Historically, the discovery of tea has been shrouded in myth and uncertainty.
Much of the appeal of tea today stems from exotic wonderment. 2737 BC is the date that is forwarded as the birth of tea. The Emperor Shen Nung who was in his garden, probably walking, sniffing flowers and such things, was drinking a customary cup of boiling water when a leaf from a nearby bush drifted into his cup. Instead of fishing out the leaf and pouring a new cup of hot water, curiosity got the better of this Emperor and he decided to try it. Upon doing so, he was so delighted by this infusion that he instantly declared it refreshing and medicinal.
Shen Nung was quite a busy chap fulfilling numerous illustrious pursuits. He founded the beginnings of Chinese herbal medicine and wrote the "Pen ts'ao", an early medical text. It is known that tea began its history as a medicinal beverage, thus Shen Nung's involvement is understandable. Shen Nung is also credited with inventing the plough and introducing animal husbandry to his people. His name literally translates as divine husbandman. Quite an impressive curricula vitae.
Unfortunately, there is no record of this Emperor. There is, however, record of a hilltribe called the Shennong and, more than likely, this tribe of industrious individuals solved several problems, utilized and recorded gathered information and techniques and impressed their neighbours to such a degree to be spoken of collectively as "Emperor".
In later years, the Taoist philosopher Lao Tse, while on his Great Western Journey in the mid sixth century BC, was offered a bowl of tea by a student on his way through the Szechwan province. This story is often presented as further proof of tea's cradle being in the Szechwan district. But more importantly, it established an early standard of etiquette, that of the presentation of tea as hospitality.
Meanwhile in India, the story of the beginning of tea is romanticized considerably. It is said that Prince Siddhartha had fallen asleep amidst a vow of meditation. He was so disgusted with himself that he tore off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Amazingly, a shrub grew from his discarded eyelids, a tea plant, with the properties of mental clarity that would become legendary. Japan has a similar legend, only the main participant is Boddhidarma or Dharuma. There are many different versions of this legend with varying settings, locations and key players, the crux of the story, however, remains the same. There is even a tea in Buddhist China named sow mee cha or 'eyelid tea'. It is important to note that the story is essentially a religious tale, and as such requires from the listener faith enough to understand the meaning beyond the story. Although the story is not realistically credible, the intertwining of the leaf and the man is quite effective.
Whether any of the above can be verified or not, one man, a contemporary of Prince Siddhartha (circa 500 BC), wrote, "Who can say that tea is bitter? It is sweet as the shepherd's purse" This individual must have had some association with the beverage, and, in fact, the writer was Confucius. He too has been rumoured to have been the father of tea. The story goes that Confucius, being a practical man, decided that he would expound upon the wonderful beverage tu or tea and all its many benefits as a way to encourage the Chinese people to drink their water boiled, thus purifying the water and preventing the spread of diseases through the not always sanitary water supply. Again, there is no proof that the story is historically accurate so let's read it as another legend.
The first reliable reference to Tea is in an ancient Chinese dictionary around 350 AD. Described primarily as a medicinal beverage, the liquor was prepared by boiling raw green leaves in kettles with water, a process that was common in southwest China amongst the hillmen. Boiling water killed bacteria and other impurities helping to prevent illness. This version of Tea was most likely very bitter and unpleasant. During this period it is believed that the Chinese began to cultivate the tea plant (camellia sinensis) rather than continuing the common practice of simply stripping the plant of its leaves then, very often, cutting down the whole tree. After the leaves had been removed, the timber would be dried and used as firewood.
Around the 5th century, another Chinese dictionary described the infusion of processed Tea leaves. It involved pressing the leaves into cakes which were roasted, pounded and then broken up into little pieces. To make an infusion the pieces were placed in a china pot. Boiling water was poured over the tea and then, to improve the flavour, ginger, onions and orange were added.
By the end of the 5th century, Tea had become an article of trade for which Turkish traders began to barter around the Mongolian border. At this time, Tea was still drunk primarily as a medicinal herb.
During the T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), tea shrugs off its medicinal robes completely, becoming a beverage of distinction and refreshment. It was celebrated within the arts. Whether poetry or pottery, the enthusiasm for tea was exhibited exuberantly. Prior to this period there was much confusion surrounding the Chinese character for tea which may also have referred to sow-thistle or even common grass. All was settled, finally, during the T'ang Dynasty when Tea finally received its own character, ch'a.
New methods of Tea manufacturing also developed during the T'ang Dynasty. The most common preparation of tea was to pound the leaves, shaping and pressing them into molds then drying them over heat, producing a Tea brick. These Tea bricks were used as currency in remote areas of China, almost by default greatly assisting the spread of tea, possibly the origin of the phrase to drink ones wealth . . . I don't think so either.
By 780, Tea was important enough to be taxed. A clever move by the Chinese Court, as the demand for tea had spread throughout the outer regions of China and to the countries beyond the borders such as Tibet and nomadic tribes such as the Turks, Tatars and Mongols. That same year, a ten volume work dedicated exclusively to Tea was written - Ch'a Ching (The Classic of Tea), by Lu Yu. Lu Yu melded Tea and Taoism. His writing reflects the spirit of the times while giving Tea a ritualistic essence that perseveres to this day, allowing Tea to maintain its sense of peace, harmony and balance. The ten parts of the Ch'a Ching cover all aspects of Tea from growing to drinking. It set standards for critical evaluation, whilst reminding the reader that "its goodness is a decision for the mouth to make." Interestingly, although Lu Yu frowned on the practice of adding onions, ginger, etc. to Tea, he did add salt. Salt, interestingly, reduces the bitterness in tea and almost adds a sweetness. At the time tea was very bitter and ot necessarily pleasant, so the addition of salt could have been a genuine palatability issue. If you want to experiment for the veracity of this theory, make sure that the tea is strong and over steeped, maybe even boiled! That way you will have a more realistic impression of what the Chinese at the time where drinking. There are no "recipes" for tea made at this time so you will have to hope you have it right!
Lu T'ung a T'ang poet wrote "I am in no way interested in Immortality, but only in the taste of tea" Tea, it seems, had at this point become more important than the Taoist precept of longevity, becoming an obsession in its own right, not just the tool of one. By the end of the T'ang Dynasty, tea had become available in three forms; cake, powder and leaf. Cake tea remained the favorite amongst those who considered themselves connoisseurs. The required amount could be broken off and ground to a powder when needed. The leaf tea had some time to go before the process was truly perfected, spoilage still occurred so possession was not a good risk.
During the Sung Dynasty (960-1280 AD), the Chinese favoured a delicate Tea created by grinding the leaves to a powder, pouring boiling water over the powder and then whipping the mixture into a froth with a whisk. Additives where finally dismissed, but flowers, such as jasmine and roses, were still occasionally added for their fragrance and subtle taste. Poetic names of the Chinese sprang from this era. Today we have Teas such as 'Temple of Heaven' and 'Dragon Well', descendants of a time of poetry and refinement. The Taoists even claimed that Tea was an important ingredient in the elixir of immortality. Zen Buddhists drank Tea before images of Bodhidharma in their temples. And many of the rituals and customs from the Sung Dynasty are reflected within the Japanese Tea ceremony.
The Emperor Hui Tsun (1100 - 1126 AD) preferred his tea plucked by virgins with gold scissors and placed on gold platters (the tea, that is) to dry before infusing and pouring directly into his cup! This is known as the "imperial plucking" This Emperor even wrote a tome to tea, "Ta Kuan Ch'a Lun" and heartily encouraged the continuing search of the ultimate tea, so to speak.
In 1191 AD, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk named Eisai, was traveling back to Japan after studying on the mainland. Whilst on the mainland he had noticed that tea had increasingly become important within the temples. So observing, he decided to take seeds back to Japan and cultivate his own garden. Within a very short time (about the time it would take to grow, cultivate and harvest a crop, and then present it for consumption to, say, the Emperor), tea was quickly approved and instituted within the psyche of the country.
In 1280 AD, the Mongols, who after decades of trading tea for horses, invaded China. It is believed by many that during this time the drinking of tea was not encouraged because Marco Polo, who visited the Mongol court in the 13th century, does not mention Tea in his journals. There is, however, a bit of a dilemma here as Marco Polo was, according to some stories, a tea tax collector. There is yet another rumour circulating amongst historians which suggests that Marco Polo never actually ventured past Istanbul. He, apparently, just hung around trading and collecting stories. If that was, in fact, the case it would justify dismissing the notion that tea was discouraged, particularly since Kublai Khan was a known herbalist. Tea had been on the edge of Europe and traded with such neighbours as the Turks and Arabs for centuries. But, Marco Polo never mentions tea. If Marco Polo had been immersed in the culture, it is unlikely that he would have neglected to mention tea. But if he had fringe exposure to certain elements of the culture and not immersion, Marco Polo may not have perceived tea to have been important enough to mention, that is, if he had been introduced to tea at all.
Amongst the lower classes, during the rule of the Mongols, tea drinking had increased. Most of the lower classes were Buddhist and tea had slowly become a part of the ritual and religion. If the Mongols did discourage tea drinking, tea would have been made a great deal more accessible to the masses as the law of supply and demand would have sent the prices plummeting. One final point should be made on the Mongol tea query. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese had traded tea for horses with the Mongols. So, why on earth would they not drink tea when they then controlled the tea?
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), established after the Mongols had been driven out of China, black, oolong and green teas, as we know them today, became popular with the Chinese people, royalty and commoners alike. Loose leaf tea evolved, over much time, primarily through the persistence of Chinese tea merchants endeavoring to stabilize the shelf life of this most precious commodity. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, tea in its many forms was corruptible. It was not stable, meaning that long voyages often saw no return on the investment. Teapots and cups also became popular. The familiar round pot, which originated in this era, was modeled after the musk-melon. It was believed that the melon's round shape produced the most favorable results.
Tea was, during this time, introduced to the West one of two ways, either across Mongolia into Russia or by sea from Japan into Holland. Europe first heard of this "elixir of the east" from the Arabs who controlled the land routes prior to sea travel between the East and West.
The Portuguese had a base in Macao and their missionaries were the first Europeans to taste tea. However, it was the Dutch who brought Tea into Europe in 1610 AD. The Dutch were unable to establish a relationship with the Chinese as many of the Dutch had red hair. The Chinese superstition saw people with red hair as devils, red devils to be precise. So, the Dutch struck a deal with the Japanese. They would aid the Japanese in expelling the Portuguese from Japan and, in return, Japan would establish a trade relationship with the Dutch, which included trade through the Japanese with the Chinese. So it was that the first tea and for that matter, porcelain that arrived in Europe were on Dutch East Indies ships. It is likely, due to the Japanese arrangement, that the first tea Europeans drank commercially was Japanese green tea, not Chinese Tea, as is popularly believed. The Japanese had learned their lesson the hard way and once the Portuguese were expelled, they established man-made off-coast landings for the Dutch to dock and reside, not allowing foreign feet on Japanese soil.
The Japanese and the Koreans around this time started to prefer the loose leaf teas rather than the powdered teas that had been consumed until then. The powdered tea survived in Japan in the form of the Cha No Yu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
The Chinese, looking to expand their trade routes, presented the Tzar Alexis with several chests of tea around 1618 AD. Tea was very well received by the court of that time and by the late 1600 a trade had been established. A caravan of two to three hundred camels traveled 11,000 miles and several people to show them the way took about sixteen months to make delivery in Moscow. These sort of logistics made the price of tea quite prohibitive and was very much the realm of the wealthy. The tea was carried in chests, as high on the camels hump as was possible. This was an attempt to avoid all the voyage's odours and fragrances so as not to influence the taste of the tea. But sixteen months of campfires and "eau de camel" inevitably did influence the final product on offer in Moscow. Caravan tea, or Russian Caravan tea, as it became known, was a very unique product, one that cannot be replicated today, that is not without camels, campfires and some time to kill.
In North America, Tea was imbibed in Manhattan around 1650, due to the Dutch influence in what was New Amsterdam and is now New York. Peter Stuyvesant introduced tea to New Amsterdam, which became so popular that when the English took possession of the island of New York (Manhattan) they found a thriving tea trade in place. So healthy was this trade that the island of Manhattan drank more tea than the combined Islands of Britain. Several years later, in 1657, the first public offering in England was held at Garways Coffee House in London. Incidently, coffee preceded Tea by only a few years, but Tea, along with chocolate, became a very important drink in a short time, subsequently you had establishments that served tea almost exclusively but where called coffee houses! A few years later in 1662, Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II and quickly established tea as the fashionable drink of the Court.
All this activity did not escape the English East India Co. which persuaded the British Government in 1669 to ban Dutch imports of tea into the islands of Britain, gaining the monopoly on tea imports and unwittingly establishing a lucrative smuggling trade.
The Duchess of York, in 1680, introduced Tea into Scotland along with the Dutch habit of drinking Tea from the saucer. If you're wondering, you drink from the saucer so the tea cools faster so you can drink it sooner. The origins of this habit may also be the misinterpretation of the Chinese Zhong or Gai Wan cup, where the cup is cradled in a deep saucer and the drinker would hold the saucer to avoid scalding their fingers on the hot sides of the cup.
In 1706, Tom's Coffee House, established by Thomas Twining, began to concentrate primarily on Tea, and unlike other the male dominated Coffee houses, these new Tea houses opened their doors to both genders. In some ways this little innovation started to change the structure of social interaction, albeit very slowly. Until then men gathered in "Pubs" and Coffee houses and discussed politics and business. The only woman that was likely to be around, would, in all likelihood, have been soliciting, or drunk in which case she would have been solicited! The opening of Tom's to both genders allowed the socialization of men and women as equals. That's a theory anyway, leading to the eventual habit of marrying for love and not arrangement. In fact, Lord Nelson (of Trafalgar fame; commander of the British fleet) met his bride-to-be while strolling in a tea garden. With its growing popularity, the women of this time began serving tea with breakfast, instead of ale, causing a minor furor, amongst the men.
By 1700, the Dutch, French and English were all importing tea into a Europe that was drinking it more and more for its delicacies and subtleties than for its medicinal values. China for its part was having trouble keeping up with demand and eventually began placing poor grades of tea onto the market. The English, determined to obtain the best possible trade conditions from a country that, in effect, had the only supply of tea for a demanding world, sent a trade emissary off to negotiate a most favoured nation status with the Chinese. Hoping to avoid the poorer grades of tea and to maintain the better more marketable cargoes Lord Macartney had been dispatched and no cost had been spared to impress and befriend the Chinese. Alas, to no avail.
The problem was simple. The Chinese had a policy of self sufficiency and the English had nothing to offer in trade. The Chinese had absolutely no interest in English linens and cloth, especially since Europe came to them for silk! The English had to pay for the tea in cash, silver as it was back then. This presented a problem to the English in that there were no controls. If the trade was all one way, the English East India Company had no leverage to maintain the price of the tea, not to mention those amounts of monies being transported half way around the world, not only at risk in the hull of the ships from pirates, buccaneers and the weather, but it was idle money, not earning interest or working in any way. Until the tea arrived not one penny could be recouped and the Chinese could raise the price of tea and offer any grade of tea with the assurance of monopoly and have no fear of trade retribution.
Meanwhile a political miscalculation in London set in place the machination for the liberation of a country. American colonial women were heavy consumers of tea, so much so that when the John Company ran into financial difficulty, parliament granted them the right to sell directly to the public, by- passing the merchant. The notion was that colonial women would not give up their favourite beverage and after the initial grousing would continue to purchase their tea and the John Company would gain the merchants profit, giving it a bit of a financial life raft. The women were not happy and stood by their men demanding that the right to commerce be reinstated. In protest, the colonist began to imbibe Indian Infusions or even to openly purchase smuggled Dutch tea. On top of that, was the infamous tea tax that had been levied to offset the French and Indian War. The reasoning being that the war had been fought to stabilize the colonies and so the colonies should carry a certain burden. These events turned out be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and December 16, 1773 saw the Boston Tea Party take place setting into motion the American Revolution.
The East India Company, with the help of the John Company, found cotton in Bengal for which the Chinese were willing to trade tea. Then, in 1773, they began trading with Opium, which was deemed the perfect trader item, as it was cheap and addictive, assuring generations of loyal "customers" to come.
There was no legal opium trade with China. It was more like guerrilla warfare. The East India Company would send other "gopher" companies to distribute the opium. so as never to be directly involved. The distribution was simple and effective and the dependence on opium spread rapidly throughout China, especially with the targeted audience being the wealthy, the civil servants, the scholars, the sons of China's ruling elite, the generations to come. The Chinese fought back and the ensuing "Opium War" resulted in several ports and the island of Hong Kong being conceded to England through a treaty and the break up of the Chinese Monopoly, as well as the right to continue trade in opium.
The East India Company had committed themselves to finding another, more exclusive source of tea. If they could break the Chinese monopoly, maybe they could take the monopoly altogether from the Chinese and cut them from the trade. Sir Joseph Banks, who had been busy rediscovering Australia with Captain Cook and earlier was on the same diplomatic mission as Lord Macartney, was then in India studying the climate. He proclaimed India suitable for the cultivation of tea plants, or Thea Bohea as it was known then amongst Botanists and other learned folks. Sir Joe Banks, as you may have surmised, was a botanist.
The original idea consisted of replanting Chinese plants in India. It had been quickly ascertained and understood that the many varieties sprang from the one plant. It had even been understood what climate would best suit a tea plant and that correct processing was essential. Only one hitch existed, no-one really knew that much about producing tea, except the Chinese and they were not giving up their secrets. It was not that tea plants weren't available, it was a simple enough matter for anyone visiting China to obtain a plant and return with it. In 1834 a group of botanists representing the Tea Committee which was created specifically for the task of establishing tea plantations in India, did just that. The committee returned from China with approximately eighty thousand seeds that were promptly sent out to nurseries in Calcutta. The aim of the expedition was to also procure Chinese tea growers to help establish plantations with their knowledge. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an opinion coursing about that if you were Chinese, you automatically knew about tea, and so when the "experts" arrived it eventuated that the cobblers and furriers and carpenters turned out to be cobblers and furriers and carpenters. Solving the mystery of tea was left to one Robert Fortune who, in 1848, traversed through China disguised as a Chinese merchant or Mongolian Mandarin. He traveled about with Chinese friends and visited factories and farms throughout the country often observing and noting from the sedan chair he rode in as he passed by! As Robert Fortune made his way back to Calcutta it seems that other developments had taken place.
The Assam plant had actually been discovered growing in India in 1834. Rumours that there was a wild tea plant growing in the jungles of Assam had been passed on to the Tea Committee by Major Robert Bruce, who had been told by local tribesmen. Robert's brother, Charles Bruce, had been sent in to learn if, in fact, these plants could be cultivated. He used a simple enough technique. To begin, he would first find and isolate tea plants and then clear the forest around them. He worked at his plantation alongside two Chinese Experts who had been brought in by J.C.Gordon (an earlier tea pioneer who had brought in the original eighty thousand seeds). Four years later, during 1838, he produced and shipped to London twelve chests of tea which were received with great fanfare at auction in January 1839. Later that same year the Assam Company was founded and began recruiting planters (who, incidentally, were all volunteers) to immigrate to India and begin tea plantations. As with most start-ups, all that was touted was the promise of easy success. There was no mention of the pitfalls, like the further twenty to thirty day trip up the Brahmaputra river after having traveled six months already to arrive in Calcutta, and then a further voyage on elephant back through the dense jungles of Assam to the final destination which, quite often, were simple huts with no or rudimentary furniture (meaning crates). This first trading post was Nazira.
Back in comfort, in the early 1800s, Anna, wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, created the 'Afternoon Tea" to "avoid the sinking feeling" that plagued her between the two planned meals of the day, breakfast, and dinner at eight. Since the servants were off duty during the middle of the day, lunch was quite light, so when the servants returned at 5:00pm, Anna began ordering Tea and cakes. This little ritual which may have started as a semi-secret affair, was soon extended to her friends and the craving began a whole new social penchant. Afternoon gossiping had been legitimized and formalized. As was the etiquette, this ritual spawned all the social trappings. There had to be the right utensils, appropriate food and the correct presentation. The correct presentation extended to the clothing one wore. If it wasn't bad enough to have day clothes and evening clothes, now one had to have tea clothes or afternoon apparel!
Until the 1870's, coffee was the predominant crop in Ceylon, which is not to say that various planters and plantations had not experimented with growing small amounts of tea as early as the 1830's. In fact, in 1839, Nuwara Eliya, a health resort at the time, was sent two hundred and fifty plants and a small experimental station was established, with great success. Nuwara Eliya, at six thousand five hundred feet above sea level, is renown for its world class tea. Another estate that had been dabbling in tea cultivation was Loolecondra. When, in 1870, the single crop economy of coffee was wiped out by a blight (the fungus Hemileia vastatrix) they were ready to move into tea production. One of the planters responsible for the success of Loolecondra was a young Scott named James Taylor. He had not only successfully cultivated tea plants, but went on to invent a machine to roll the leaves thus removing the labour intensive step of hand rolling. Another indiviual who saw a future in this disaster was a grocer/merchant, Thomas Lipton, who began his Tea plantation over the destroyed coffee crops. Within 20 years, the single-crop coffee economy became a single crop Tea economy.
The British marketing push proved so effective that much of Europe began to associate tea with India and Ceylon rather that China.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed in 1900 and caravan tea ceased to exist. One might say that Russians tasted tea for the first time, again. The price of tea in Russia had slowly become accessible during the late 1700's, and had enjoyed a growth of consumption amongst a large part of the population already. The onset of the railroad made the price of tea accessible to just about anybody. Consequently tea, along with vodka, often in the same glass, has become the national drink.
At the time of the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, Americans primarily drank green tea. Since the Boston Tea Party and the subsequent independence, the importation monopoly of the East India Company was no longer in effect and Americans were free to import their own teas directly from China. An Englishman, Richard Blechynden, attempted to introduce America to the new Ceylon & India black tea, but at the time of the fair there was a heat wave and the idea of tasting hot cups of tea was not well received. After several days of frustration and failure, a desperate Richard Blechynden poured his tea over ice, to try to induce the sweltering fair-goers to sample his tea. Iced tea became the most popular thirst quencher of the fair.
Four years later, during 1908, a New York City Tea Importer named Thomas Sullivan decided that there had to be a better, less expensive way to send samples to his various clients. Instead of forwarding the customary tin with several ounces of tea contained within, Sullivan placed smaller amounts of tea in small silk purses and forwarded these to his clients. The merchants were impressed with this neat, measured and self straining bag and, under the impression that he intended them to steep the tea right in the bag, began to order the "tea bags" from Sullivan.
The spread of this most wonderful elixir of life as the early Chinese Taoist liked to call it, is due in large part to the methodical and sometimes ruthless British colonial merchant. It is often said that as the Romans planted Vineyards wherever they conquered and roamed. Likewise, the British have subsequently taken tea to every corner of the world that they have touched, directly or indirectly; India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Australia and the United States. In fact, over forty countries from Azerbaizan to Italy produce tea to some extent, all contributing to tea's position as the number one beverage throughout the world after water.