Tea has a history spanning thousands of years and the entire globe.
And while black tea with milk is still the most popular in Britain, many more varieties, preparation methods and serving customs are enjoyed across the world.
But have you ever stopped to think about the origins of this drink, which plays such a huge role in many cultures and daily routines?
Early history of tea
Tea was only introduced to the West about 400 years ago, despite having been enjoyed in the Orient for thousands of years.
Legend has it that it was discovered by the Chinese Emperor, Shan Nong, in 2737 B.C. The Emperor liked to boil his drinking water and, one day, a few tea leaves fell by chance into the steaming liquid as he prepared it in his garden, giving off a fresh, fragrant and enchanting aroma.
Taking a sip, the Emperor declared it refreshing and energising and immediately commanded that tea bushes were to be planted in the gardens of his palace.
For many centuries, tea was primarily drunk for its health benefits but in the 5th century AD, China’s upper class began drinking tea at social events and news of the desired brew reached Japan.
Yet it was not until the 17th century that the history of tea in Europe began – when it was brought from the East by Dutch and Portuguese sailors. It was initially sold at high prices at auctions, pricing out most citizens.
The tea trade soon became a significant factor in establishing connections between the East and West. In Europe, tea became a stimulus for many technological developments, such as the development of fast sail boats like the “Clipper“, which shortened the time it took to sail from China to Europe.
Some British importers, like the British East India Company, were given Royal Charters and became empowered to operate in any way necessary to ensure the continuous supply of this popular drink – including exercising military power.
At the beginning of the 18th century, with the expansion of tea imports to the West and the consequent decrease in its price, tea became a common product enjoyed by all sectors of the population. This was a new dawn in the history of tea.
Across the Atlantic
It arrived in Northern America and, in New York and Boston, London-style tea houses started developing, where the drink was sold to the general public.
At around that time, the British Empire decided to tax tea supplies to the colonies of North America. This decision enraged American settlers who boycotted the taxed products in protest.
Whenever the British ships arrived laden with tea, the settlers would demonstrate, forcing the vessels to depart without unloading their cargo.
The most famous incident of this kind was named the “Boston Tea Party“, during which a group of settlers boarded a tea ship and started throwing hundreds of crates of tea from its cargo into the sea. England retaliated by sending the Royal Navy to the harbour and shutting it down. This event marked the beginning of the American War of Independence.
A significant moment in the history of tea consumption came with the invention of tea bags at the beginning of the 20th century. A New York merchant called Thomas Sullivan, had a custom of sending tea samples in white silk bags to his customers, and they were intrigued by this new ground-breaking product.
The possibility of drinking tea without special brewing utensils made tea suitable for mass consumption, turning it into the world’s most prevalent hot drink.
During the 20th century, the source of tea crops spread throughout the world, from Japan to Africa and South America. Towards the end of the 20th century, an additional rise in the western world’s tea consumption came about alongside a demand for quality teas.
This rise was driven by increased awareness about the health benefits of tea, by immigration of Asians to the West and by travellers returning from the Orient with experiences of many different blends and brews.
In recent years the introduction of loose leaf, quality tea has emerged with an even newer trend for the fuso bag – high quality tea in a posh little temple, making quality tea easier to serve.
This brings us up to the present day, with the popularity of tea now even outstripping that of coffee.
If that brief history of tea has given you a thirst, why not browse our delicious range of healthy leaves, blends and infusions at our online tea shop?