari,” and “Benihomare,” which are cultivars of black tea produced in Japan, are the result of crossbreeding Assam and Chinese cultivars. The “Benihuuki,” “Benihikari,” and “Benihomare” are cultivars grown in Japan.
History of Assam group
Assam group is a wild tea tree found in the Assam region of India in 1823. It is a very new cultivar, with a history of 200 years, much shorter than that of the Chinese cultivar.
In the 1780s, imported tea trees of China group were already planted in India.
The people in India were looking for wild tea trees in their own country, not from China, but it was hard to find.
In 1823, British botanist Robert Bruce visited in Assam, India, and discovered a tea tree he had never seen. This was the discovery of Assam group (later).
However, the Indian botanist’s verdict was “This is not a tea tree, but a camellia tree.”.
It was not recognized as a tea tree at that time. Robert Bruce died in despair.
It was finally recognized as a tea tree thanks to the efforts of Robert’s younger brother Charles, who took over his will. It was the birth of Assam group.
Under the direction of Charles, the first Indian green tea made from Assam group was produced in 1838. In the following year, it was auctioned off in London at a high price.
This had raised expectations and interests in the tea business, but it had been difficult.
The land of Assam had been inhabited by dangerous wild animals and poisonous snakes, so it had been hard to develop.
Meanwhile, infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera spread and many workers died.
Tea leaves of Assam group was managed to produce, but it was too hard to secure a transportation route for exportation.
However, Assam group was a hope for the people of that time, so they had never given up.
As a result, tea production took off around 1850, 27 years after the first discovery, and the cultivation of Assam group tea trees began in Southeast Asia and Africa.
After that, black tea was born, and it has spread all over the world, mainly in the UK, until now.