An overview of tea's history
The legend of tea begins 5,000 years ago. Tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor, Shan Nong. The Emperor was boiling his drinking water in his garden when a few leaves drifted from a tea tree down into his boiling water. The result was a brew, which gave off a rich and alluring aroma. Discovering this brew to be refreshing, energizing and delicious the Emperor immediately had tea bushes planted in the gardens of his palace establishing the custom of steeping fresh tea leaves in hot water.
Thought to have originated in Yunnan, the tea plant eventually spread to Assam, Burma, Laos and south China. The oldest known tea plant, over 1,700 years, is in Yunnan as is the oldest cultivated tea tree, over 800 years old.
Tea was primarily used as a healing remedy, due to the medicinal benefits attributed to it, until the 5th century A.D. In the 1400s China's upper class began to drink tea at social events and in private homes. Packages of tea were given as highly esteemed gifts and the Chinese tea ceremony began to develop. The use of tea began to spread throughout China into Japan.
By the 1600s tea was one of the commodities that was a part of colonial trading. While the Portuguese were the first to trade for tea in the Far East, the Dutch popularized the drinking of tea in the West, both in their home country Holland and in their colony, New Amsterdam, in North America. The custom of drinking tea quickly spread to France, Germany and later to Great Britain.
During the early to mid-1600s all exported tea came from China and was traded by the Dutch exclusively. The British purchased their tea from the Dutch and shipped it back to England through India. In 1684 the British were granted official license to purchase tea directly from China. For the next 150 years the English East India Company had exclusive import rights to bring Chinese tea to England. In 1834 the British Crown broke the English East India Company’s monopoly, resulting in dozens of new traders. With their cartel broken the English East India Company had to find a new opportunity for trading tea. It was in India.
Numerous attempts at growing and producing tea from India had previously failed. While the wild tea bush had been used for centuries by the people living in Assam for both drinking and eating, at first glance, the English thought this bush to be of inferior species. It wasn’t until they realized that these wild tea plants were of a different variety from the plants in China that they began to appreciate the unique qualities of Assam tea.
In 1847 the English East India Company began cultivating the Assam variety of tea bush, realizing greater success than with the Chinese variety. Soon the British hybridized the Assam and Chinese varieties, achieving tea bushes that had the best virtues of each. Within 50 years, and many trials and errors, 154 million pounds of tea was imported to England from India. Chinese tea fell to 5% from 90% of all tea purchased yearly in England.
After having achieved such great success in cultivating tea in India, the British turned to Ceylon, where coffee had been cultivated for almost 100 years. After a coffee blight in 1869 devastated the coffee farms, the English, systematically changed these farms into tea gardens. The rich soil and tropical climate, along with lessons learned in India combined to make a perfect growing environment and the tea bushes thrived. Seeing the success that the British were having with Assam in Ceylon, the Dutch began importing Assam tea bush cuttings to Java where they had been trying to cultivate the Chinese variety. Here, too, the Assam tea bush thrived.
The Portuguese, Dutch and British colonies in Africa started tea production during the turn of the twentieth century. In 1903 tea seeds from Assam were planted in Kenya. In the 1930s Tanzania began growing this variety of tea. The African tea industry, modeled after India and Ceylon, has flourished in recent decades.
Today, tea production has spread to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America and the South Pacific. After water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world.
Sourced from The Story of Tea by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss