The First Brew
The story of tea begins in ancient China more than 5,000 years ago. According to legend, an early emperor demands all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One day, leaves from a nearby bush fall into the boiling water and they infuse the liquid. And so, the first tea is created.
Tea in China
Tea consumption spreads like wildfire throughout Chinese culture. In 800 AD, Lu Yu writes the first definitive book on tea, variously known as The Classic of Tea or The Ch’a Ching. He codifies the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China. It’s this form of tea service that Zen Buddhist missionaries later introduce to imperial Japan.
Tea travels to Japan
The first tea seeds are brought to Japan by a Buddhist priest, known as the “Father of Tea” in Japan. Because of this early association, tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism. Tea receives instant imperial sponsorship and spreads rapidly from the royal court and monasteries to other sections of Japanese society. Tea is soon elevated to an art form resulting in the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Europe discovers Tea
While tea becomes more and more popular in Japan and China, information on this strange new beverage begins to filter back to Europe. The first European person to encounter tea and write about it is from Portugal. From there, Portugal becomes the first country to gain right of trade with China, and begins shipping tea to its capital Lisbon, as well as France, Holland and the Baltic countries.
Tea arrives in Europe
Tea becomes fashionable among the wealthy echelons of society in Holland, due in part to its high cost (more than $100 per pound). Slowly, as tea importation increases, its price falls, and by 1675 it’s available in common food shops throughout Holland. And as the craze for all things oriental sweeps through Europe, tea becomes a major part of the European way of life.
Tea Lands in America
The Dutch send tea to colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later re-named New York by the English). Settlers become big tea drinkers and on acquiring the colony, the English discover the small settlement consumes more tea at that time than all of England combined.
Tea Arrives in England
England is the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes. The first samples of tea reach England between 1652 and 1654. Tea quickly proves popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England.
Afternoon Tea in England
Prior to the introduction of tea, the English enjoyed two main meals every day – breakfast and dinner. Adopting the European “tea service” format, Anna the Duchess of Bedford invites friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at Belvoir Castle. The menu includes cakes, sandwiches, sweets and, of course, tea. The practice of inviting friends for tea in the afternoon is quickly adopted by social hostesses.
Russian Tea Tradition
Russia’s interest in tea begins as early as 1618, when the Chinese embassy in Moscow presents several chests of tea to Czar Alexis. By 1689 a common border is established between Russia and China, allowing caravans to cross freely. Still, the journey is not easy and the cost of tea is initially prohibitive and available only to the wealthy. Eventually the price drops and tea spreads throughout Russian society. Tea (along with vodka) remains the national drink of the Russians today.
Tea in America
By 1720, tea is an accepted staple of trade between the colony (America) and the mother country (England). Tea trade is centred in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, future centres of American rebellion.
In June 1767, the tea tax is passed by government and this was to become the watershed moment of America’s desire for freedom. The colonists rebel and openly purchase imported tea, largely Dutch in origin. Throughout the colonies, people pledge not to drink English tea until their free rights are restored.
Events in America continue to deteriorate and the men of Boston throw hundreds of pounds of tea into the harbour in a political protest now known as The Boston Tea Party. In retaliation, the port of Boston closes and the city is occupied by royal troops, and revolution is declared.
Global Tea Plantations Develop
England begins to experiment with growing tea in India. There are many failed attempts due to bad soil selection and incorrect planting techniques. Through each failure, however, the technology is perfected. Finally, after years of trial and error, the English tea plantations in India and other parts of Asia flourish.
In the late 1880s, in both America and England, fine hotels begin to offer tea service in tea rooms and tea courts. Served in the late afternoon, Victorian ladies (and their gentlemen friends) could meet for tea and conversation. Many of these tea services become the hallmark of the elegance of the hotel, such as the tea services at The Ritz in Boston and The Plaza in New York.
Iced Tea and Tea Bags
In 1904, a tea plantation owner in America plans to give away free samples of hot tea to fair visitors. But when a heatwave hits, no-one is interested. So he dumps a load of ice into the brewed tea and serves the first “iced tea”.
Four years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York develops the concept of “bagged tea”. As a tea merchant, he carefully wraps each sample delivered to restaurants for their consideration. He recognises a natural marketing opportunity when he realises the restaurants are brewing the samples “in the bags” to avoid the mess of tea leaves.
Today, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. It’s now grown in more than 30 countries, with a total of more than 2.6 million hectares of land under tea cultivation producing 3 billion kilos of tea each year – that’s about 1.5 trillion cups of tea!