The History Of Tea

Tea: A History In The Making

Tea has grown to become a diverse and glocal icon in all corners of the globe. Once of the most interesting aspects of tea is its origins and its journey through history.

Following is a timeline of the major developments of tea over the centuries, from its origins in China, through to its spread around the world.

  1. 2737 BC

    Shen Mung

    Legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shen Mung (The Divine Cultivator) was on a hunting trip. While boiling his water, during a refreshment break, leaves from a nearby bush fell into it. He enjoyed the aroma, and sensing that the liquid may be equally pleasant, he drank it.

    On tasting it he is said to have proclaimed that the liquid gave him vigour of body, contentment of mind and determination of purpose. And so tea was discovered.

  2. 3 AD

    Zhang Yi

    Zhang Yi writes the first detailed account on tea. It includes cultivation, manufacturing and preparation methods.

  3. 600 AD

    By now tea had become a part of Chinese culture. Widespread tea cultivation had taken root and so began its commercialisation.

  4. 618 - 907 AD

    Tea Ceremony

    China enters "The Golden Age" under the Tang Dynasty, with greatly increased prosperity. Tea was now the national drink and had widespread use as a medicinal remedy for improving concentration and restoring good health.

    The Tea Ceremony is born. Ingredients such as ginger, orange peel, clover and peppermint are added for variety.

  5. 800 AD

    Lu Yu

    The greatest authority on tea at the time Lu Yu writes the Cha ching (the Classic of Tea) describing the botany, processing, infusion and tasting techniques specific to tea. It is a technical manual, as well as a work of poetry and sacred text.

    The pages of his work are copied onto rolls of silk for display. It becomes the most important test for tea drinkers in China and has remained so.

  6. 805 AD


    Tea has been introduced as a medicine in Japan. On orders from the Emperor, Buddhist monk Saicho visits China and returns with tea seeds. Tea did not become popular in Japan for many more years.

  7. 960 - 1279 AD

    During the Sung Dynasty great literary works are created. Emperor Hui Tsung was obsessed with tea and wrote in great detail about the spiritual benefits of drinking the brew. He also describes a new method of preparing tea that included adding boiling water to dry powdered tea and leaving it to brew. Before serving, the brew is whisked briskly - the same method that was adopted in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

  8. 1191 AD


    The Japanese Buddhist monk, Eisai travels to China and returns wtih seeds of the tea plant. He writes a book about tea, declaring it to be a miraculous medicine for the maintenance of health and longevity. The popularity of tea increases in Japan.

  9. 1484 AD

    Zen priest Murato Shuko introduces the Japanese Tea Ceremony - the Chanoyu (Hot Water for Tea) - a ceremony that starts at midday and lasts four hours.

  10. 1369 - 1644

    Ming Dynasty

    During the Ming Dynasty tea started to arrive in Europe. Tea is now prepared and consumed using fine ceramic utensils (later known as Royal China by the English) as opposed to wooden ones. The form in which tea is brewed also changes as compressed and powdered forms of tea give way to loose leaf tea. The method of preparation was to pour boiling water over the loose-leaf tea, allowing it to infuse and then pouring into a ceramic cup. The Europeans adopt this method of preparation. Production of black tea is also developed during this period.

  11. 1600

    Ming Dynasty

    The East India Company is founded under Royal Charter from Elizabeth I. It is granted a monopoly of all trade east of Africa and West of South America - the East Indies.

  12. 1610

    The Dutch with their advanced Navy, and dominance of trade in the Far East, bring the first tea to Europe. It quickly becomes fasionable in Holland, and the Dutch become the largest tea consumers in Europe.

  13. 1620 - 1640


    Tea's popularity spreads throughout Europe especially France and Portugal. China has a monopoly in tea and protects the methods of growing and manufacturing closely. The price of tea soars to a point where it was more expensive than gold. Due to its high price it remains the domain of the aristocracy and wealthy.

  14. 1650

    Dutch traders bring the first tea to America. It becomes popular among the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, later re-named New York.

  15. 1652


    The first Coffee House is established in England

  16. 1657

    Tea reaches England. Thomas Garraway (Garraway Coffee) sells tea to Londoners at his coffee house.

  17. 1658

    Mercurius Politicus

    The London newspaper Mercurius Politicus publishes the following advertisment for tea: "That excellent and by all Physicians approved China Drink called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Toy, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head, a coffee house in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London."

  18. 1661

    Charles II gives The East India Company extraordinary new powers in the areas it traded in. These include the right to acquire foreign territory and govern it, establish its own army and fortifications, declare war, conclude peace, forge foreign alliances, and coin money, 'for the advantage and benefit for the said Governor and Company'.

    With these new privileges the Company is to become the most powerful corporation the world has seen and it will dominate the international tea trade. The Company will also play a central role in the creation of the British Empire.

  19. 1662

    Charles II marries Catherine Braganza of Portugal. Part of her dowry includes a chest of tea. Catherine makes tea drinking fashionable amongst the aristocracy and its popularity spreads throughout England.

  20. 1700

    The rise in demand for tea in England increases dramatically during the early part of the century. However due to the monopoly of The East India Company and heavy government taxes it was still too expensive for most of the population. The English began to consume more smuggled tea than what had been legally imported.

    It was also during this period that the number of coffee houses increased. Tea was also becoming the most popular beverage within these establishments. These gathering places were also known as "Penny Universities" because for a penny entrance, any man could come in and read a newspaper, drink tea, transact business and discuss politics.

    As they grow in number they started to differentiate themselves from each other by targeting selected professionals for their clientele such as attorneys, military, ship-owners, merchants and authors. Edward Lloyd owned one such house. It was frequented by ship-owners and merchants, and later became Lloyds Of London the international insurance firm. The auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's originated from such places. Coffee Houses were also the origin of the exclusive private men's clubs that still exist today.

  21. 1767

    Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townsend, raised taxes on lead, paper, licenses, glass and tea in the American Colonies to pay for wars in France and India. The Townsend Act infuriates the colonists giving rise to violent protests. Tea smuggling increases and legal imports of tea drop dramatically due to boycotts.

  22. 1773

    The Tea Act is passed by the British Parliament that imposes further taxes on tea in the American Colonies. This re-ignites the colonist's outrage towards the British and their right to tax the colonists.

    A group of political activists, known as the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and John Hancock board three East India ships docked in Boston Harbour after dark. Disguised as Mohawk Indians, they begin to throw hundreds of kilos of tea into the harbour. This event became known as the Boston Tea Party. This single political act of defiance led to similar events that eventually led to the American War of Independence.

  23. 1776

    China's control of the tea market allowed them to set high prices and demand payment in silver. This was making trade with the Britain economically untenable. Shipping the required amounts of silver would drain Britain's finances. The East India Company's solution was to grow opium in India to sell in China for the silver they required for the tea.

  24. 1796

    With the growing problem of opium addiction amongst the Chinese and the drain on the country's silver resources the Emperor banned all exports of silver and imports of opium. The East India Company continues to trade covertly in opium by bribing officials.

  25. 1788

    First Fleet

    Tea arrives in Australia with the First Fleet.

  26. 1822

    William Jardine (founder of the financial house Jardine Matheson) arrives in Canton and begins dealing in large quantities of opium and builds vast personal wealth. He teams up with James Matheson to form the company Jardine Matheson. Jardine and his fellow foreign merchants increased the market for opium.

  27. 1834

    Having already lost its monopoly of trade with India the British Parliament removes the East India Company's prized monopoly of trade with China.

  28. 1836

    The British had become the largest drug cartel in the world, through its trade in opium, and the effects on Chinese society were devastating with approximately one quarter of the population addicted to opium.

  29. 1839

    In an attempt to stop opium imports the Emperor shut down Chinese ports to foreign vessels whilst confiscating and destroying the opium stocks of the merchants. The British who believed they had a right to free trade went to war with China in the first of what became known as The Opium Wars.

  30. 1840

    Duchess of Bedford Opium Wars

    Anna the Duchess of Bedford introduces the idea of "Afternoon Tea" in England. It is said that she needed to appease her appetite during the long hours between lunch and supper. Afternoon Tea becomes a widespread social event amongst the aristocracy with strict social rules and customs.

    During that same year, the British defeated the Chinese in the war and the Treaty of Nanking was signed. In it China would open some of its ports to British ships and the island of Hong Kong would be ceded to Britain. The one condition the Chinese refused to agree on was the legalization of opium.

  31. 1849

    Tea Clipper

    The abolition of Britain's Navigation Laws allows American Tea Clipper ships to bring tea from China to London for the first time. The 'Oriental' is the first of these ships to arrive and it completes the voyage from China to London three times faster than the fastest East India ship. This builds a determination in London to rival the Americans in ship design and speed.

  32. 1848 - 1851

    The East India Company decides to set up tea plantations in India to break China's monopoly and to ensure consistent supply. The Company commission Robert Fortune, a renowned Scottish botanist, to enter China and secretly steal tea seeds and plants for transport to India. At great personal risk he disguises himself as a Chinese man and travels to the remote tea regions of China taking detailed notes of the secrets of cultivation and manufacture. Had he been detected he would have faced certain death. During his three-year covert mission he stole tens of thousands of tea plants that were taken to India and most importantly had learnt the methods of growing and processing. Plantations were established in Assam and Darjeeling in India's northeast and for the first time a large commercial tea industry was established outside China.

  33. 1858

    The Treaty of Tienstin is signed after the British defeated the Chinese in the second Opium War. The treaty further humiliates and weakens the Chinese Imperial government by having to open more ports to British ships, foreigners and missionaries are given unrestricted travel, and worst of all, opium is legalized.

    The British start to trade opium for tea undermining Chinese efforts to stem the tide of addiction amongst it population. The Manchu Dynasty, who ruled China at the time, was seriously weakened as they lost control over large areas of the country to anarchy.

    The Chinese felt that the imperial government was not doing enough to protect their rights and sovereignty from the foreigners. The repercussions of these feelings were to echo down into modern China.

  34. 1866

    Tea Clipper Races

    Tea clippers from various countries would race from China to London to bring the first new season teas to market. These races were formalized and huge sums of money were waged on which boat would arrive first.

  35. 1869

    Built especially for the tea trade one of the world's most famous English Clippers, the Cutty Sark, with 28 crew, 10 miles of rigging and 32,000 square feet of canvas sail, sets sail from Shanghai to London - the largest and fastest clipper ever. The great tea Clipper races ended with the opening of The Suez Canal, as the voyage was shorter and more economical by steamship.

    Coffee rust appears on Ceylon's coffee plantations and spreads throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It will eventually destroy the coffee industry in this part of the world. This leads to widespread tea cultivation. Plantations in India begin to flourish. China's tea industry never really recovered until the 1950s and 1960s by which time tea had established industries in over 20 countries including Australia.

  36. 1884

    The Cutten brothers plant the first commercial tea plantation in Australia at Bingil Bay, Tropical North Queensland.

  37. 1888

    British tea imports from India exceed those from China. The Indian teas were also considered of better quality. India was on its way to becoming the largest producer of tea in the world a title it still holds today.

  38. 1890

    Thomas Lipton enters the tea business to ensure consistent tea supplies for his 300 grocery stores.

  39. 1904

    While exhibiting in the hot weather at the St Louis World Fair in America, Englishman Richard Blechynden adds ice to his hot tea samples to create interest amongst fair goers. It is said to be the first time "iced tea" was server and it was a hit at the fair.

  40. 1908

    Tea Bags

    During that same year, Tea bags are pioneered by Thomas Sullivan in New York. As a tea merchant, he uses small silk purses to send samples of his teas to clients, who begin to use them and find them easier to use then loose tea. Machines are then developed to make the tea bags.

  41. Today

    Nerada Tea

    Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. It is now grown in over 30 countries around the world. Around the world there is a total of over 6.5 million acres of land under tea cultivation producing over 3 billion kilos of tea a year - that is equivalent to about 1.5 trillion cups of tea.