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Tea is the second most widely consumed drink in the world, coming second only to water. As the most popular infusion, it is enjoyed in many different ways across many different cultures. It's origins as a drink are largely lost in myth and legend, but it is certainly an ancient art.
Tea is a very specific infusion. While many herbal infusions may be marketed as teas, the term is specific to beverages made from the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to the area now mostly covered by China’s Yunnan Province and Luang Prabang in Laos. From that origin point it spread throughout the region. Moving westwards into India, natural selection resulted in the emergence of a distinct Camellia sinensis var. assamica varietal that today is used to produce Assam and Darjeeling teas. Spreading east into southern China, the plant in it's Camellia sinensis var. sinensis form has branched into thousands of slightly different but unique cultivars, mainly through human selection and agricultural practice.
Although it is all made from a single species of plant, tea can display a huge range of different flavours and aromas. The strong maltiness of Assam tea is perhaps the most familiar to tea drinkers in America and Europe. The smoky earthiness of Yunnan teas may have been the first flavour enjoyed by tea drinkers anywhere, while centuries of careful cultivation give the naturally sweet floral tastes of southeast Chinese teas like those from Fujian Province or the strong vegetal tastes of the Japanese teas.
The variation between different cultivars and varieties of the tea plant itself is of course only one aspect that can change the final result in the cup. The huge range of different cultivation techniques, processing methods and preparation styles found across the many tea cultures of the world have an impact, along with harvest time, weather and climate, altitude and so on. The result is that tea can seem intimidating, with so much to learn. The advantage of this is that there is of course always something new to discover even if we do have old favourites that we return to as well.