Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water.
Historically, the discovery of tea has been shrouded in myth and uncertainty. Much of the appeal of tea today stems from exotic wonderment. It is believed that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (2737 BC) was the first to discover tea. Shen Nung, whilst sipping boiling hot water in his garden, caught a leaf from a nearby tea plant in his cup. The taste of the water was altered and he greatly enjoyed the result.
Legend also credits Shen Nung with inventing the plow; teaching his people animal husbandry (the translation of his name is "Divine Husbandman"); writing the "Pen ts'ao" (medical book); and the discovery of the curative nature of plants. It is known that Tea began its history as a medicinal beverage possessing many healthful qualities, so it is quite believable that Shen Nung is Tea's discoverer.
Some confusion surrounds the Chinese character for Tea, which was not established until sometime during the T'ang Dynasty (18-917 AD). Prior to that period, the character being read, may also have referred to sow-thistle or even common grass.
The first reliable reference to Tea is in an ancient Chinese dictionary around 350 AD. Described as primarily 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 simply stripping it of leaves as was the common practice.
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 where boiling water was poured over them 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 A.D.), methods of Tea manufacturing developed, greatly assisting the spread of Tea, which finally received its own character, ch'a.
By 780, Tea was important enough to be taxed. That same year, the first volume of 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.
The common preparation of Tea during the T'ang Dynasty 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. Later, during the Sung Dynasty (960-1280 A.D.), 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 were finally dismissed, but flowers, such as jasmine and roses, were 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. As many individuals of the lower classes were Buddhists, Tea drinking moved away from the medicinal association. Many of the rituals and customs from the Sung Dynasty are reflected within the Japanese Tea ceremony. Legend also has it that Tea sprang from the eyelids of Bodhidharma after he cut them off in disgust at falling asleep whilst meditating. upon hitting the ground a Tea bush sprouted, yielding leaves that kept the mind alert.
In 1280 A.D. the Mongols invaded China and the drinking of Tea was not encouraged. Marco Polo, who visited the Mongol court in the 13th century, does not mention Tea in his journals. Amongst the lower classes, however, social Tea drinking continued.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) claimed China from the Mongols and soon after, black, oolong and green Teas, as we know them today, became popular with the Chinese people, royalty and commoners alike. Teapots and cups also became popular. the familiar round pot, which originated in this era, was modeled after the musk-melon. 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 A.D. Not being able to establish a relationship with the Chinese, the Dutch aided the Japanese in expelling the Portuguese from Japan. In return, Japan established a trade relationship with the Dutch. It is most likely, due to this arrangement, that the first Tea Europeans drank was Japanese green Tea, not Chinese Tea, as is popularly believed.
Tea was imbibed in Manhattan around 1650, due to the Dutch influence in what is now New York. Several years later, in 1657, the first public offering in England was held at Garways Coffee House in London. Coffee preceded Tea by only a few years, but Tea, along with chocolate, became a very important drink in a short time. 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 did not escape the English East India Co. which persuaded the British Government in 1669 to ban Dutch imports of Tea, gaining the monopoly on Tea imports. In 1706, Tom's Coffee House, established by Thomas Twining, began to concentrate primarily on Tea, and unlike the male dominated Coffee houses, these new Tea houses opened their doors to both genders. The women of this time began serving Tea with breakfast, instead of ale, causing somewhat of a scandal. The Duchess of York, in 1680, introduced Tea into Scotland along with the Dutch habit of drinking Tea from the saucer.
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.
In India, the English were confused about the authenticity of the indigenous tea plants, therefore, Chinese tea plants were imported and planted in the Assam district, under the direction of the East India Co. Luckily the Assam, the indigenous Indian tea plant, was a hardier variety and had no trouble surviving the Chinese plant which did not adapt well. Originally considered an inferior Tea, Assam has quickly established itself as a breakfast Tea of choice.
In the 1870's in Ceylon, the predominant crop, coffee, was wiped out by a blight. Amongst those 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.
At the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, an Englishman, Richard Blechynden, attempted to introduce America to the new Ceylon & India black Tea (America at this time primarily drank green Tea). Due to a heat wave, the idea of tasting hot cups of Tea was not well received. Desperate, Richard poured ice into a batch 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, a New York City Tea Importer, Thomas Sullivan, was cutting costs when sending out samples of his Teas. Rather than sending the costly tin and larger amounts that accompanied them, he placed a smaller amount in small silk purses. 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 bags from Sullivan.