The History of Tea

We often think that Tea is a very English drink, and while this is very true, the history of tea goes back a long time and offers great insight into the history of how the world developed. Tea was first discovered in China, and it has traveled the world quenching the thirsts of almost every country on the planet. Tea is the most popular beverage in the world as well as one of the healthiest. If you have ever wondered where tea comes from and how we got to the point where tea is served in virtually every corner of the world, then sit back with a hot cup of tea and explore the history of the simple tea leaf over the centuries!

Sleepy Leaf - Clipper ShipAccording to legend the discovery of tea occurred in 2737 BC by the Emperor of China, Shen Nung. For several hundred years, people drank tea because of its herbal medicinal qualities. By the time of the Western Zhou Dynasty, tea was used as a religious offering. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), tea plants were quite limited and only royalty and the rich drank tea not only for their health but also for the taste. As more tea plants were discovered during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), tea drinking became more common among lower classes and the Chinese government supported planting of tea plants and even the building of tea shops so everyone could enjoy tea.

Sleepy Leaf - Tea Ceremony in JapanAlso during the Tang Dynasty, tea spread to Japan by Japanese priests studying in China. Similar to the Chinese adoption of tea, tea was first consumed by priests and the rich for its medicinal properties. Tea is often associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan because priests drank tea to stay awake and meditate. Soon, the Buddhists developed the Japanese Tea Ceremony for sharing tea in a sacred, spiritual manner. The Emperor of Japan enjoyed tea very much and imported tea seeds from China to be planted in Japan, making tea available to more people.

Tea finally arrived in England during the 17th century when King Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The Queen made tea the drink of royalty and soon tea became a popular import to Britain via the East India Company. Afternoon tea or tea parties became a common way for aristocratic society to drink tea. Though tea was regularly imported to Britain, the taxes were so high that smugglers would get and sell tea illegally for those that could not afford it. In attempts to turn profits during the tea smuggling period, the East India Company began exporting the tea to America. The American tea was also taxed heavily and contributed to the cause of the Boston Tea Party.

By 1784, the government realised that enough was enough, and that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly legal tea was affordable, and smuggling stopped virtually overnight.

Sleepy Leaf - Victorian Tea DrinkingIn 1851, when virtually all tea in Britain had come from China, annual consumption per head was less than 2lbs. Bt 1901, fuelled by cheaper imports from India and Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), another British colony, this had rocketed to over 6lbs per head. Tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life. This was officially recognised during the First World War, when the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage continued to be available at an affordable price. The government took control again during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952. 1952 also saw the re-establishment of the London Tea Auction a regular auction that had been taking place since 1706. The auction was at the centre of the world's tea industry, but improved worldwide communications and the growth of auctions in tea producing nations meant that it gradually declined in importance during the latter half of the twentieth century. The final London Tea Auction was held on 29 June 1998.

Sleepy Leaf - Tea Pickers in ChinaAs the tea auctions lost popularity, an essential part of modern tea-drinking started to take off - the standard tea bag. Tea bags were invented in the US in the early 20th century, but sales only really started to take off in the UK in the 70s. Today it would be hard for many tea-drinkers to picture a life without them. Such is the British enthusiasm for tea that even after the reduction of the British Empire, UK companies continue to be leaders in the world's tea trade and it is mainly British brands that dominate the world marketplace. With recent scientific research indicating that drinking tea may have direct health benefits, for centuries to come there will be a place at the centre of British life for a nice cup of tea.