Colonial Green Teas Had Roots in China

October 28, 2016 by Bruce Richardson

Two of the five Chinese teas aboard the three ships docked in Boston Harbor in December 1773 were green teas: hyson and singlo. The better of the two was singlo. Here is the tally of chests of singlo green tea for each ship:

Beaver – Singlo (1st Sort) – 20 chests containing 1,637 lbs. at 2s8d

Dartmouth – Singlo (1st Sort) – 20 chests containing 1,596 lbs. at 2s8d

Eleanor – Singlo (Hyson Skins) – 20 chests containing 1,389 lbs. at 3s

birthplace-of-tea

19th century map of China’s tea growing regions showing Sunglo and Bohea mountains.

This shipment of singlo might have been the first to the colonies via the British East India Company. The Company paid a good price for it in Canton and, because green tea had a shorter shelf life than black tea, it’s quality was fading fast as it piled up in London warehouses.

 

Chinese workers rolling hyson green tea before drying.

Upon arrival in London’s Docklands, teas from China were unpacked, inspected, and repacked. Tea was sometimes moldy or damaged by water during the nearly yearlong voyage from Canton. Best singlo was packed into smaller half-chests chests because merchants bought tea by the chest. This helped equalize the cost of a chest of good green tea versus a large chest of cheaper bohea. Plus, singlo leaves were slightly curled and they would not have been pressed down in the chests by the feet of workers in the Canton warehouses. Black teas were always packed tightly into chests.

The best green tea originated from the Sunglo Mountains (present day Anhui Province).  This tea was called Singlo – an Anglicization of Sunglo. Due to demand, Sunglo mountain bushes were eventually propagated in lower elevation gardens. The leaves were made into tea known as Hyson.  For many years, Singlo meant mountain tea and Hyson meant garden tea.

Sifting green tea to separate grades

Sifting green tea to separate grades

According to Cow Mow, one of the oldest Chinese traders associated with the East India Company,

“Tea has been known from time immemorial. There is a mountain called Singlo mountain. Tea was originally produced here, so that the tea planted in other places was called Singlo Tea, also hill tea. That which is called Yuen or garden tea is the Singlo tea planted in gardens. This custom prevailed so far back as the dynasty of Sung (960-1278). Hyson tea was formerly called garden tea, and was first cultivated in the towns of Hieu Ning and Moo Yuen. In the reign of Can Hee (1661-1722) a man used for his sign the two characters Hee Chun, or Hyson. Shortly after all garden tea was called Hee Chun of Hyson.

Following the rolling of the green tea, the leaves are hand sorted by women with the best leaves set aside as Singlo skins. The second grade being Singlo. The large closely twisted leaves form the Hyson teas. The large open and knobby leaves form the superior Hyson skin teas.”

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Author: Bruce Richardson
Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

Accomplishments
MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 25 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo and China Global Tea Fair. He is the author of over a dozen books on the subject of tea. Mr. Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.