The Odyssey of Tea: A Brief History
"The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain,
A third and I was one of the Immortals
What need now for austerities
To purge our human sorrows?
Worldly people, by going in for wine,
Sadly deceive themselves.
For now I know the Way of Tea is real."
- Chio Jen
From humble beginnings, tea has become a worldwide phenomenon. It is revered for its positive impact on our health and its cultural importance. It has evolved with culture. There are gadgets, machines, and classic methods to brew tea.
You can find tea everywhere in the world-- at the center of human interaction. Tea decorates our lives, from elaborate tea parties with fine porcelain accouterments to rustic clay pots passed down as heirlooms.
More than just a beverage, tea brings tradition, calm, health, and community. Let's follow this little leaf through time and space and map tea's impact!
The history traces tea's origin back to China. Many tales exist of the first interaction between man and leaf. Emperor Shen Nung is most often credited with the discovery. He had an interest in experimenting with medicinal herbs and plants.
Some stories reference the Buddha, sitting in meditation with his typical cup of hot water, when a leaf conveniently falls in, steeps, and invigorates him! Still, others tell of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist Monk who became frustrated because he couldn't keep his eyes open during meditation. To prevent this, he tore off his eyelids and cast them to the ground. His discarded lids grew into a tea plant. He chewed the leaves and felt reinvigorated.
Regardless of how it began, tea became a staple in Chinese culture. At first, only available to the ruling class. But, through time, it became one of the seven daily necessities. The proverb states that these necessities are "fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea."
Tea had become a tacit expression of gratitude, apology, care, respect, and reconnection. From there, China began to share its love of tea with neighboring countries and became the producer and exporter of tea. So, where to next?
In the 6th century, tea was exported to Japan. Pressed into bricks, preserved tea made the long journey. Chinese "brick tea" was the first to make its way into Japan. By the 9th century, seeds made the passage, and the Japanese began cultivating tea plants!
Today, Japan produces fresh green teas almost exclusively. They have become the masters of ceremony, presenting tea elaborately and delicately. Delicious teas like Gyokuro are grown with shades to block photosynthesis and retain chlorophyll. The result is a smooth, umami flavor created by manipulating nature. Although Japan produces hundreds of thousands of tons of tea annually, they only export 3% of their harvest.
A Chinese princess named Wen Cheng married the king of Tibet, Songtsan Gambo, in the 7th century. With her came tea, which was enjoyed and soon became a popular beverage! A boisterous trading route, the Tea Horse Road, moved tea between China and Tibet. China exchanged pu-erh (brick tea) for livestock and furs.
The Tibetans put their spin on the preparation of tea. A blend of pu-erh tea, yak milk, and salted yak butter creates a creamy and savory Tibetan tea. This recipe warms and satiates the body in high altitudes. Considering their production and export of livestock, it only makes sense that animal products influenced their preferred tea drinking method.
Ships transported products and goods frequently between nations. By the 16th century, trade ships were making waves. The Chinese port of Macau became a haven for Portuguese traders.
A symbiotic relationship developed between the Chinese tea merchants and the Portuguese, who became the sole exporters of tea between China and Japan. Thus began the introduction of tea into European culture.
English Breakfast tea has become a household name and a favorite among tea drinkers. How did tea find its roots embedded in British culture? Another royal wedding, as it turns out! In the 17th century, Catherine De Braganza from Portugal married Charles II. Naturally, she brought tea with her. Fun fact: before introducing tea, the British enjoyed a pint with their morning meal.
As the demand increased, the British tea habit became expensive. English botanists realized their climate was not ideal for growing Camellia sinensis, which typically grows in high altitudes. In the early 1800s, they decided to cultivate tea plants to meet their needs.
Another varietal was found growing in India, Camellia assamica. This plant is adapted to a warmer, humid climate and has larger sturdier leaves. The British colonized and began cultivating tea in India, using locals as indentured servants.
Tea cultivation spread to many regions and states. Today, India is the leading producer of tea worldwide. Darjeeling is one of the most renowned tea-growing regions in the world, with delicate flavors and accents that have awarded it the nickname "the champagne of teas." Common teas like orange pekoe, Ceylon, Assam, and blends like Irish and English Breakfast originate in Indian tea gardens.
Although India produces a massive amount of tea annually, they only export 30%. Today, tea is deeply embedded in Indian culture. The tradition of serving tea with milk came with the British. But, spices and herbs were added in India for medicinal benefit and flavor. Now, chai wallahs grace the corners of many Indian streets! Chai Masala has become a global phenomenon, available in coffee shops worldwide.
Tea may be a global symbol of health, calm, and community, but America prefers coffee beans. This is all thanks to Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, who threw a large shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest taxes.
The Colonists were an idealistic bunch. After the Boston Tea Party, they declared that tea was a "traitor's drink!" To distinguish the Colonies from their British origins, people began serving coffee instead of tea. After all, tea was a British custom.
America boycotted tea and became a nation of coffee drinkers. There is one variety of purely American tea: Southern sweet tea. How did this concoction become a societal norm? According to historians, it originated as an iced alcoholic green tea beverage, like a mint julep.
During World War II, relations with Japan were strained, and green tea was unavailable. Due to this, black tea became the tea to use. With refrigeration and ice production, iced tea became a staple in the South. How all the sugar got into the mix, we will never know!
Teas All Over The World
This is a condensed version of the globetrotting journey our little tea leaf made. Almost all corners of the world have unique varieties and customs for enjoying tea.
We only discussed varieties of camellia, the actual tea plant. Tea has been loved and appreciated in all climates and cultures. However, many cultures enjoy herbal teas that are exclusive to their regions. Whether brewed for a religious ceremony with Zen Buddhists or enjoyed on a porch swing in Alabama, the same leaf unites communities.
It's a beautiful world, and we can taste diversity in each unique cup of tea.