The Origins of Tea
The history and origins of Tea
Tea has often been thought of as being typically very ‘British’ – however, the history of tea originated in China during the Shang dynasty most likely as a medicinal drink. One credible record of tea drinking practice dates back to 3rd century AD, in a medical text written by Hua Tuo and this is where we will start our tea journey…
According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree whilst his servant diligently boiled drinking water. A cool breeze caught some leaves from a nearby Camellia Sinensis tree, blowing them into his boiling water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created – resulting in a delicious cup of tea! It was said that the warm liquid gave him vigour of body, contentment of mind, determination and so tea was discovered. We honestly have no idea how much truth there is to this, but either way, we all love to hear a good yarn over a perfectly brewed Madura tea!
What we do know for certain is that the history of tea is long and intricate spreading across multiple cultures and thousands of years – reserved for the likes of the emperor’s court, the priestly class and high aristocracy.
First commercial production of tea is traced to Chinese farmers in the Yangtze River valley who compressed freshly cut tea leaves into small blocks which were then steamed and crushed. The softened blocks were immersed in water and brought to the boil. Rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices and onion were added in a brewing ritual that is still practised by Mongolian and Tibetan tribes. It was during this period that the Chinese initiated the tradition of offering a bowl of tea as a sign of welcome.
Tea transcends its origins as a medicinal brew to become a valuable commodity in a developing tea trade that extends beyond China’s northern and western borders. During this period Buddhist priests from Japan, who were studying in China brought tea seeds and leaves back to Japan with them. The first tea bushes are then planted in temple gardens in Japan. Tea is mostly a beverage of monks and aristocrats during this period.
With the Mongol takeover of China, it has a disruptive effect on many facets of Chinese culture, among which is the total popularisation of tea. Teahouses begin to appear throughout China, spreading tea outside the Emperor’s court. Once established as a commonplace drink, tea never becomes an exclusively aristocratic beverage again. It was during this period that the first mention of tea in the western world, noted in the writings of Marco Polo, occurred.
With the start of the Ming Dynasty in China, tea production increases and new techniques evolve, with kettles replacing bottles for boiling. Crude drinking vessels are replaced with tiny cups of fine porcelain and teapots are introduced. Oolong tea is created in China, whilst, Japanese tea ceremonies emerge. Tea in Japan becomes such a strict, high art, that it bears many resemblances to a religion (e.g. ritual purity, mythology, strict ceremonialism, etc.).
Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company imports the first shipments of tea from China after striking a commercial deal based on trading three measures of tea for each measure of sage. Although still regarded as a luxury, tea is drunk in Europe for its perceived therapeutic properties.
First public sale of tea takes place at a coffee house in London, and the government later levies a tax on imports which remains until the 1780s. During this period, the Dutch are the first to bring tea to Europe. In the mid-1600s tea begins to become popular in the Dutch settlement New Amsterdam, whilst the Chinese create black tea. Tea is sold in London for the first time, marketed as a medicinal drink. By the late 1600’s Russia signs a trade treaty with China and tea trade begins between the two nations.
Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 18th century. The British introduced tea production and tea rooms are opened in London, becoming the ideal meeting place for people of all backgrounds – until the outbreak of war in 1939, when afternoon tea becomes confined to grand hotels. However, with low demand for British goods in China, versus high demand for Chinese goods in Britain, a severe trade imbalance between the nations in created, allowing China to set arbitrarily high prices on items such as tea, porcelain, and silk. By the mid-1700s, tea is easily the most widely consumed beverage throughout the American colonies. In 1788, tea was first introduced to Australia, being brought in on the First Fleet.
1830’s: The British East India Company introduces the plantation system of growing tea in Assam, India.
1850’s: Clipper ships, introduced for the journey from London to Asian ports, bring cargoes of tea back home in 90 days instead of six months. White tea is created in China.
1856: Tea is planted in Darjeeling, India, for the first time, by British botanists. At this point, over 90% of British tea is still being imported from China.
1860’s: Mechanical methods begin to replace the manual production of tea.
1867: A tea plantation is established in Ceylon.
1877: Manufacture of the first tea rolling machine to replace manual, aggressive rubbing of leaves between the palms of one’s hands.
1883: Alfred Bushell opened the first tea shop in Queensland.
1884: the Cutten brothers established the first tea plantation in Queensland intending to commercialise it.
1899: Bushell’s sons moved their enterprise to Sydney and began selling tea commercially, founding Australia’s first commercial tea seller, Bushell’s Company.
1908: Thomas Sullivan, a New York-based tea merchant, uses silk sachets to manufacture tea bags. Richard Blechynden introduces Americans to black tea and is the first to serve iced tea.
1910: Indonesia and Kenya become tea-growing nations.
1920: Japanese tea varieties continue to be created, such as the instantly-popular hojicha.
1930: Tea becomes available in packets.
1945: The first tea tasters are trained
1950’s: Tea producing nations such as India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh begin to form nationalised, governmental boards and agencies to oversee tea production and trade.