Did you know that if tea is not “your cup of tea”, that you are officially in a minority as tea is officially mankind's favorite hot beverage. And is second only to water as humanity's most drunk liquid. Or did you know that the history of tea drinking dates back 4 thousand years? And that the leaves of the tea plant are intertwined with everything from Eastern European folklore, for example reading fortunes through tea leaves, to Europe's emergence as a global commercial power. And that they were one of the seeds of the American Revolution, when, at the infamous Boston Tea Party, British overtaxed tea was dumped off the dock by the disgruntled colonials.
The tea we drink today is derived from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant of the Theaceae family. And, indigenous to China and India, both cultures have a claim to its early usage.
How Tea History Started
Tea history started in ancient China. The first written reference to tea appeared in 350 A.D. defined as “a beverage made from boiled leaves.” The first definitive study in tea history was written by Lu Yu in 780 A.D. The 3 volume book entitled “Cha Ching” or “Tea Classic” covered everything related to tea from the proper techniques to growing plants to brewing tea.
The word “tea” originated from the Chinese word tu. Today it is an almost universal descriptor. But is pronounced differently in many different dialects and languages.
“Tea tempers the spirit and harmonizes the mind; dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue,
awakens thought and prevents drowsiness” Lu Yu
Tea Story in India
India's tea story starts with a saintly priest named Bodhidharma. 2,000 years ago, the founder of Zen Buddhism was in the fifth year of a seven year sleepless contemplation of enlightenment. Finding himself dangerously close to falling asleep, Bodhidharma snatched some leaves from a nearby bush and chewed them. He was immediately revived.
Bodhidharma turned to these leaves “tea leaves” whenever he again felt drowsy, and was thus, according to legend, able to complete his seven years of meditation. Barely a century and half after its first crop, India is, today, the largest producer and consumer of black tea, with over two million people employed in the industry. 50% of all tea produced in India is grown in Assam. It is the largest black tea producing region in the world.
Tea Story in Japan
The first tea seeds were brought to Japan by the returning Buddhist priest Yeisei, who had seen their value in China for enhancing religious mediation. As a result, he is known as the “Father of Tea” in Japan. Because of this early association and tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism. It also received early imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from the court and the monasteries to the other sections of Japanese society.
Such purity of form and expression prompted the creation of supportive arts and services and a even a special form of architecture (chaseki) developed specifically for “tea houses”. The Japanese tea ceremony, or cha-no-yu (or “the hot water for tea”) with its Zen meditation origins is based on five principles: hygiene, harmony, humility, reverence and peace, was designed as a means to discipline the mind. And can last up to four hours and use as many as 24 utensils.
Tea Story in Europe
Tea reached Europe from China and Japan in 1610 when Dutch traders brought leaves back as a luxury item alongside spices and silks. The British were introduced to tea in 1662 when Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza included a chest of tea in her dowry when she married Charles II: the First Lady of Tea. Tea's importance as a global commercial product started with the founding of the East India Company in England.
Created in 16th century under a charter from Elizabeth I to seek exotic riches, the Company had a monopoly on all goods entering Britain from outside Europe. This initially restricted tea to the tables of England's high society. Over time, sailors returning from the Far East shared it with family and friends, and enterprising smugglers avoided the Company's monopoly and government tariffs by illegally importing. Tea was soon being requested in London's COFFEE houses.
At the start of the 18th century, England imported 200,000 pounds of tea each year; by 1750, that figure grew to over two million. Tea replaced ale and gin as Britain's most popular beverage and spawned new industries, from tea gardens to English pottery and porcelain. By the 19th century, the British Empire had helped make tea a daily drink as explorers and entrepreneurs set up tea plantations in India.
In Britain, tea integrated into society at all levels, and was thought to have reduced urban disease and fuel the Industrial Revolution. Employers instituted a morning and afternoon “tea break” to compensate for long working hours.
Tea Story in Turkey
In Turkey, tea is of such importance, that all brides-to-be must master the art of demilikacay, or tea preparation. The people of Turkey drink more tea than any other beverage, consuming about 160,000 tons of tea per year.