When steeped in hot or cold water, the cured leaves of Camellia sinensis make an infusion that’s become one of the most consumed beverages globally.

While coffee is king in Australia, tea reigns supreme in many regions, from its point of origin where East Asia meets South and up into Europe.

Its history is as varied as its multitude of preparations: white, black, green and oolong. In China, teahouses continue to hold significant cultural cache, with people using them as spaces to socialise or conduct business.

It’s this tea-drinking culture that Cathy Zhang hopes will become mainstream in Australia, too. But in her ideal future, teahouses will serve as a place for consumers to learn more about the history and science of tea.

“In China, tea is so integrated with our lives; we’ve been drinking tea since we were kids — maybe not in a very serious tea ceremony way, but it’s very common [for people to go to teahouses],” says Zhang. “Teahouses in China are still quite traditional. People will make tea in gongfu style.”

As more brands work to capture the attention of younger consumers, new teahouses are offering modern tea drinks. Zhang’s own tea brand Ms. Cattea is a blend of the two, both honouring tradition and capturing a new audience.

Zhang founded Ms. Cattea in Sydney in 2012 as a roving educational concept, before opening a bricks and mortar tea shop in Potts Point in late-2019. Zhang has been studying tea since 2002 and has a degree in tea science from the South China Agricultural University.

“I want to bring authentic tea culture to Australia,” says Zhang. “I come from China, but I recognise tea culture from around the world, too — there’s Korean, Japanese, Indian and European culture which are also worth sharing.”

At Ms. Cattea, Zhang aims to provide an environment for people to drink tea and learn about different tea cultures as well as the history, origins and best preparation practices for a variety of teas. “I want to start from the beginning and build people’s interest, so they can appreciate [specialty teas] more,” she says.

The first two years in a four-year tea science degree at the South China Agricultural University is spent studying the basics: categories of tea and tea culture in China.

There are thousands of iterations of both. All tea comes from the same species, Camellia sinensis, but different farming, harvesting and production methods result in uncountable varieties of tea. That’s not to mention differences across provinces.

Then, there’s a further two years spent staying with farmers on three mountains, harvesting and making tea, which is then analysed in the lab to learn its chemical composition. Unsurprisingly, there’s very little opportunity to share this knowledge with consumers in-depth.

“Unless we’re doing a tea course or classes, like a workshop, I wouldn’t be able to
share that much,” says Zhang. “For the average consumer, I try to give them some interesting facts about the tea they’re drinking, so they connect with that tea without burdening them too much.”

Here in Australia, Zhang has noted one trend in particular. “I get asked about caffeine content every single day,” she says. “People are concerned about how they’ll sleep. They’ll ask whether black tea has more caffeine than white or green tea.”

There are questions about other health concerns, too, from bolstering the immune system to improving skin. The answer? There’s a tea for everything. “We have tea for morning, day and evening,” says Zhang. “We have tea for diabetes, weight control and indigestion and different provinces will have a different tea for each.”

Zhang is talking about pure tea alone, not the herbal varieties. Again — it’s all the same plant, but the fresh leaves are harvested with different methods and processed differently to result in different teas with different characteristics and attributes.

“Green tea, white tea, oolong and black come from the same plant,” explains Zhang. “We change the character of the tea [through production methods] and they contribute different effects to our bodies.

“Green tea is cooler, so people who get cold easily — like young women who have hands and feet that get colder than our body — should probably not drink too much green tea. It won’t help with blood circulation.”

There’s a third effect — the mental state. Drinking tea can be a therapeutic pursuit, especially when some level of ceremony is involved. It’s an important piece of the puzzle for Zhang, and one she hopes will come to the fore as tea culture in Australia evolve

“Eventually, I want people to appreciate each moment with the tea they are drinking,” she says. “I think sometimes people just want the health benefits without thinking too much of the spiritual side.

“For people who come to do a tea ceremony and tea experience with me, I always want to remind them that you only get to drink each cup of tea once. Even if you come in again and drink the same [type of] tea, it will be different — I’ll make it differently because I’ll be a different person.

“Even the three teaspoons I use might have less or more tea leaves or some tea will have smaller leaves and some bigger, it will never be 100 per cent the same. That’s what we call the spirit of tea — you should cherish the moment because it will disappear so quickly.”

For now, Zhang would be happy to see more venues considering their tea offering. Despite the thousands of years of history and science behind the aromatic beverage, it still has plenty of potential to be explored.

“Good-quality tea can be drunk hot in a traditional way or cold in a more fun way,” says Zhang. “I’ve created tea menus for high-end restaurants and bars to make tea cocktails. You can batch brew and serve plain without alcohol or mix with alcohol and serve as a cocktail.”

And, while it might mean more competition for Ms. Cattea, Zhang hopes more teashops will open around Australia: “I wouldn’t see [it] as competition,” she says. “I would see it as a good extension of the market. If it’s more accessible, people will learn more about tea.