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 for its cultural importance. There are contraptions, machines, and classic methods to brew tea. It has evolved with culture. Almost everywhere in the world, you can find tea at the center of human interaction. At any time of day, you can find tea being sipped for the occasion. From elaborate tea parties with fine porcelain accoutrements, to rustic clay pots that have been passed down as heirlooms, tea decorates our lives. More than just a beverage, tea brings tradition, calm, health, and community. Let’s follow this little leaf through time and space, and map out the impact of tea!
The story of tea is always traced back to China. Many tales have been told of the first interaction between man and leaf. Most credit Emperor Shen Nung, who 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. In order to prevent this from happening, he tore off his eyelids and cast them to the ground. His lids grew into a tea plant. He chewed the leaves, and was recharged!
Regardless of how it began, tea became a staple in Chinese culture. At first, it was utilized by 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 their 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 into Japan. By pressing the leaves into bricks, tea could be preserved for the long journey. Chinese “brick tea,” was the first to make its way into Japan. By the 9th century, seeds were imported and the Japanese began cultivating their own tea plants!
Today, the Japanese produce fresh green teas almost exclusively. They have become the masters of ceremony, presenting tea elaborately and delicately. Delicious teas like Gyokuro have been expertly crafted, using shades to block photosynthesis and retain chlorophyll. The result is a smooth, umami flavor created by utilizing nature. Although Japan produces hundreds of thousands of tons of tea annually, they only export 3% of their harvest.
The road forks here, as tea was travelling to Tibet in the same time period. 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 known as the Tea Horse Road developed between China and Tibet. Livestock and furs were imported to China, in exchange for Pu-erh (“brick”) tea -- now known as tuo cha.
The Tibetans put their own spin on the preparation of tea. Considering their production and export of livestock, it only makes sense that animal products had an influence on their preferred method of tea drinking. A blend of strong pu-erh tea, yak milk, and salted yak butter creates a creamy and savory Tibetan tea which can warm and satiate the body in high altitudes.
By the 16th century, trade ships were making waves. Products and goods were being transported frequently between various nations. The Chinese port of Macau became a haven for the 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. This 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: prior to the introduction of tea, the British enjoyed a pint with their morning meal.
As the demand increased, the British tea habit became expensive. In the early 1800s, they decided to cultivate their own tea plants to meet their needs. English botanists realized that their own climate was not ideal for growing Camellia sinensis, which typically grows in high altitudes. However, another varietal was found growing in India, Camellia assamica. This plant is adapted to a warmer, more humid climate and has larger, sturdier leaves. The British colonized and began to cultivate tea in India, using locals as indentured servants.
Today, India is the leading producer of tea worldwide. Tea cultivation spread to many regions and states. 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, all originate in an Indian tea garden.
Although India produces a massive amount of tea annually, only 30% is exported out of the country. Today, tea is deeply embedded into Indian culture. Chai Masala has become a global phenomena, now available in coffee shops around the world. The tradition of serving tea with milk came with the British. But, in India, spices and herbs were added for medicinal benefit and flavor. Now, chai wallahs grace the corners of many Indian streets!
Tea may be a global symbol of health, calm, and community, but America prefers the caffeination of the coffee bean. This is all thanks to Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, who threw a very large shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest taxes. The Colonists were an idealistic bunch. After the Boston Tea Party, tea was declared 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 tea that is purely American: 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 not available. 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 their own unique varieties and customs for enjoying tea. We only discussed varieties of camellia, the true tea plant. However, many cultures enjoy herbal teas that are exclusive to their regions.
Tea has been loved and appreciated through all climates and cultures. Whether brewed for religious ceremony with Zen Buddhists, or enjoyed on a porch swing in Alabama, the same leaf unites communities. It’s a beautiful world, and its diversity can be tasted in each unique cup of tea.