Tea has a rich history in both fact and fiction. While its discovery is deeply rooted in legend, its growth in popularity (second only to water in worldwide consumption) is intertwined with real-world economic, social, and political maneuvering. English critic and historian Isaac D’Israeli said “The progress of this famous plant has been something very like the progress of truth; suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity spread; and establishing its triumph at last, in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by slow and resistless efforts of time and its own virtues.”
Eyelids of Bodhidharma
One of the most vivid legends regarding the origin of tea involves the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. As the legend goes, Bodhidharma ventured off to meditate in a cave for nine years, on a quest to reach enlightenment. Much to his dismay, he fell asleep in the midst of his meditation. Out of frustration, Bodhidharma tore off his own eyelids to ensure that it would never happen again! Where his eyelids hit the ground, tea plants are said to have appeared. Bodhidharma is honored to this day in the Zen tea ceremony because of his legendary role in the origin of tea.
The Emperor’s Accidental Brew
In the days of Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (2737-2696 BCE), drinking water was boiled for hygienic purposes. According to legend, the Emperor was boiling water over a fire that used branches from a nearby tea bush for firewood, when leaves from the branches blew into his pot. Before he could retrieve the leaves, they began to brew. Being both a scholar and an herbalist, Shen Nung decided to taste it. Tea was then introduced to the world!
Tea Catches on in Asia
Originally consumed for medicinal purposes (often mixed with shallots, ginger, garlic or plums), tea grew in popularity in China. It became so popular that by the 4th century China began to cultivate tea rather than harvest it in the wild. By early 8th century, it was an important part of life in China and became the “national beverage.” In 780 AD, the poet Lu Yu was commissioned by tea merchants to write the Ch'a Ching (documenting the sum of contemporary tea knowledge). Tea is thought to have first left Chinese borders in the 5th century, apparently used to barter with Turkish traders. By late 6th century, tea had accompanied Buddhist monks to Japan, and quickly became an integral part of Japanese life. After many variations in manufacture over the centuries, contemporary styles of green, oolong, pu-erh and black teas emerged during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
East Meets West
While it is likely that tea found its way to Europe via Turkish traders along the Silk Road as early as the 5th century, steady European trade in tea did not begin until the Portuguese landed in China in 1516, having found a sea route to the east. Dutch merchants entered the tea trade in the early 17th century, lucratively spreading tea throughout Europe. Britain was the last of the three great maritime nations to enter the tea trade, however once tea was introduced, it quickly became Britain's most popular beverage and enabled Britain to become a global superpower. When it comes to Britain, “The story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization, and world domination, one cup at a time.” (Tom Standage, “A History of the World in 6 Glasses”). Britain granted the John Company (which was later merged with the East India Company) a monopoly of all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of Cape Horn, which allowed it to dominate the tea trade for over a century. Its powers were practically equivalent to those of a sovereign nation, including acquiring and governing territory, coining its own money, declaring war, passing its own laws, etc. It was the largest and most powerful monopoly in world history. One of its most enduring contributions to the history of tea was the establishment of large scale commercial tea production in India in the early 1820s. Since then, India has consistently been one of the top producers of tea in the world.
The Boston Tea Party
Most Americans link tea with their high school history class and the Boston Tea Party. But did you know the Dutch were the first to introduce tea to the North American colonies in the mid-1600's? It was an immediate hit. In fact, the colonies consumed more tea than all of England at that time. Following the French and Indian War, the British Government increased taxes on all sorts of goods in the colonies. The colonists rebelled, but were answered with even further tax hikes. In June of 1767, the British instituted the tea tax, thinking they could capitalize on the colonists' incredible thirst for tea. Instead, the colonists boycotted British tea, which was left to rot in Boston Harbor. By December of that year, the colonists had had enough. A contingent of men from Boston, including major historical figures such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, dressed as Indians and boarded the British merchant ships, tossing hundreds of pounds of tea overboard. We now remember this event as the Boston Tea Party, which was an important precursor to the colonial declaration of revolution.
Ceylon Tea History
Curiously, the story of Ceylon tea begins not with Camellia sinensis at all, but rather, with cinnamon. The island now known as Sri Lanka was historically referred to as “Ceylon” by the British colonial powers, until it gained independence in 1972 – hence, the name of Ceylon teas. The first Europeans to colonize the island were the Dutch, which controlled the island and its peoples from the middle of the 17th century until the very end of the 19th century, and during that time, they grew tremendous amounts of cinnamon. Shortly after the British took control of Ceylon, the bottom fell out of the cinnamon market, forcing the colonial powers to invest in another cash crop: coffee. From about 1840 until 1870, there was a coffee ‘boom’ that drove prices through the roof and made it unbelievably profitable. Unfortunately, in the mid 1860’s, a coffee blight struck Ceylon, destroying thousands of plantations and once again pushing another crop into the spotlight: tea. Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka around the same time as coffee – around 1824 – the key difference being that coffee was introduced as a cash crop, while the tea plant that arrived that year was merely added to the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was not until 1867 that a British man named James Taylor decided to plant a tea plantation at Loolecondera, an estate in the central highlands region of the island. In 1875, Taylor’s first shipment of tea arrived in London –a meager 23 pounds – but by 1890, his Loolecondera plantation was shipping 22,900 tons of tea back to England and tea had become Ceylon’s primary source of revenue.
Iced Tea is Born
The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair offered an opportunity for merchants from around the world to show off their wares. Little did tea merchant Richard Blechynden know it would also mark the beginning of America's love affair with iced tea! In the midst of a sweltering St. Louis summer, Blechynden's efforts to promote Indian black tea at the fair were proving unsuccessful. Hot tea was the last thing on the attendees’ minds. So, the enterprising merchant and his staff set out to develop an apparatus in which their brewed Indian tea would flow through iced lead pipes, creating a chilled beverage that was very well-received by fairgoers. Not only was Blechynden successful in promoting Indian tea at the fair, he also uncovered America's seemingly endless thirst for iced tea - a thirst that has yet to be quenched to this day!
A Tea Alternative: Rooibos
The word “rooibos” comes from the Afrikaans language and means “red bush,” which incidentally is a very apt description of the plant. Other names for rooibos are “bush tea,” “red bush tea,” “South African red tea,” or simply “red tea.” Rooibos isn’t technically a tea plant, it’s not derived from Camellia sinensis like black tea, green tea, etc. It’s actually a legume: a bean plant called Aspalathus linearis. The leaves and stems are harvested during the summer and then left to “ferment” (technically “oxidize”), a process in which, among other things, the leaves shift from a yellow appearance to the characteristic red color and then dried. Drinking rooibos began with the Dutch. Black tea was en vogue in eighteenth-century South Africa, but due to technological limitations, it was exceedingly difficult to import, leading the Dutch settlers to seek an alternative. That alternative, naturally, was rooibos, the indigenous peoples’ drink of choice. This tea-alternative remained popular in South Africa for a couple hundred years, but didn’t become a commercial crop until the early 20th century. A gentleman named Benjamin Ginsburg immigrated to South Africa in 1904, and being the scion of a prominent family in the European tea trade, he was immediately interested in rooibos. Ginsburg borrowed traditional Chinese tea curing methods to perfect the art of curing rooibos. Since he could never properly cultivate the plant, Ginsburg relied on native farmers to bring it down from the mountains until the early 1930’s, when he convinced Dr. le Fras Nortier to attempt rooibos cultivation in the lowlands. After years of experimentation, Dr. Nortier succeeded, and the Klein Kliphuis farm became the first rooibos tea farm. Since then, rooibos has grown to become somewhat of a worldwide sensation, steadily growing in popularity, due to its taste and health benefits.
Wanna Read More About Tea History?
Here are our top picks:
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose
Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehloer
A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage