Tea is the most widely consumed beverage after water, with a history that dates back many thousands of years. Tales surrounding the origins of tea are filled with facts and ancient myths about spirituality and philosophy. Let's take a more detailed look at the intriguing history of tea and how it achieved the global dominance it has today.
The origins of tea are shrouded in legend and mystery. The Chinese believe that tea was discovered almost 5,000 years ago by the emperor of early China, Shen Nong, who is said to have discovered it by accident. Legend goes that while he was boiling water in the garden, a leaf from a wild tea tree fell into his pot. Shen Nong was impressed by the taste and the refreshing effect of the newly discovered beverage, and continued to research the plant and its beneficial properties.
Another ancient legend tells about the discovery of tea by a saint, the founder of Zen Buddhism Prince Bodhi-Dharma. As he accidentally fell asleep during meditation, he got so upset about it that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. A tea plant is said to have sprouted for his sacrifice and thereafter, tea would provide a stimulant to help keep students of Zen awake during meditation.
Legends about the discovery of tea aside, it is likely that its real origins are somewhere in China or India. Chinese traders on their journeys through these regions may have encountered people who chewed tea leaves for medicinal purposes.
What is sometimes referred to as the Classic Age of Tea in the Far East began around the 7th to 9th century BC. This is when tea consumption became more widespread and started to become China’s national drink.
At this time, a Buddhist monk named Lu Yu (733–804) created the Ch’a Ching or Classic of Tea monograph, the first work of writing on tea in the world. The monk described preparation of tea as well as its various medicinal benefits. His writings linked tea with Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian principles, which are reflected in the harmony and simplicity of the traditional tea ceremony.
It is said that a Japanese Buddhist monk who studied in China discovered tea in the 9th century and subsequently introduced it to Japan. After he returned to Japan with tea seeds, many monks followed suit and cultivated the curious new plant at their monasteries.
It was also in Japan where they ground the tea leaves into a fine powder called Matcha—a precursor to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony where tea is prepared using a bamboo whisk and bowl.
Only later, during the Ming Dynasty from the 14th century on, did it become popular to prepare tea by steeping the whole leaves.
Sporadic accounts by traders and explorers from Europe who made their way to the regions of the Far East refer to the boiling of the strange and somewhat bitter-tasting leaves as early as the 9th century. In the 13th century, Marco Polo wrote about tea in his travel writings.
It did, however, take several more centuries until tea became more widely known in the West. It wasn’t until the 16th century that Dutch merchants started to seriously trade the plant. The Dutch East India Company brought in the first shipments of tea from China and Japan. Via the famous Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that connected the East and the West, tea was transported on the back of camels, where it also made its way to other parts of the world.
Out of range for common folks due to the high price, tea became a popular novelty beverage among the high society in London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
Contrary to what some may think, the English didn’t jump on the tea craze right away. Coffee was a far more popular brew in England’s coffee houses, where it was mainly served to men. Tea, however, slowly caught on. It was particularly well-liked by women as a fancier alternative to the bold and “manly” coffee. It wasn’t until the 17th century when the first coffee shop opened in England that also sold tea. From there, tea saw a steep rise in popularity in London’s coffee houses. The British East India Trade Company, just like their Dutch counterpart, started to bring in tea to England from the Far East.
The British East India Company became a major trading power and would go on to monopolise the tea trade with China. But the company’s influence extended far beyond just the realm of tea. Having established hubs in many major cities of India, the company had a significant part in creating a powerful British Empire all across the world.
In the early 18th century, Robert Bruce, a British Army Major, discovered indigenous tea bushes that grew in the Assam region of India. The British East India Company started to cultivate their own tea there and also planted tea seeds in the Darjeeling region at the foot of the Himalayas. Soon, the British government established a large number of tea estates in these areas, making the English less dependent on the Chinese.
In the 16th century, just like across the pond in Europe, tea became popular in the newly founded Dutch settlements of the New World. In New Amsterdam (which was later renamed to New York), the beverage became popular among the wealthy, and the tea trade flourished.
The British East India Company, however, implemented heavy taxes on tea as a way to save their failing financial position. They were able to ship tea duty-free to the colonists in the New World, undercutting local tea merchants and thus creating anger among them.
Tensions in America rose and finally culminated in the Boston Tea Party, where colonists protested by dumping a shipment of tea off the ships into the waters off Boston. The British government responded harshly and the episode escalated into the American Revolution, ultimately leading to America’s independence from England in 1776.
For the British East India Company, things didn’t look too great either. Many independent tea merchants, among them Richard Twinning, set out to reveal the Company’s corrupt practices, which at some point led to the British EIC’s downfall.
With the British East India Company and their corrupt business practices gone, America started its own tea trade with China in 1850. Gone was the requirement that all tea had to come from England. In a short time, America established a busy tea trade using their own, more modern, and faster fleet of trading ships.
While tea in America didn’t become quite as popular as in some other parts of the world, it was in America that tea saw two big innovations: iced tea and tea bags.
Iced tea was invented at the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. A tea vendor at the fair didn’t have much luck trying to hand out free hot tea samples, which wasn’t too surprising seeing that the weather was unusually hot. In a bout of simple genius, he asked a nearby ice vendor for ice cubes, which he dumped into the brewed tea. A new, refreshing beverage—iced tea—was born and became an instant hit that is still popular today all across America.
The invention of tea bags is often credited to a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan, who sent samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Some folks thought these bags were supposed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers, so they put the entire bag into the pot without emptying out the contents. It was thus by accident that the tea bag was born!
Today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage next to water worldwide, with many types of teas enjoyed all over the globe. China is still the largest consumer of tea, but per person, Turkey, Ireland, and the United Kingdom are home to the world's biggest tea drinkers.