Tea is consumed by millions across the world on a daily basis. It’s also part of various rich cultures all over the globe. Tea is ranked second after water as the world’s most consumed beverage. The world would be totally different without tea. With various health benefits ranging from strengthened immune systems and pain alleviation to body cleansing.
We know that tea leaves are obtained from the Camellia Sinensis tree. So, how did this popular beverage get discovered?
The Origins of Tea
The origins of tea dates back to 2737 BC when China’s Emperor, Shen Nung, who was disliked by many, was ejected from power and sent to Chin in Southern China. One day, while sitting under a tree and boiling water, some leaves from the tree dropped in the water. He loved the taste of the drink and sat under the tree for seven consecutive years, drinking tea for its relaxing benefits.
Within the Yunnan and Sichuan mountainous areas, the Emperor infused various plant berries and leaves, recording their effects. Once when he drank a toxic herb, he brewed tea which healed him of the stomach ache. During the 616 to 907 Tang Dynasty, drinking tea became an art. This was the time when traders from the Middle East went to China on the Chinese Empire heyday to trade their goods for porcelain, silk and tea.
With time, the art of drinking tea spread to Asia, Europe and America. The Chinese enjoyed drinking tea for thousands of years before the European explorers took the art back home. Tea was used for religious offerings because the Chinese believed it had significant health benefits. Since the drink was scarce then, only the rich and royalty consumed tea. However, other types of tea plants were discovered during the Tang Dynasty, hence the drink became available to all.
With many kinds of tea available, tea leaves were crushed and transformed into a mold, which was then dried to create bricks. During preparation, a small segment of the tea brick was ground and added to boiling water. Green tea was mainly available in powder form; the tea would be added to a cup and boiled water poured over it, creating a frothy drink. The Japanese priests who studied in china brought the knowledge they learnt and tea back home to share with the rich and other priests.
Buddhists began to drink tea during meditations to stay awake. The Japanese Tea Ceremony was then started with tea drinking being an integral part and spiritual experience. The Japanese Emperor enjoyed drinking tea, hence ordered tea seeds for planting. This ensured that tea was accessible to all the Japanese who wanted to have it.
In the 17th century when a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, was married by King Charles II of England, tea found its way to Britain. Although tea is commonly associated with the British, it was the foreign princess who popularized it. Asia is the biggest tea producer worldwide, contributing 80% to 90% of all tea with the major players being China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
The largest tea-growing nation worldwide is India, contributing up to 30% of the world’s tea. In the 20th century, tea entered East Africa, especially the Kenyan highlands, making the country one of the top tea growers worldwide.
Types of Tea around the World
The three major types of tea are black, green and Oolong tea. Black tea is the most popular in the US, Europe and other parts of the world; this type of tea is fully oxidized. Green tea, on the other hand, is non-oxidized and an Orient staple with a delicate flavor. Oolong tea is a hybrid of black and green tea, hence is partly oxidized; it also has the taste and flavor of the two types of tea.
Despite the origins of tea around the globe, each country has its favorite tea and a unique tea drinking tradition and history.
Japan – Yeisei, a Buddhist priest, is said to be responsible for bringing tea seeds to Japan from China. The drink was used in Zen Buddhism meditations for its capability to keep people awake. The Japanese Tea Ceremony played an important role in popularizing the drink across Japan.
America – Peter Stuyvesant, a Dutchman, was the first to bring tea to the US in the 1650s. New Amsterdam, today known as New York, was the first city to see tea, which fast gained popularity among the colonial women. Tea was traded in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia by 1720. During the American Revolution and Boston Tea Party, the locals threw British tea into the port and bought smuggled tea due to the hefty taxes the British imposed on tea.
Samuel Adams led a group known as Sons of Liberty that protested against exploitative legislations such as the Tea Act of 1773. Dressed as Mohawk Native Americans, the group raided new British tea shipments and threw at least 340 containers of tea into the Harbor of Boston, hence the American Revolution.
Iced tea and tea bags were invented in the 20th century. Thomas Sullivan introduced iced tea during the nation’s first World Fair for use during summer. Although coffee is still an important American brew, the health-conscious Americans are increasingly consuming tea.
England – As stated above, the foreign princess brought tea with her in 1662 (the 17th century) to England when she married King Charles II. The English serve milk tea, adding sugar to sweeten it. They drink afternoon tea accompanied by scones, sandwiches, cakes, or any other delicacies.
Russia – Tea first arrived in Russia in 1618 (the 17th century) when many chests of tea were sent by the Chinese to Tsar Alexis as gifts. Samovar, a large tea pot and water heater, is used by Russians today to brew and drink strong sweetened tea.
India – In the 19th century, the British colonizers established the first tea plantations in India. With the Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri being the most popular tea varieties, India is the world’s major producer of tea. Indians love ‘masala chai’, milk tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom for a sweet aromatic flavor.
The opium trade between China and England between 1830 and 1860 also played a great role in popularizing tea.
Irrespective of where you come from, tea is a popular drink found in almost every household worldwide. With its rich history and health benefits, more and more people drink tea each day and the trend isn’t going to stop anytime soon.