A brief (ish) history of tea

April 12, 2017

* I thought I should write a disclaimer here as I tried very hard to keep this a brief history of tea but after looking back I feel I may have gone overboard... 

Imagine if Emperor Shennong wasn't a chancer

Tea as we know it has come a long way to get to where it is today. We are talking all the way from ancient China, where legend has it that tea was discovered by accident!

One story tells the tale of how Emperor Shennong, a renowned Chinese herbalist was the first person to discover tea. One day while resting under a tree, some leaves blew into his boiled drinking water causing an unusual infusion, he decided to drink it anyway (thankfully) and by doing so he felt energised and refreshed. With his background in science, he decided to explore the tea leaf further and uncovered its amazing medicinal properties. Tea was then commonly used for medicinal purposes throughout China and was used by many Buddhist monks to stay focused when meditating.

Buddhist Monks know what they're doing

The tea revolution then moved into Japan, being introduced by Buddhist monks after completing their pilgrimage to China. The Japanese began transforming the pleasure of a cup of tea into a spiritual and cultural ritual, which is still so embedded in their way of life today. 

Tea arrives in Britain - yey!

In the early 1600’s (yes we are only up to the 1600’s so far!), traders started to ship Chinese tea back to Europe and Great Britain where it grew in popularity, first among the upper class but then as it became more easily available, the tea craze swept throughout the entire population.

Boston Tea Party - have your cake and eat it too

Then came the Boston Tea Party… which sounds much more fun that it was! In 1773 the East India Company happened to hold a monopoly on the sale of tea to British colonies and even though they had their cake, they had to eat it too, so they imposed a high tea tax on American colonies. In December that year a group of American colonists protested by throwing valuable shipments of tea from British ships into the Boston Harbor (a slight waste of tea, but for a good cause).  

Let's send someone to spy on China... not me though...

By the mid 1800’s tea was a part of everyday life in the west, but the British weren’t getting enough of a cut of the action so they devised a cunning plan. In 1848 the East India Company tasked Scotsman and botanist Robert Fortune with infiltrating the Chinese tea industry, learning all that he can and smuggling live tea plants from China to Darjeeling in India to set up shop. And he managed to pull it off! Throughout the next century, the Indian tea economy flourished, with a specialty in producing exceptional black teas. At the same time, tea production in Japan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and others grew dramatically which paved the way for a larger supply and variety of tea.

So tea and the tea bag were invented by accident? 

Coming into the early twentieth century now, tea bags were invented… by accident. It is said that in 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant sent samples of loose leaf tea to customers in small silk bags. The customers assumed they are to be used in the same way as an infuser and as simple as that, the first tea bag was born!

Mass production of tea and tea bags led to more cost effective tea production methods and different tea bags being developed over the years. This had an effect on the quality of tea, with tea often being ground down to a dust like consistency by machines in order to fill tea bags.

A big thank you to Emperor Shennong... if the myth is true...

By the end of the twentieth century tea lovers were embracing new and exciting flavours of tea, and understanding more about the quality of tea and brewing methods. This, in turn led to the rise of the specialty tea market... which led to us! So all in all, we have Emperor Shennong to thank!

Tea is a ritual to many

The idea that the act of preparing and enjoying a cup of tea has a higher meaning relates to many different cultures and to many different people personally. I know that for me, tea has always been a moment of peace, whatever has happened in my day, I can take a break, enjoy a cup of my favourite tea and just let go!  

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