History of Tea
Legend has it that tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2700 BC. The Emperor had decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking to improve its purity, and the story goes that he was about to drink his boiled water when some leaves fell into the water from a tree he was sitting under. He sipped the liquid and realised it tasted wonderful and was invigorating too. Shen Nong was converted and decreed that all his empire should drink this new-found infusion, declaring it gave ‘vigour to the body, contentment to the mind and determination of purpose’. The leaves that fell into his water so fortuitously that day were from the Camellia Sinensis plant, now most commonly known as tea!
The popularity of tea soon spread throughout Asia, and led to another tea legend. In Japanese Buddhist mythology, Dharma, a Buddhist monk, dedicated seven years to sleepless devotion to the Buddha. During meditation one day, he was having trouble concentrating and keeping his eyes open, and it is said he cut off both his eyelids to stay awake. Apologies to anyone feeling rather delicate this morning! He threw the eyelids on the ground, and two tea plants sprouted from them. Don’t try this at home, folks!
Whatever the true origin of tea, all tea, whatever the variety - White, Green, Oolong, Black and Pu-erh - all spring from the same flowering evergreen shrub, Camellia Sinensis, first cultivated in the Yunnan province of China, and now grown all over the world.
It took a long time before the popularity of tea spread from Asia to Europe. The first evidence of tea in Europe can be found in the latter half of the 16thcentury brought by Portuguese traders and missionaries travelling to and from Asia. But it was the Dutch who first imported tea as a commercial commodity, and by the end of the 16thcentury tea was a fashionable and expensive drink amongst the wealthy throughout western continental Europe.
The British, always a little suspicious of new trends from our European cousins, took longer to adopt the new drink as their own. It took Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles the Second, to make tea fashionable in England. A lover of tea since her childhood in Portugal, Catherine brought tea drinking to the British royal court in the 17thcentury. Despite our country’s love of black tea, the tea drunk at this time was actually green tea, drunk without milk.
The fashion for the beverage soon spread among the aristocracy and from those elite circles to the middle classes. It became a popular drink at the London Coffee Houses where wealthy men met to do business and discuss the events of the day. However, the tea that was served in those coffee houses would probably be considered undrinkable now, and it’s all the fault of tax! Tea in those days was taxed in liquid form. A barrel of tea would be brewed up first thing in the morning so a taxation officer could visit to tax it; the tea from the barrel would then be reheated as needed throughout the day. So a customer who came for a cup of tea in the late afternoon would be drinking something that had been made hours before. Now, us Brits love a good old builder’s tea, but perhaps this might have been even too strong for us?
It was not considered ‘seemly’ for women to attend these coffee houses, so the proprietors also sold tea in loose leaf form so it could be brewed at home. As tea was still a luxury commodity in the mid seventeenth century, it was only drunk in the wealthier households, where women would gather for tea parties. Such a party would be a genteel social occasion, using delicate china pots and cups, silver tea kettles and elegantly carved tea caddies. As tea was imported from China, so too was all the paraphernalia needed to drink this new fashionable beverage, which is how your Gran’s best ‘china’ got its name. As tea was so expensive the caddies it was kept in would be locked and only the lady of the house would have the key. Green tea was still commonly drunk at this time, but black tea was also growing in popularity. Sugar, another luxury, was frequently added, but milk was rarely used.
Tax kept the price of tea high, but by the eighteenth century the general public were keen to get their hands on the popular drink. Where there’s demand, wily businessmen normally find a solution, and smuggling was the answer! As no duty was paid on tea on the black market, it could be bought much more cheaply, so now the less wealthy could also consume the fashionable drink. Smuggling became so prolific that by the latter half of the eighteenth century it is estimated that more tea was smuggled into Britain than was brought in legally. It was such a problem that the wealthy tea merchants put pressure on the government and in 1784, after an emergency meeting, the Prime Minister William Pitt slashed duty drastically from 129% to 12.5%! The tactic was successful virtually wiping out smuggling overnight.
Tax on tea was also the catalyst of one of the most important events in Western history – the American War of Independence against its British rulers. Americans, angry at having to pay tax on tea to Britain when they weren’t represented by MPs in the British parliament, argued there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. On December 16th1773, in a moment of symbolic action, a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, boarded four tea clippers in Boston Harbour and dumped the cargo of 600,000 pounds of tea overboard. One of the Sons of Liberty, Joshua Wyeth, said of the protest: "We were merry, in an undertone, at the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes." The Boston Tea Party, as it became known, led to a British crackdown on its American colonies, which in turn galvanised growing rebellion against Britain and ultimately led to the War of Independence, resulting in the creation of the United States of America in 1776.
Following the duty cuts on tea back in Britain, tea was, however, still not cheap. To keep up with demand and in an unscrupulous drive for profits, tea was often adulterated with leaves from other plants, such as sloe or liquorice, as well as with tea leaves that had already been brewed. In 1785 Richard Twining spoke of tea adulteration, in a successful attempt to entice people to his shop for better quality tea. He reported how some of his less conscientious competitors added ‘Smouch’ to black tea; a mixture created from ash leaves dried in the sun, baked, crushed underfoot to make a tea-leaf like appearance, then finally steeped with sheep’s dung, before being dried out again, and mixed with the tea. One would hope blending of teas has improved over the ages! Some unprincipled individuals even added poisonous chemicals to make green tea the right colour. Concerns about this led to a growth in the popularity of black tea and the addition of milk. Milk was also becoming more common as a means of protecting one’s china tea service: it was added to the teacup first to act as a cooling agent before pouring in the tea to prevent cracking the precious porcelain. Maybe you too mark yourself out as being a woman of better breeding by adding your milk first?!
As tea became ubiquitous in Britain, employers often provided tea to their employees, with household servants given a tea allowance as part of their wage.
The employers’ motivations were likely born not out of generosity, but the knowledge that tea perked the workers up and led to higher productivity.
Another boost for tea drinking was the rise of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century. As certain sections of society worried about the working classes drinking too much alcohol, tea was promoted as an alternative. It was also favoured as the water was boiled, protecting drinkers from water-borne diseases that were still rife at that time.
During the 1830s, the temperance movement was so successful that businessmen recognised there was a gap in the market for catering outlets that sold non-alcoholic refreshments. A great many cafes opened up, the difference being they now catered to both rich and poor.
By the beginning of the 20thcentury there could be no more doubt about the importance of tea to the British people. This was acknowledged during the 2ndWorld War: worried that war would impact the traffic of tea from overseas, the government took drastic action to safeguard this natural morale booster for the troops. Two days after war broke out it took control of the tea stocks and dispersed them to vast warehouses outside the capital for fear of bombing; these stocks were then put on strict ration to British citizens to ensure they didn’t run out.
Our little history talk is now approaching modern day and tea-drinking as we now know it. Our current culture would have us believe that teabags are supremely British, but the teabag was actually invented by the Americans at the beginning of the 20thcentury and didn’t reach Britain until the 1950s. Once again, the British public was sceptical of this foreign innovation. A verse in the Manchester Guardian around the time scathingly said:
‘Of tea alone Great Britain brags.
Americans have not a clue,
Americans make tea with bags.’
Of course, the nation has embraced the teabag wholesale, and now teabags account for 96% of all tea so
However, the passion for loose leaf tea is definitely gaining ground once more. And after a good decade of the coffee craze, tea is beginning to forge a path, with many specialist tea shops popping up all over Britain. We’re slowly appreciating that tea has its own nuances and tastes. Much like terroir in the world of wine, tea also has so many differing qualities depending on the region, climate, soil and elevation. There is even a tea estate in Cornwall called Tregothnan producing a variety of teas, and very recently a tea estate in Scotland produced a smoked white tea! It really is a very exciting time in Britain for the good old tea leaf.