The history of tea dates back over 4,000 years. It’s a tale that spans China, Japan, India, England and more.
Table of Contents
- The Discovery of Tea in China
- The Spread of Tea to Japan
- History of Tea in Europe
- Its Journey to Russia
- History of Tea in England
- History of the Opium Wars and Empire Tea
- History of Lipton Tea
- The Spread of Tea to North America
- History of Iced Tea
Discovery of Tea: A History of Tea in China
Tea was accidentally discovered in 2737 BCE, in China, by the emperor and father of Chinese medicine, Shen Nong. One day, while sitting under a wild tea tree, a few leaves fell into simmering water he was preparing. When he drank it, he found it delicious.
For centuries, tea was used primarily in monasteries as a medicine or a stimulant.
Tea didn’t become a drink until the reign of Emperor Wen of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 – 256 BCE). It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) that tea became an everyday drink.
The Spread of Tea: A History of Tea in Japan
The first tea seeds for cultivation are thought to have reached Japan from China around 805 CE. Tea began in a monastery and five years later reached Emperor Saga, who ordered increased cultivation.
When relations between China and Japan deteriorated, tea fell out of favor in Japan. Its consumption was limited to monasteries until the 1100s.
History of Tea in Europe
Tea reached Europe in the early 1600s. It’s unclear whether the Dutch or the Portuguese introduced tea to Europe, as both were trading in the China Seas at the time.
Although popular early on, tea was less popular overall in France and Germany. Russia and England were the countries where tea caught on.
Tea in Russia
Russia received its first tea as a gift from the Chinese to Tsar Alexis in 1618. It remained a drink of the Russian aristocrats for almost 200 years because of limited supply (it took 16-18 months for camels to transport tea from China to Russia).
Tea in England
The first recorded date of tea appearing in Britain is 1658, when Thomas Garraway sold tea by auction in London. When the Portuguese princess, Catharine of Braganza married King Charles II in 1662, Catharine’s love of tea turned tea into a popular drink amongst the wealthy.
In the early 1700s, tea was served in coffeehouses, where only men were allowed. If women wanted tea from a coffeehouse, they had to have a man purchase the tea for them.
Tea was heavily taxed (along with coffee and chocolate) – nearly an entire week’s wages for the average person. This led to a black market for tea smuggled from Holland. Often the smuggled tea was cut to make it stretch further and increase profits. Smugglers used licorice leaves dyed with molasses or clay, and steeped in sheeps’ dung. Green tea was easier to dilute, leading consumers to prefer black tea.
In the 1700s, tea became the most popular drink in Britain. Tea was drunk at all times of the day, until the early 1800s, when Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford invented afternoon tea, to give her a light snack between lunch and dinner.
History of the Opium Wars and Empire Tea
Tea was a very lucrative export to Britain for China. British tea consumption kept growing, and China didn’t need a single British export…expect opium.
Even though opium was an illegal import in China, by 1800, the British became a larger exporter of opium to China.
The British East India Company grew opium, sold it through merchants in Calcutta to China for silver, and then purchased tea from China with the same silver.
The illegal opium trade continued until 1839, when a Chinese official, Lin Zexu, destroyed 20,000 chests of opium. A year later, Britain declared war on China, and China placed an embargo on all exports of tea.
Fortune had it that the British East India Company had recently established tea plantations in Northern India, and had just started shipping tea to London in 1838. The Indian tea industry was poised for profit! By 1901, British imports of tea from Indian and Ceylon would be greater than those from China.
History of Lipton Tea
Thomas Lipton visited Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) in the 1870s. He was only 40 and already a millionaire with grocery stores all over Britain. He realized he could make a large profit by producing his own tea and selling it directly to the British public in his own grocery stores, thus cutting out the middle man.
History of Tea in North America
Tea arrived in North America with colonists. The same rules of etiquette applied as in Europe, and it was equally enjoyed by all classes.
The Boston Tea Party ended the American love of tea. An Act of Parliament in 1767 placed a tax on tea. Because the only tea that could be legally imported into the colonies was from the British East India Company, there was no way to avoid paying the tax.
Within two years, most American ports were refusing to allow the goods ashore. When Britain sent seven shiploads of tea from London, problems erupted. Demonstrations occurred in New York and Philadelphia, forcing the ships to turn back. Customs officials in Charleston seized the cargo. In Boston, men disguised as Native Americans boarded the Darmouth and threw 340 tea chests overboard. The British government closed Boston harbor and sent troops.
The War of Independence and the American love of coffee began.
History of Iced Tea
It’s widely believed that iced tea is an American drink made by an Englishman.
The story tells that iced tea was first made in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Tea merchants from around the world offered samples of freshly brewed tea for tasting. Richard Blechnyden, and Englishman from Calcutta, was there, representing the India and Ceylon Teas.
St. Louis was hot that summer. No one wanted to drink hot tea. They wanted something cold. Blechnyden came up with the brilliant idea of filling glasses with ice, and pouring tea on top. A new drink began – Iced Tea!
However, a recipe for iced tea was published in 1877, in Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree.
Marion Cabell Tyree was teaching people how to make iced tea long before Richard Blechnyden made it popular at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Today, roughly half the tea drank is iced tea.
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