Whenever you pick up that steaming cup of orange pekoe, oolong, or Earl Grey, do you ever think about the origins of this drink, which is now so commonplace in homes and restaurants throughout the world?
Tea has a long and colorful history, much more so than coffee. As a matter of fact, historians agree that we know exactly when tea was ‘invented’, though some argue that it is more legend than fact.
In the Beginning
In the year 2737 BC, it is said that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree while his servant boiled his drinking water (a common practice at that time). A few stray leaves blew into the pot that held the water. Being an herbalist and convinced of the healing properties of natural herbs and leaves, he decided to try the concoction. The result was a taste that he loved and a drink that quickly grew in popularity throughout the land.
Tea was so popular in China that archaeologists have found tea containers buried in tombs from the early centuries A.D. In the seventh century, during the Tang Dynasty, author Lu Yu wrote the first book about the beverage and called it the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic.
Soon, tea arrived in Japan, courtesy of a number of Japanese monks who had traveled to China for religious study and brought the drink back to their country. It is believed that the Japanese Tea Ceremony, still an important part of Japanese culture today, is based on a similar ceremony described in the Ch’a Ching. In the early years, however, tea in Japan was expensive and enjoyed mostly by the aristocracy.
Europe and the West
Despite the popularity of tea in the East, it took several centuries for the drink to make it to Europe and, eventually, North America. The first mention of tea in Europe came from a Venetian who wrote about the wonderful healing properties of the drink and credited the long lives of the Asian population to their tea consumption. Portuguese priests who had traveled to China to spread Catholicism also talked about the drink.
In the early 1600s, the Dutch brought tea to Europe by way of the island of Java, and the Dutch East India Company began to market tea leaves, stressing their medicinal quality. However, the leaves are quite unaffordable for the general public and tea soon becomes a drink of the aristocracy, not unlike Japan several centuries before. Wealthy women start organizing tea parties, much to the chagrin of their husbands and religious leaders, who rallied for a ban on the drink.
In 1650, tea makes its way to America via the Dutch, who introduce it in the colony of New Amsterdam (New York). Tea also begins appearing in English coffee houses around this time. It wasn’t, however, until 1662, when Charles II married a Portuguese tea-loving woman, that tea began to rise in popularity in England. Some even say that it became such a rage that alcohol consumption in the country actually declined! Beautiful tea gardens sprung up throughout the country and nearly everyone young and old enjoyed the beverage.
The Russians discovered tea in the early 17th century as well. It became their habit to enjoy it with a bit of honey stirred in or even strawberry jam.
In the late eighteenth century, it was tea and the high taxes levied on it that was responsible for the start of the American Revolution. At ‘The Boston Tea Party’, angry colonists threw expensive tea into the harbor to protest the exorbitant tea tax that England had placed upon their favorite beverage.
Shortly after the end of the Revolution, the British drastically reduced import taxes on tea, therefore ending huge tea smuggling operations that were rampant throughout the country. In 1785, the country legally imported 11 million pounds of tea.
In the meantime, botanists in India were experimenting with growing their own crop of tea and by 1835, they were successful. The first tea plantations were introduced in Assam, India. But by the 1880s, thanks to quick-moving clipper ships, America became the largest importer of tea.
The Twentieth Century
Iced tea was introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and quickly became a hit. Today, 70% of the tea Americans drink is iced. Tea bags arrived at about the same time and Thomas Lipton soon became king of the tea bag, designing a pouch that could be dropped directly into boiling water to produce the perfect cup.
Today, most tea is grown in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Argentina and China, yet people all over the world enjoy this beverage each and every day. With literally thousands of varieties available, you’d never have to drink the same flavor twice!