The history of tea is fascinating and offers great insight into the history of our world. Since tea was first discovered in China, it has traveled the world conquering the thirsts of virtually every country on the planet. Tea is the most popular beverage in the world as well as one of the healthiest. If you have ever wondered where tea comes from and how we got to the point where tea is served in virtually every corner of the world, steep a hot cup of tea and explore the history of the simple tea leaf over the centuries!
One legend claims that the discovery of tea occurred in 2737 BC by the Emperor of China. For several hundred years, people drank tea because of its herbal medicinal qualities. By the time of the Western Zhou Dynasty, tea was used as a religious offering. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), tea plants were quite limited and only royalty and the rich drank tea not only for their health but also for the taste. As more tea plants were discovered during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), tea drinking became more common among lower classes and the Chinese government supported planting of tea plants and even the building of tea shops so everyone could enjoy tea.
Also during the Tang Dynasty, tea spread to Japan by Japanese priests studying in China. Similar to the Chinese adoption of tea, tea was first consumed by priests and the rich for its medicinal properties. Tea is often associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan because priests drank tea to stay awake and meditate. Soon, the Buddhists developed the Japanese Tea Ceremony for sharing tea in a sacred, spiritual manner. The Emperor of Japan enjoyed tea very much and imported tea seeds from China to be planted in Japan, making tea available to more people.
Tea finally arrived in England during the 17th century when King Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The Queen made tea the drink of royalty and soon tea became a popular import to Britain via the East India Company. Afternoon tea or tea parties became a common way for aristocratic society to drink tea. Though tea was regularly imported to Britain, the taxes were so high that smugglers would get and sell tea illegally for those that could not afford it. In attempts to turn profits during the tea smuggling period, the East India Company began exporting the tea to America. The American tea was also taxed heavily and contributed to the cause of the Boston Tea Party.
The Discovery of Tea
Tea is steeped in legend. And the truth is very difficult to find in the sea of legends around the discovery of tea. Perhaps the most common legend is that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 BC was boiling water to drink when the leaves of a tea plant fell into his pot. He liked the resulting beverage so much that tea was born. Of course, there is no proof of this and many reasons to question to story. But either way, it is clear that tea was discovered in the Yunnan Province of China sometime before 1000 BC.
The first references to people drinking teas can be dated around 600 BC in China, but at this point it was still used mostly as a medicinal beverage. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty of China (618 AD and following) that tea became a popular drink throughout China. Until the sixth century, tea was largely a Chinese drink. At that point we can begin to see tea spread first to Japan and then to other countries. At this point in time tea was processed into tea bricks, similar to modern pu-erh bricks. It would still be a couple hundred years before tea started being consumed from loose-leaves that were not processed into bricks.
The Japanese emperor Shomu gave us the first mention of tea in Japan when he served it to guests. Within one hundred years, tea was being grown in Japan and processed to make the drink. With the birth of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and Japanese types of tea like matcha, tea became as Japanese as it was Chinese.
On a side note, in the late 700’s the first book about tea was written. Ch’a Chang by Lu Yu examined tea in detail from the making of tea through the enjoyment of it.
Creating Different Types of Tea
The first teas were processed into cakes, much like modern pu-erh cakes. And all were dried, steamed or processed in some way, but lightly like a green tea. During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), some teas were ground and whipped into a frothy beverage like our current day matcha. Thankfully, not long after this the Chinese began experimenting with loose leaf teas.
But it wasn’t until Emperor Kiasung in the twelfth century that teas began being divided up based on the types of processing used. Emperor Kiasung declared white teas the most delicious, but he only had odd variations to choose from. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) that began to change. Foreign trade was increasing, so tea merchants needed a tea that would last longer. The Chinese discovered fermenting and began crafting oolong and black teas that would store longer. At this point they also started experimenting with scenting and flavoring teas in order to make the flavor last.
The crafting of different types of teas continued to change over time. We now define four types: white teas, green tea, oolong teas (semi-fermented) and black teas (fermented). And there are subdivisions of these, such as pu-erh teas, which are double-fermented. Herbal teas, including rooibos and mate teas, are not actually teas since they do not contain the Camellia sinensis plant.
Tea Comes to England
With tea being known as the unofficial national drink of England, it’s easy to think tea has a significant history there. In actuality, tea has become popular in England recently, around the 17th century. This is recent compared to the thousands of years that tea has been consumed in Asia since tea’s discovery in China in 2737 BC. According to the history of tea, it was King Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza, who is attributed with spreading the trend of tea drinking among England’s elite.
England’s common people and lower class could get their tea at coffee houses beginning in 1657 at a London coffee house owned by Thomas Garway. The number of coffee houses grew to approximately 500 by 1700. The British government tried to take advantage of tea’s popularity by taxing tea and requiring coffee houses to have a license to serve tea. The increasing taxes on teas resulted in the common practice of tea smuggling. Since tea was in such high demand, tea smugglers often tried to sneak fillers from other plants into the teas. The Commutation Act of 1784 finally passed lowering the taxes on tea and stopped the smuggling.
In the early 1800s, Anna the Duchess of Bedford, introduced the custom of the afternoon tea or tea party. The afternoon tea satiated hunger between lunch and dinner and quickly became a social gathering. Traditional tea parties are still held in England and even America, often adapted with unique tea party ideas.
Another custom developed in England was enjoying tea and entertainment in a tea garden. In London, pleasure gardens like Vauxhall or Ranelagh Gardens were open to the public for the purposes of recreation plus drinking tea and strolling among lawns and ponds. Tea dances also took place at tea gardens.
Traditional English Teas
At tea parties and afternoons at the tea garden, the most popular English teas served are English Breakfast Tea and Earl Grey Tea. English Breakfast tea is generally a medium or full bodied black tea. The caffeine content helps some people wake up in the morning but can certainly be enjoyed anytime of the day. These breakfast teas taste great with sugar and milk.
Earl Grey teas are a classic blend of fine black tea with the essence of bergamot. Most Earl Grey teas are also delicious with sugar and milk and Teavana's Earl Grey Crème tea has the vanilla and crème flavors already added. Get the familiar Earl Grey flavor in a nearly caffeine free tea with Earl Grey White Tea. Find these tasty English teas at Teavana and have your own tea party or tea dance.