Volumes have been written on the history of tea. If you are a newcomer to this treasure of the world, you will soon discover the beauty of this incredible commodity that has influenced the world's trade, politics, traditions, art, religious rituals and philosophies. It has brought many to riches and sent many to ruins. Wars were started because of tea; The Opium trade was initiated by the tea trade in China. There is always more to be learned about the ever-evolving world of tea.
Lets have a quick and simple overview of the history of tea.
According to Chinese legend, tea was “discovered“ by the Emperor Shen Nong around 2700 BCE when tea leaves blew into his cup of hot water. The species Camellia sinensis has its original home in the Yunnan province of China and 260 of the world's 380 varieties of tea are found there. The oldest wild tea tree is more then 1700 years old. That’s old! While you are in the Tahoe region, you might want to visit the largest known Western Juniper that grows on the North side of Sardine Peak just North of Truckee. We have some very old trees here that are older then 2000 years. It is remarkable to stand in the presence of something that has been around for so long.
Back to tea:
The oldest cultivated tea plant is over 800 years old, also found in the Yunnan province. Originally tea was used in religious rituals and it was first known as tu, which was later derived into the word tea by Europeans. The first book on tea was written by Lu Yü in the 700s. It was called Ch’a –Ching and it covered everything from origins, growing, manufacturing to preparing tea and much more in great detail. The real credit for discovering and spreading tea goes to Buddhist monks who brought tea from India to China. The Chinese then incorporated tea into their culture and religion. Buddhist monks developed various types of green, white and oolong teas. The custom of drinking tea spread from the southern part of China to the North. Monks, seaman, merchants and bankers from around the globe carried tea from China back to their home. When Buddhist monks first brought tea seeds to Japan, it caught on fast. Tea was responsible for a stronger bond between China and Tibet, it was a major commodity in trading for valuable horses and large government plantations. Tea also promoted trade with Mongolia by the Silk Route to Central Asia and eventually to the Middle East.
The Dutch were the first to bring tea to Europe in 1610. The first tea was very expensive and became fashionable in high society circles at The Hague. It was first sold as medicine in apothecaries but by mid to the late 1600s it could be found in markets. By late 1600, tea ventured into France and was soon enjoyed in grand salons in Paris. The novelty and excitement surrounding tea soon died down in France and Germany. The new emerging markets outside Holland were England and Russia. The trade between China and Russia was established and happened in one particular town on the border called “Buy-sell City." Soon Russian merchants bought more tea then any other goods. It was transported by camels so it took almost a year to complete a round trip from Buy- sell City to Moscow. Russians invented the samovar, which is a self-heated pot. They kept tea available at all times and drank it through sugar cubes. Tea then moved West…
In the time of Queen Elizabeth, the East India Company was established. It was later called the John Company and it soon became the most powerful and influential trading company in the world. They were granted a monopoly over trade of all territories except Western Europe, Western Africa and South America. John Company secured a monopoly over the tea trade and it was the greatest monopoly of any other commodity in the world. The first tea was introduced to England in 1658. King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine, helped start the tea-drinking trend. She was a tea drinker long before she arrived for the wedding. As a part of a dowry, she brought a chest of Chinese tea. She served it to her new aristocratic friends at court. The word spread and more people wished to drink it, but it was very expensive. For most of the population it cost a whole week's wages for a pound of tea.
Along with tea from China came porcelain –a hard translucent glazed pottery, which became popular by the wealthy, who collected it in mass. Part of the reason for such large quantities of porcelain imported to England was to balance the ship's ballast. Tea became England’s national drink by the 1800s, replacing ale for breakfast and gin at any other time of the day. King Charles ll taxed tea heavily, which started a thriving black market along the shores of England. And so, the British drank tea, and lots of it. Coffee houses were replaced by newly fashionable tea gardens. These gardens became places for great social gatherings where women were actually welcome, unlike in earlier coffee houses.
Tea was very popular in England’s American colonies and its subjects probably drank more tea then all of England. Popularized by the sober Quakers, it was widely prescribed for health and well-being.
Tea, of course, helped spark the American Revolution. The duty tax was imposed on tea in the American colony without consultation. Taxation without representation was illegal under the British constitution. The Americans revolted against the unfair tax and decided to fight back, using tea as the driving force. We know that tea mixes with salt water just fine, as seen with the Boston Tea Party. This revolt was followed by tea floating in the harbors of New York, Annapolis and Maryland. The new republic was born and tea became a symbol for revolution.
Tea trade from China came to a fairly abrupt end due to the Chinese-British war. What was the cause of it? Opium! Tea had to be paid for largely in silver and in order to obtain silver, the British East India Company was growing opium in Bengal, by then a part of the British Empire. They were then selling it to the opium-addicted Chinese for silver, which in turn they used to purchase tea. Of course all this was highly illegal. In 1839 a Chinese official, Lin Zexu deposited 20,000 chests of opium into the sea. Sound familiar? A year later, Britain declared war on China and China retaliated by placing an embargo on all tea exports. From then on difficulties in trading with China forced the British to look for a new place to grow tea. Northern India seemed to be a promising location because of the climate and the native tea trees that were discovered in the Assam area. It would take some time for one Charles Bruce to persuade the Tea committee that his brother’s discovery of a tea plant in this remote jungle area between India and Burma was of real Camellia sinensis. Today India is the world’s largest tea producer providing employment for over two million people and producing over a billion pounds of tea a year.
Thanks to the Jackson brothers, who introduced the first tea-rolling machine, tea production increased tremendously. Consumption of tea increased due to cheaper, increased production and faster transportation through the Suez Canal. Steamers replaced Clipper Ships and the price of tea dropped throughout the world. India’s black tea soon surpassed China’s green varieties in England. In Russia the completion of the Trans- Siberian railroad ended the tea caravans, which brought tea to Moscow consumers in weeks instead of months.
Sir Thomas Lipton, a native Scot and entrepreneur, learned powerful and creative advertising techniques during his time working as a young man in a department store in New York. He returned home to Scotland to work at a family-owned grocery store and soon opened his own. He built an empire of tea and the name Thomas Lipton became synonymous especially with Ceylon tea. Sir Thomas Lipton- yes, he was knighted in 1889- was an innovator, a showman, a pioneer in tea advertising and a multimillionaire. He was also a yachtsman and he challenged New York Yacht club for the America’s Cup- the most prestigious prize in yachting- and failed five times. He never married and died in 1931 at age 81 without an heir. Hmmm, maybe I should volunteer?
Tea today enjoys a new renaissance. Although mass growth is in CTC (cut-tear-curl) grade for tea bags, which is less expensive and of much lesser quality, true tea lovers are returning to ancient ways of hand-picked, hand-rolled teas which have superior taste, color and aroma. Recently, a demand for organic and fair-trade teas has been on the rise. There are huge areas of tea plantations owned by large corporations that produce thousands of pounds of tea a year. There is always a supply and demand game. The more we as consumers demand organic teas and other produce, more will have to be supplied to us. We can have control over what we choose to consume. Think about it! We can make an impact and every little bit counts. It is pure economics and in this case it makes even more sense to choose organic. It is good for the consumer, good for the earth, good for tea-producing regions and its people.
To read more on tea and history:
New Tea Lover’s Treasury by James Norwood Pratt (one of my favorite books on tea)
The Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew
The New Tea Book by Sara Perry