The story of tea is long and complicated, but not tedious. Its history dates back to the ancient times of the Far East and are rooted in legends shrouded in mystery. It is certain that the tea phenomenon is the most deeply rooted in the Chinese society where tea was probably discovered. There are several legends about its discovery whose dating is interestingly precise.
According to one of these legends, in 2737 BCE Emperor Chen-nung was boiling water in a kettle while several tea leaves fell into it and the Emperor could discover the deliciousness of the beverage. This emperor must have been an enlightened ruler. Legends describe him as the discoverer of such things as the plough, trade and hygiene. He is said to have been a great healer with transparent intestines that allowed him to observe the reactions of his body to different kinds of herbs.
The main character in the second story of the discovery of tea is Indian Buddhist wise man Bodhidharma. At the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, he brought Buddhist teachings to China and he is considered to be the first Chinese patriarch of the Chan School. Once, Bodhidharma fell asleep during his meditation. When he woke up, enraged by the loss of concentration, he tore away his eyelids and threw them on the ground. The first tea shrub sprung on the spot – and the monks began to use its leaves to prepare a beverage that staves off fatigue.
The oldest cultivated plant
According to historical sources, people have known tea for at least 5,000 years. French biologist Candolle listed it among the oldest cultivated plants. L. Lewin argues that tea leaves were found next to skeletons in 10,000-year-old graves in northern China. Long before the start of the Common Era, tea drinking tradition was quite common around the Long River. Tea was known to doctors, favoured by Chinese artists and writers and, of course, emperors.
Boom of production and trade
The tea-drinking tradition spread to other parts of China around the 4th century CE, while true boom started during the rule of the Tchang Dynasty (618−907). At that time, tea was used to pay taxes and pressed tea was subject to bartering and was exported to neighbouring countries in bulk. The typical ch’a sign that is still used for tea first appeared in a herbarium dated to 725 and around 780, Lu Jü wrote the Ch’a Ching tea encyclopedia.
At that time, tea was crushed after drying and pressed into small brickss, plates or cakes that were often decorated with ornaments. The advantage of pressed tea was its relatively long durability. To prepare the beverage, a piece of pressed tea was chipped off, put into boiling water and left to boil, often with ginger, orange peel or spices, but also with gherkin pickle or onion.
Between 960 and 1279, during the rule of the Sung dynasty, tea preparation changed. Harvested leaves were dried and then ground into fine powder by means of stone mills, poured over with boiling water and whipped with a handmade bamboo whisk. This type of tea preparation and drinking has been preserved in Japan in the form of the famous tea ceremonies.
For the first time, the term “yellow tea” appeared. It was cultivated and harvested at very strict conditions, exclusively for the emperor (yellow has always been the imperial colour in China).
Another change came in the 14th century during the rule of the Ming dynasty (1368−1644). Since then, tea has been infused the way it is today. Oxidisation was discovered, which brought new types of tea and new tastes. It also brought fresh inspiration for artists, poets, painters and pottery makers.
In 1492, the first I-shing teapot saw the light of the world. The legendary I-shing, whose fantastic shapes are an expression of the immeasurable richness of human creativity propelled by a sip of delicious tea, became one of the symbols of Chinese culture. Newly, tea started to be served in a bowl with a saucer and lid that kept the temperature and served as a sieve. It is called guy-wan in Mandarin Chinese and zhong in Cantonese. Quickly, tea became a commodity and source of large income for both the tea growers and the whole Chinese economy.
Tibet and Mongolia
Thanks to trade, tea spread to the neighbouring countries in the west and the north – to Tibet and Mongolia where it is drank with melted yak butter and salt. Such beverage has a high energetic value and helps to renew energy in people who live in demanding climatic conditions. What is more, it is enough to add roasted barley to make tsampa, the most common Tibetan dish.
In the 8th century, tea arrived to Japan as an exotic drink. In the 12th century, Myōan Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai zen school, brought the seeds of cultivated tea plant there.
He gave those first seeds to monk called Myoe who began to grow the plant in the vicinity of the Kōzan-ji monastery. Due to its energising effect, tea was drunk mainly by Buddhist monks. Tea helped them to maintain alert mind and concentration during meditation.
From the 15th century on, the tradition of tea ceremony has been kept in Japan. It was borrowed from China where this form of tea preparation was fading at that time. This complicated ritual has strict rules and contains processes that must be performed. Tea ceremony is an art that is learnt by tea masters for several years. Special tea accessories are used.
The 15th and 16th centuries were a golden era for the tea culture in Japan. Famous tea masters, such as Takeno Jōō and Sen no Rikyu practiced their art there. Their names are associated with the term wabi – an ideal of purity and simplicity. Thanks to such masters, tea ritual spread to all the classes in the Japanese society. Tea ceremonies took place both privately and in the form of public gatherings.
Portugal and Holland
Tea was first brought to Europe by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Their seafaring experience as well as their navy were at a very good level, which is why they became the first European trade partners of the Chinese. Tea became more widely available a hundred years later thanks to the Dutch.
At the beginning, people were uncertain about the righ preparation of this foodstuff. Attempts at preparing tea salad and tea spinach were not rare, but did not become hugely popular. Tea as a medicine did better. For instance, the Dutch doctor Cornelis Bontekoe prescribed as much as 50 cups of tea per day to his patients, while he drank up to 200 of them himself. Finally it was discovered that tea is mainly a delicious beverage with amazing taste and beneficial effects. It became quickly popular – although its price limited this popularity to the rich classes. However, its price gradually decreased and around the end of the seventeenth century it was possible to buy tea in many shops and pubs around Holland.
In the second half of the 17th century, Britain was the last of the maritime powers to commence tea trade. In 1660, Charles II, who had got acquainted with tea during his exile in Holland, was enthroned. He and his wife Catherine de Braganza were both tea enthusiasts and they are credited for introducing tea to the English royal court.
Great Britain became a country where tea was the most widely available. At the beginning, it was its high price that prevented it from being massively popular, but as early as in 1657 tea was offered in the coffee house owned by the legendary pioneer of tea drinking, Thomas Garway. In his leaflet, he attributed tea extraordinary properties, promising tea drinkers perfect health until old age. Tea was supposed to heal intestinal colic, cold, scurvy, oedema and to positively influence eyesight. In the late 17th century, the habit of tea consumption became rapidly popular and soon tea was offered by 500 coffee houses. The title “Coffee House” remained unchanged, although tea ruled the demand. Its consumption in Great Britain exceeded the amounts in China, reaching a world record.
The popularity of tea drinking influenced many things in history, the more important ones included the development of sea transport. At the beginning of the 19th century, it took several months for ships to sail from a Chinese port to England. However, the desire to deliver the customers tasty and fragrant – and thus fresh – tea led ship builders to developing new modern processes and technologies, which in turn led to a general progress in this industry. The immense popularity tea enjoyed led to the popularisation of its transportation from Asia to the British Isles. The ships and shipping companies began to compete and started building three and four masted sailships, so-called clippers. Their races from Canton across the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Faith and Africa to Britain were followed as closely as today’s rallies. The captain and crew of the winning ship were richly rewarded. The most famous clippers included Ariel and Cutty Shark.
The Opium Wars
The excessive import of goods, mainly Chinese tea, led to a high trade deficit. The Chinese required payments in silver, but were not interested in wool and other English products. The intent to limit cash flow going from Europe to China led to the idea of commercial cultivation of tea on the continent.
At this moment, the East Indian Company discovered a new type of goods that the Chinese were willing to exchange for silver: Indian opium. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the British imported up to 3,000 tonnes of opium to China every year, which gave them the finances necessary for purchasing tea. However, thousands of opium addicts soon became a threat to China’s stability. In 1800, the importing of opium was banned under severe punishments, but the drug would keep flooding into China illegally. In an attempt to renew the narcotics trade, England fought three so-called Opium Wars with China between 1839 and 1860. China was forced to legalise opium trade again, which led to a tenfold number of addicts. This problem pestered China as late as mid-20th century. It was due to the Opium Wars that China lost its control of Hong Kong.
The Brits were looking for a way to circumvent China commercially and started to grow tea in their colonies in India and Ceylon. Until 1970, Britain had imported 90 % of tea from China, but before the end of the century, only 10 % came from there while 50 % of tea was imported from India and 36 % from Ceylon. The first attempts at growing tea took place as early as the end of the 18th century in the botanical garden of Calcutta. In 1823, tea was discovered and described by Robert Bruce. Tea leaves had been used by the locals for making a drink long before the English came. It was more robust than the Chinese tea plants and its leaves were up to twice as large. These “tea trees” were later cultivated into plants that gave high quality tea.
The expansion of tea growing in India was massively promoted by the establishment that charged the East Indian Company with these projects. The Company then founded plantations and in 1839 it brought the first tea grown there to England, which was greeted with an ovation.
Assam and Darjeeling
Assam is definitely one of the largest and most important tea growing areas in India. There are around 2,000 plantations planted with the local Assam variant of the tea plant, which tolerates the local tropical conditions and the height of 100 m a.s.l. Tea is harvested here year-round.
Real gems among teas come from the Himalayan foothills near the border with Nepal and Sikkim. Here, in the vicinity of the colonial town of Darjeeling that is 2,000 metres a.s.l., highly regarded and valued tea is grown in a rather small area of 83 plantations. The plantations were founded in the 19th century and consisted mostly of Chinese tea plants and different proportions of the Assam variant. In the difficult terrain, tea is still harvested manually and processed by hundred-year-old but superbly serviced machines that remember the British Empire.
The whole process of growing and processing tea is closely supervised by plantation managers in whose hands lies the resulting quality and price of the future tea. The price of the teas, which are mostly sold at the Calcutta tea exchange, can skyrocket due to the presence of buyers from Japan, the USA and Western Europe.
Tea growing became widely practiced in other parts of India, such as the Nilgili Mountains, Dooars, Terai, Tamil Nadu and Arunachal Pradesh.
Although India produces such gems as the Darjeeling tea, the locals drink only strongly sweetened low quality black tea with milk, chai, which you can buy for a few rupees at every corner. India is both the largest producer and consumer of tea.
Originally, coffee and occasionally cocoa were grown in Ceylon. However, the plantations were destroyed by a disaster in the form of the fungus Hemileia vastatrix. Affected coffee growers soon found a replacement – tea. Both the environment and climate were very favourable and within a few years, tea plants were widely grown, completely replacing coffee. This was mainly thanks to the English as most of the land belonged to them.
The quality of Ceylon tea is directly proportionate to the height above the sea level at which it is grown: the higher, the better. The best teas come from heights around 2,000 metres, from the vast mountainous plane around central Nuwara Eliya. Tea production there is centrally managed and the focus is rather on the quantity of average and medium quality teas than on the production of top quality products. However, this strategy has been changing lately and more exclusive teas from Ceylon are now available. Real Ceylon tea is branded with the typical logo with a lion.
Another important route through which tea came to Europe from China was by land through Russia. Some of us still remember the Russian Caravan blend with a smoky aroma. The Russian Tsar court saw the first tea at the beginning of the 17th century. It was a gift from the Chinese envoys of the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan for the Russian Tsar. At the beginning, this gift encountered mistrust and the drink did not make a great first impression. However, after some time some of the noblemen started to drink it and tea went on to become even the Tsar’s favourite beverage.
In 1679, Russia and China concluded an agreement on tea supplies in return for furs. Soon, the first caravan set out to Moscow. This long and perilous journey, there and back, took 16 months. Eventually, tea drinking became so popular that ten years later, in 1700, six hundred tea caravans a year were dispatched. By the end of the 18th century, the Russians were consuming at least 6,000 such deliveries a year. Caravans were used till 1891 when the Trans-Siberian Railway was constructed. Thanks to it the price of tea fell sharply. At the beginning of the 20th, century Russia was the second largest importer of tea – right behind England.
Tea started to be cultivated in Russia. The most successful growers are the regions of Georgia and the Krasnodar region near the Black Sea. Here, the harvest is mechanical, which leads to lower quality tea. In Russia, tea is drunk from small glasses in metal, sometimes silver, holders. Black tea is the most common – people would put a sugar cube in their mouth and let it slowly dissolve into tea. The most typical item of Russian tea culture is the samovar. This special stainless-steel or copper vessel has been used in Russia since the mid-18th century. It was heated with charcoal, while now it is mainly electrical. Originally it was not used for tea but for the preparation of herb blend with spices and honey.
Naturally, the great beverage went on to make fans in America. First the Dutch and then the English started to send regular shipments of tea there. On the east coast, the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and New York were the trade centres. Tea was first shipped from the country of origin to Europe and then, heavily taxed, it set out on its journey to America. This led to the smuggling of tea from the colonies. The offer of cheaper smuggled tea brought the British East Indian Company to problems − its warehouses were bursting with unsalable tea. The British Parliament wrote off the Company’s debts, granted it loans and a monopoly for the American colonies. The American traders got suddenly sidetracked.
The tax on tea became the symbol of the oppression of the colonialists and the fight for independence. On 16th December 1773, the event known as the Boston Tea Party took place, which became the first manifestation of the ensuing war of independence. That day, one of many gatherings took place in Boston with thousands of people. When it ended, a group of about fifty men dressed as Indians attacked ships anchored in the harbour, which had just brought tea, and threw the whole cargo, 342 boxes, into the sea. During the revolution, the amount of consumed tea temporarily dropped, but it went on to be imported after the declaration of independence. Both black and green tea was drunk until WWII when America was cut off from its Chinese and Japanese suppliers of green tea. Thanks to the availability of black Indian tea it became drunk widely and this habit has stuck till the present day.
There are two innovations in the realm of tea culture: teabags and ice tea. They are frowned upon by orthodox tea connoisseurs, while others consider them synonyms for tea.
The current interest in quality tea has led to its wider availability and continuously expanding offer, but also to a continuous increase in price. Modern tea drinkers are cultivated, well oriented and know their tastes. This is attested by the opening of local tea houses of which there have been plenty. Let us hope that the further development will be for the better and that we will be able to delve into the pleasures and magic of the world of tea.