History of Tea

The history of tea is fascinating although very long and complex.  It spreads across the globe spanning multiple cultures and many centuries as it found its way into practically every country in the world, earning its place as the most popular beverage on the planet.

According to one legend...

 It is suggested that the story of tea begins in  China where the Chinese Emperor and herbalist Shen Nung accidentally discovered it in 2737 BC.  He was sitting under a tree while his servant was boiling some drinking water when a few leaves from a nearby tree were blown into the water and changed its colour.  The tree was a Camellia Sinensis and when the Emperor tried the drink he was pleasantly surprised by its flavour and restorative properties.  It is said that Shen Nung tested the properties of various plant herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found Tea to work as an antidote.

Tea became popular as a herbal medicinal drink in China with the earliest credible record of tea drinking coming from a medical text from the 3rd century.  It wasn’t until the 8th century, however, that it became the national drink of China and the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching or Tea Classic was written.  Shortly after this Tea was introduced to Japan by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study and it became an integral part of Japanese culture.

Tea across the continents

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to be introduced to Tea in the 16th century through merchants and priests living in China.  They weren’t the first to ship tea to Europe as a commercial import, however, this was done by the Dutch.  When King Charles II of England married a Portuguese princess in the 17th century, the black beverage arrived in England and the British introduced tea production, as well as consumption to India in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.

For a long time Tea was a drink of the wealthy both in Asia and Europe due to its high price and taxes.  Supply increased over the years as more and more countries began growing the tea plant and its price fell making it more accessible to the lower classes.  During the high taxation years in Britain, tea smuggling was rampant and when tea began to be exported to America, it was so heavily taxed that it led to the Boston Tea Party protest in 1773.

Tea V Cha...

The various words used to refer to tea were developed with the trade routes.  The countries to which the tea was bought by a sea route use words that begin with T.. Tea in English / Tee in German / The in French / Te in Italian / Thee in Dutch.  On the other hand, countries which tea was brought to over land routes such  as Tibet / India / Iran / Russia use words beginning with the syllable Tch or Ch borrowed for the Mandarin Cha

The two forms of the word reflect two paths of transmission: chaa is from Portuguese cha, attested in Portuguese from 1550s, via Macao, from Mandarin (Chinese) ch'a.

Russian chai, Persian cha, Greek tsai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çay,  all came overland from the Mandarin form

The later form, which became Modern English tea, is derived via the Dutch thee from the Amoy dialect t'e, which corresponds to Mandarin ch'a., reflecting the role of the Dutch as the chief importers of the leaves (through the Dutch East India Company, from 1610. The distribution of the different forms of the word in Europe reflects the spread of use of the beverage.

Tea Today

Although tea is produced in more than 35 countries, three-quarters of global production occurs in only a handful of these countries. China is responsible for 35% of world production, India for 25%, Kenya for 8%, and Sri Lanka for 7%. Other important producing countries are Turkey 4%, Vietnam 4% and Indonesia 3%.  The remaining countries make  up the balance of production

Contrary to coffee and cocoa, the affluent populations of North America, Western Europe and Japan are not the largest markets for tea. Over 50% of global tea exports are destined to the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet Union countries. Tea consumption in the non-producing countries is led by the Russian Federation (4.5%), the United States of America (3.2%) and the United Kingdom (3%);

The tea of choice in countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia is green tea; in other markets Black tea is still predominant. Premium loose tea markets, like Germany and Japan are known to go for the leafy teas of higher quality. Tea bags are preferred in the Western consuming countries like the USA, UK and the Netherlands. There is also an increasing trend in the consumption of non-traditional tea products such as iced tea, , herbal infusions etc. According to the American tea board, roughly 85 - 90% of the tea imported in the USA is destined for the production of ice-tea.