During a long day spent roaming the forest, searching for edible plants and crops, a weary farmer poisoned himself 72 times. But before the poisons could end his life, a leaf drifted into his mouth. He chewed on it and it revived him. And this how we discovered tea – or so the ancient Chinese story goes. Tea doesn’t actually cure poisons but who wants to ruin a good story?
Tea of antiquity
Archaeological evidence suggests that tea was first cultivated in China 6000 years ago. For thousands of years, tea was originally eaten, not drunk. Usually as a grainy porridge mixed in a mortar and pestle. It was only 1500 years ago that it started to be drunk, however, originally it was pressed into cakes and boiling water was then poured over. It was only in the 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty, that the emperor transitioned from tea cakes to loose-leaf tea.
It was in the 9th century, during the Tang Dynasty, that a Japanese monk brought tea to Japan. The Japanese quickly developed their own rituals around tea and the Japanese tea ceremony was created. Tea still remained very much China’s thing. Among porcelain and silk, tea was China’s top export.
Once loose leaf tea took its seat on the throne, it was then down to creating the ultimate brew. Over hundreds of years, tea masters and common folk alike all tried to make the best brew. And thus, the tea culture in China was started. Many Taoist monks, poets and those in the Emperor’s court all dedicated their lives to tea. The process. The history. The culture. Arguably the most famous of them all was Taoist monk and poet, Lu Tong, who dedicated his whole life to the study of tea culture.
From China to Europe
Tea eventually found its way to Europe from China abroad Dutch trading ships. It is said the Queen Catherine, a Portuguese noblewoman, made tea popular among the English aristocracy after her marriage to King Charles II in 1661. By 1700, tea sold for 10 times the price of coffee in Europe and it was still only grown in China.
After the British aristocracy got a taste for tea, they started trading silver for it, however, that quickly become too expensive. They then suggested trading tea for another substance. Opium. This quickly triggered the public health issue in China. Chinese officials ordered the destruction of British opium shipments, starting the first opium war. The war was fought along China’s coastline from 1839-42 and ended in defeat for the Ching Dynasty. Hong Kong was conceded to the British.
The East India Company that some of you may be familiar with from Pirates of the Caribbean, sent a botanist, Robert Fortune, to smuggle tea trees and tea workers out of China. He succeeded in doing this by bringing the plants and workers south into India. From there, tea culture spread like wildfire and myriad methods and types of tea were created.
And here we are today. Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water. With so many different types of tea, from sugary Turkish Apple tea to Longjing Dragonwell tea to Tibetan Butter tea to your staple English breakfast. Not to mention all the herbal teas. Rich in history and culture, tea is a beverage that has shaped the modern landscape we all interact with today.