The tea we know and love today has had a journey like no other. As most people know, tea originated in China. Although it is still a wonderfully loved drink in its original country, it has become a worldwide beverage enjoyed in many different cultures taking many different shapes.
Today we are going to explore this rich and wide history, the drama that has circulated the drink, and the modern day changes that have influenced the flavor.
Of course, there is more than one type of tea to drink. We will dive into these wonders too! Sit back, and take a sip as the kettle boils.
The story around tea starts with a legend. Emperor Shennong was the ruler of the time. The story goes that the Emperor was drinking a bowl of hot water. It had just been boiled, and he was enjoying its clarity when leaves blew over from a nearby tree. They landed in his drink, creating a new color.
Intrigued, Emperor Shennong took a sip and found its flavor surprisingly delightful. He even felt a little zip of energy.
There is a variant of this story that goes on to say that Emperor Shennong tested out many different leaves from this first accident and found some to be poisonous and others as antidotes.
All of this supposedly happened in 2737 BC, before the Tang dynasty. There are other versions where the god of agriculture created and discovered the tea’s properties and another which is more curious.
In this last version, Bodhidharma (the founder of Chan Buddhism) fell asleep for 9 years. When he woke up, he was so upset about this blunder that he cut off his eyelids. He dropped them on the ground, only for them to turn into energy giving tea bushes.
No matter which version of the legend was true, the popularity of tea really began in the 4th century. The Chinese stopped using the drink for purely medical reasons and started to consume the beverage for pleasure. It became an everyday drink for all classes of people.
Reaching around the 8th century, you would find tea plantations across the country, where tea merchants were one of the richest in the lands. Drinking refined, elegant tea was a symbol of wealth.
It was during this time that different types of tea started to emerge. Cheap and expensive variations were being grown to give the people the taste they wanted but allow the wealthy to enjoy something special.
During this time of tea expansion, the Chinese empire had tight control over the crops. Everything from preparation to distribution was closely monitored. Tea was considered a pure drink, which needed to be treated with care to keep its clarity. Because of this, only young women were allowed to handle tea leaves.
Young women were considered the purest of all people, and their delicate nature should not taint the precious leaves. These women were seen as almost godly in their time with the leaves. However, it wasn’t all tea parties and cakes for them. To keep themselves pure, these women were not allowed to eat anything with strong flavors that may have tainted the tea.
This meant that they could not eat onions, strong spices, or garlic. For their time in high respect, they had to eat bland food.
Throughout this tea expansion, all tea in its various forms was still a type of green tea. It was the mid-17th century when this started to change.
The real pushing factor for the invention was due to growing foreign trade. Trade had always been a thing, but in the 17th century, the porcelain, silk, and spice trade began. Trading ships were traveling to many countries around the world from major cultures.
To capitalize on travelers hoping to bring their goods back to their own country, China had to think of a new way to package their tea. Green tea was fresh and so had to be used just days after picking. It couldn’t last on the month’s sea voyage which travelers needed.
The growers realized that the tea essence would last longer if they fermented the leaves. However, the flavor changed. What they had invented was black tea. The taste and smell were stronger, meaning the travelers didn’t need as much to create a delicious flavor. It traveled well and lasted for months on the travels to other countries.
To this day, tea has remained a significant part of Chinese culture. To help you understand just how long tea has been a shared experience, we want to point out other well-known historical moments which didn’t live as long as tea.
The great pyramids of Ancient Egypt were created and forgotten inside the time of tea. Ancient Greece was born and fell inside the time of tea. And the Roman Empire conquered and fell during the time of tea.
Through all these changes around the world, this humble beverage managed to withstand it all.
Even now, tea continues to hold a high status in Chinese culture. Students across the country strive to attend the Shanghai Tea Institute but only a select few attend. In this school, they learn the Guzheng (a traditional stringed instrument), perform royalty-level tea-serving ceremonies, and learn languages from across the world so they can communicate with everyone at their gatherings.
Of course, they also learn the taste, appearance, and growing techniques of over 1,000 different teas. With so much to learn, only 75 students have been officially certified and awarded the Tea Art certification.
As China was developing its tea dynasty, Europe was none the wiser. It wasn’t until the 16th century that travelers brought back tales of this refreshing and invigorating drink. These stories mostly came from the Portuguese. During this time, Portugal ruled the seas, so their journey to the east was more common than any other European country.
They traded and attempted missionary work on their travels, and they often brought back amazing foods and trinkets from other countries. Tea, as we discussed, didn’t travel well until the 17th century’s black tea was created. However, those who traveled with the sailors grew to love this beverage.
Despite the Portuguese knowledge of tea, it was actually the Dutch who managed to bring back commercial imports to their country first. It was black tea, of course, but this ability to bring back imports that Portugal had failed to achieve was a sign that the Portuguese trading routes were failing.
Dutch had to go through these routes to get the tea, and by being successful, it told the world that Portugal didn’t have a stronghold on their watery territory.
Because the travel from China to Europe was so difficult, only the wealthy could afford this exotic beverage.
Because of this first step created by the Dutch, the Netherlands had domination over the tea trade in Europe. However, it was the British who wanted to bring tea to the masses. In 1678, the royal family of Britain decided to take control over the profits and trade of tea.
To do this, they created the business the East India Company, chartered it, and allowed it to build a monopoly over all trade throughout Eastern Africa and Asia. This was a show of dominance for the British Empire. And as it controlled and monitored so many countries, this takeover wasn’t difficult.
During this time, tea was more of a commodity than money itself. This meant that the British Empire would do all it could to secure this trading route and its newfound domination over tea. The East India Company was given permission to build armies and forts, coin money, find and conquer territory, form alliances with foreign aids, punish the lawbreakers in their declared lands, and even declare war.
This forceful domination continued until 1833. In the end, the British Parliament stepped in and decided that competition would be needed to bring customers the best deals and allow the businesses to learn and grow. This overturned the British Royal Family decision.
Although Britain stepped back and allowed other countries to use their routes, the world was changed. Even now, you can see British influence over Singapore, Hong Kong, India, and other colonies. This legacy was created all for the power over tea.
Britain decided to take over the tea trade, which was a little unusual at the time. World domination was always on the cards, but the enjoyment of foreign ideals wasn’t something they would typically partake in.
Instead, Britain tended to be suspicious of other cultures and especially their trending fashions. However, it was the gift of tea to a noble that changed their stiff upper lip.
We already know about the East India Company, but before they were formed, the creators tried to woo the wealthy. These gifts of tea showed an elegance that upper class Britons didn’t expect.
It became a popular drink among the elite, but the East India Company could see the financial potential to deliver these goods to more than just the rich. However, it wasn’t until 1658 that the first-ever tea advertisement was declared. The ad was in a London newspaper, and it said:
“China drink called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee.”
It sent the people of London to a coffee house, which was the favored place of low wage high thinkers. Coffee houses were also known as penny universities and first popped up around London in 1652.
However, it wasn’t until Queen Catherine Barganaza (wife to King Charles the second) became addicted to the drink that the rest of the nation followed. Queen Catherine was Portuguese and, as a princess in her own country, fell in love with the beverage while the Portuguese were well in control of the seas.
King Charles’ love for her, and her love for tea, is what created the power struggle over this wealthy person’s drink. And as the royals were celebrities of their time, the masses followed suit. Soon everyone wanted to know what this drink was and how to get a hold of it.
She would tell her ladies in waiting about the drink she so loved, as it was commonly found in her castles growing up. In fact, the aristocratic circles and elite societies would prize their high class citizens with hot beverages as a sign of wealth.
When she moved to Britain, Queen Catherine found it difficult to mingle in a society that loved a brawl and a party. She became known as a “true royal” due to her tender nature and her delicate aura. It didn’t take long for her to become a trendsetter, so if she wanted something less alcoholic and more dainty, then so did the rest of the country.
One of her many fans was politician Edmund Waller. For Queen Catherine’s birthday, he wrote her a poem, which truly summed up her love for tea. It went like this:
Her love of tea came around the same time that intelligent thinkers were swarming to coffee shops so they could talk to their scholarly friends about important issues that would otherwise be lost at a pub.
Although coffee was more popular than tea during this time, it became a cultural divider among the British. Those who wanted a bitter taste chose coffee, and those who wanted a delicate warmth went for tea.
Still, choice was abundant as over 3,000 coffee houses could be found in London alone. Although tea was sold in these coffee houses, they were too expensive for the working class. Instead, they were aimed at middle class and upper class women.
Part of the reason for the high cost was the taxation system. Shockingly, the first tax for tea was valued per leaf. For comparison, 25p per cup could go towards tax. That’s roughly £11.87 ($16.15) today’s money.
This ridiculous tax hike meant that sales almost stopped as soon as they started. This tax was then dropped down to 5p per pound 3 years later, which translates to £2.37 ($3.23).
This taxing system then stayed true until 1964!
The reason for the tax was to keep the middle and upper classes in control of the tea, which was so difficult to bring over. However, this didn’t stop the working class from finding a way. Britons turned to low quality alternatives and smuggling to get their fix.
Tea gangs began to form, and despite their cute name, their methods were brutal. The smuggling started small, as the traders sold small pounds of leaves to their contacts for bigger but unrecorded prices.
The smugglers were happy to pay it, as this price was before taxation. Both the seller and the smuggler were happy. However, in just 10 years, that small pound of tea quickly turned into a 7 million pound annual weight. For comparison, the official legal imports were just 5 million pounds in weight!
As with any non-legitimate dealing, illegally sourced tea wasn’t quality controlled. People were so desperate to jump in with the craze that they would accept it anyway. The only thing the smuggler needed to do was create a somewhat nice flavor with a believable color.
To create the color, some smugglers used sheep dung, while others used copper carbonate (which we now know to be poisonous).
By 1874 the government wanted to crack down on the illegal tea market. It wasn’t to ensure the health of the people, but to belittle the opinions it created about the government and openly criticized the ridiculousness of its bureaucracy.
Alongside the massive taxation issues that came with tea, there were also polarizing arguments about whether the drink was good for you or bad.
It was around this time that Europeans, specifically Britain and France, were going through the Enlightenment era. The enlightenment era was a time of changed thinking. Politicians, poets, artists, and medical personnel were putting more emphasis on rational thought and logic. It was the time of scientific boom as people chose to focus on evidence instead of tradition to solve their problems.
Bring tea into the mix, and scientists wanted to know if the beverage was as medically beneficial as the newspapers were claiming.
We now know that tea (especially green tea) is good for your health. It can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers. However, the technology we have today helped make this conclusion. Back in the 17th century, they couldn’t definitively prove this.
It was the wealthy philanthropists that tried to sway the general public away from tea. They believed that the working class (who did most of the work around the country) shouldn’t drink tea as it would make them weak and melancholy. As the working class was so vital to the economy of the time, they couldn’t allow their worker bees to be relaxed. Instead, they wanted to keep their laborers constantly on the move to make money.
What these upper class people were talking about wasn’t incorrect, though. Tea does make people calm and reflective, but as we now know, this helps with mental health issues and anxiety. It was simply the attitude towards the lower classes which created this questionable ideology.
This can be seen when the same wealthy philanthropists had no problems with the upper and middle classes drinking tea in excess. This was because labor and strength weren’t considered important, and as the Romantic era would continue to state in the 18th century, melancholy was significant to emotional transparency.
However, it wouldn’t be until the Temperance Movement in the 19th century that this opinion changed amongst the wealthy. This was the movement to completely abstain from alcohol. This movement was mostly found in the United States of America but quickly moved to other English-speaking countries. The movement came forth to bring people closer to the Christian God; however, the wealthy elite realized that their workforce was more productive when sober.
To help the working-class curve their alcoholic tendencies, tea was offered as a substitute.
By now, you can see just how important tea was to British high society. The working class strived to get a drop to the point where they would drink sheep dung, and the Royals would take over the world to control the best suppliers.
Britain saw the power of tea and used it as payment to their allies around the world. America was one of the many countries controlled by the British Empire. This meant that Britain could charge their outrageous tax prices on the Americans as well as their own. Only the most wealthy colonists were able to buy the leaves, which meant it was seen as a sign of upper class society.
In America, they also had the right weather to grow their own coffee beans, as with the slave trade thriving in this part of the world, they could sell coffee cheaply.
However, most Americans were not rich. They lived in settler ranches and spent most of their time working in essentials such as farming. This meant that most areas of the country were frugal and wanted to save as much money as they could. To try and bring more money into America, the politicians encouraged their citizens to buy locally. This meant boosting coffee sales and alcohol sales.
However, with the Temperance Movement taking over, one of the main options to help their economy was shut off. Now the Americans' desire for tea grew stronger. However, the tax was still too high for most people.
Remember that tea was more than just a drink. It was a symbol of wealth. The British upper and middle classes were able to drink more than the richest Americans.
As tensions grew among the wealth divide and the American’s need for a stronger self-reliance rose, the inevitable happened - a revolution. American claimed independence and were no longer subject to the tea tax.
When the East India Company shut down their monopoly over the trade of tea in 1834, the landscape of tea sales changed. Originally China was mostly selling all of their products to Britain, who then shipped it around the world. However, with more competition to think about, the East India Company decided to set up their own plantation in India.
As their name suggested, India was the location where most of the company’s operations took place, and the climate was perfect for the heat which tea bushes needed. Because of the East India Company’s remaining power, they were able to set up an industrial level tea farm, and this set up India into being one of the best tea growers to this day.
With its success, the British government took over control of the company and production to spread tea imports around the world. By 1888 the Indian farms were doing so well they rivaled China. This was the first time that another country or company managed to import more tea than the original Chinese farms.
Around about the same time, the British had invented a new type of trading boat. A clipper. These were considered tea boats and had tall masts, huge sails, and sleek lines.
Although relationships between Britain and America were strenuous during this time, they would often race clippers in both a show of strength and continued support of each other.
The races would occur in the River Thames, and the first ship to get their cargo ashore would be the winner. But when the Suez Canal opened up, these races ended. China was again geographically ready to become a high seller.
By the First World War in 1914, tea was accepted as the drink of choice for all Britons. When they sent soldiers to war and gave food packs to those who stayed behind, each ration of food would come with a portion of tea. Tea was used to boost morale and power identity.
In the Second World War, the importance of tea was ensured again, but this time the economy couldn’t handle an abundance of tea, so rations were reduced. Still, everyone was entitled to their rightful amount of the beverage.
When tea was originally sold to the coffee houses around the UK, it all took place in a building known as The London Tea Auction. This auction room lasted for 300 years and became the international trade center for all things tea. It also held importance over ships, fish, sailors, and armies but was mostly used by the East India Company.
Because of this, the building was commonly known as the East India House.
When bidding happened within the London Tea Auction, it was done “by the candle.” This means that a candle was lit, the auction took place, and would continue until the candle burnt to nothing.
When the East India Company released its monopoly on the tea industry, more tea auctions popped up around the country. However, as the world wars forced mechanical progression into our world, it became easier for people to ship tea fast instead of waiting for a massive bid. Tea auctions fell out of fashion around the world, as manufacturers would rather send their product straight to the shops instead.
Despite the Americans rejecting tea in their attempt to gain independence, they eventually came back around to the idea of this soothing beverage. In fact, the demand for tea was only hindered by the long process of brewing and preparing.
To help the Americans speed up the process, they invited the first tea bags. Although this idea should have boomed in the land of coffee drinkers, it was the British who lapped up this simplified method to make a brew.
The history of tea starts off with China and then is dominated by Britain; however that doesn’t mean that the British are the most tea obsessed.
The British royal family and government may have had the most say when it comes to production, taxation, and control, but China still holds tea in the heart of its culture.
In the UK, you will mostly only find black tea in people’s homes. But in China, the fresh cuts of green tea will be potted and prepared.
Shockingly, it’s actually Turkey that enjoys the most tea per person, having consumed 6.91 pounds of tea per year.
Ireland and the United Kingdom are not far behind, but when the Silk Road was first created, Turkey’s easy connection to the tea trade meant they could build up their love for the drink without British intervention.
The history of tea is laced in politics throughout the ages. History can be found in every leaf and every drop. From the instant status symbol of wealth created in China, and then the exotic sensation of drinks from a far off land, it seems as though tea would have always had this widely loved culture around it.
Tea may have originated in China, but from its 5 centuries of change, culture, and connection, we can safely say that this drink is a worldwide beverage, with each country having their own culture attached to it.
Nothing can bond a person to their country like their method and flavor of tea. Its history is just as rich as its flavor.