Tea’s birth story is infused with a blend of myth and fact and colored by ancient concepts of spirituality, and philosophy. According to ancient legend in China, the story of tea began in 2737 B.C. when the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong, a skilled ruler and scientist, accidentally discovered the tea. While boiling water in the garden, a leaf from an overhanging wild tea tree drifted into his pot. The Emperor enjoyed drinking the infused water with its unusual and delicious flavor. He felt invigorated and refreshed. As a scientist, this serendipitous event compelled him to further research the plant whereby he found tea to have medicinal properties. And so, the first cup of tea, generated by the mighty leaf, was created by accident.
Indian history attributes the discovery of tea to Prince Bodhi-Dharma, an Indian saint who founded the Japanese Zen school of Buddhism. In 520 A.D., he left India to preach Buddhism in China. To prove some Zen principles, he vowed to meditate for nine years without sleep. Towards the end of his meditation efforts he fell asleep. Upon awaking he was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids. A tea plant sprung up from where his bloody eyelids hit the ground to sanctify his sacrifice.
According to legend, some 5,000 years ago, Emperor Shen Nung who was travelling around the Chinese countryside had asked for his water to be boiled as it was foul and unfit for drinking. A breeze caused a leaf to separate from the branch of a plant, which then fell into his cup of hot water. The curious emperor let the leaf steep, then sipped the brew. Tea, brewed from the Camellia Sinensis plant came to being.
Historians have traced the purposeful cultivation of tea to Szechuan, China, around the year 350 AD.
In China, teas evolved into different forms and types. Versions ranged from sun dried, steamed green, baked green and stir roasted green to non-fermented (yellow tea); to lightly fermented (white tea), semi-fermented (oolong/blue-green tea), fully fermented (red tea) and fermented-aged (Pu Erh).
The use of tea evolved. It was first revered as medicine; it became so precious that it replaced currency and by the second half of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), tea took its place side by side with painting, calligraphy, poetic and music composition, and other scholarly pastimes.
For hundreds of years, tea was a secret of the Far East. It wasn't until a Jesuit priest from Portugal ventured to China on a missionary journey in 1560 that a European tasted a cup of tea. Father Jasper de Cruz wrote about the wonders of tea, and word of it quickly spread. The powerful Portuguese navy developed a trade route with China and began importing the leaves to Holland, France, and the Baltic.
After Holland broke political ties with Portugal in 1602, the Dutch began importing tea to their own shores. The Dutch created one of the most successful Asian trading companies, the Dutch East India Company. Because tea was so expensive to import (at one point during the early seventeenth century, it was 100 shillings a pound), at first it was only a rich man's drink. Soon, though, the Dutch began importing a larger supply of tea.
The Dutch were the first to introduce tea to America. The first tea was brought to New Amsterdam (later New York) by Peter Stuyvesant, but the drink didn't become popular until English settlers caught wind of the new drink captivating the motherland.
During the mid-1500s, the Portuguese who monopolised the spice trade may have shipped some tea to Lisbon. However, none of the European countries traded any tea until 1610 when a Dutch vessel returning from Java brought the first case of tea – which they traded with the Chinese for a crate of sage.
The French courts were enamoured by tea. The Sun King, Louis XIV found tea to be a remedy for his gout. During the 17th Century, the Marquise de Sabliere initiated the fashion of adding milk to tea in France.
A century later, The British East India Company was set up to compete with the Portuguese and Dutch, and amongst its imports was tea. When tea was first introduced in England, it was a heavily taxed luxury item, purely reserved for the enjoyment of royals and aristocrats.
Americans had been enjoying the ritual of sharing a cup of tea since even before America was in existence. The American Tea culture first arrived in this New World with the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company was in the business of importing tea even before the English were aware of its existence. By the late 1630’s tea was becoming quite fashionable in the Dutch court. As a result, by the end of the 1650’s, tea culture was avidly being experienced in New Amsterdam, the future New York. By the time the British occupied the city, and renamed it New York, the fashion of culture of tea was firmly ensconced.
The story of tea in the Americas begins with the Dutch colony in the New World. Here the ladies of New Amsterdam would attempt to emulate the aristocracy of the mother land and re-created a new colony version of the stately service of tea, complete with the best silver strainers, the finest porcelain cups and pots, and exquisite wooden tea caddies. By 1690, in Boston, Benjamin Harris had taken out a license to sell tea to the public, quickly followed by Zabdiel Boylston in 1712.
While tea was purchased throughout the colonies, there was a variety of ways in which it was prepared and enjoyed. In Salem, for example, the leaves were boiled to create a bitter brew. They were then served as a vegetable side dish garnished with butter. Most, however, appear to have served it as an infusion. By the time of the American Revolution, tea was reportedly drunk everywhere from the backwoods to the center of sprawling cities.
Tea grew to be immensely popular in the colonies, even once the British government began to increase the taxes on teas and luxury goods. Many colonists avoided paying the taxes by simply supporting the market in smuggled tea from Holland. Thomas Hancock, the uncle of the famous Patriot John Hancock, made quite a handsome living smuggling tea and selling it to the British navy and army personnel stationed in the Colony. The colonists, perturbed at having to pay exorbitant taxes to offset the British debt decided to become more militant. By 1773 patriots rebelled against the British Taxation Acts with the famous Boston Tea Party. However, similar events occurred in New York, Philadelphia, Greenwich and Charleston. The end result, besides the American Revolution, was that tea had fallen out of favor for a while. The likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson declared: “we have renounced tea”.
For a while, settlers were encouraged to find substitutes for tea such as herbal infusion. One such infusion was Labrador Tea; however it was not really considered an equal to tea and was actually toxic in large doses. The newspapers of the day suggested that Peppermint or sage and even dandelion could pass as a replacement for tea. Women were asked to take solemn vows to abstain from the evils of tea. As often is the case, memories soon fail and over time the convictions of abstinence started to wane. By 1833 tea was again written about in the popular media of the time. Women were being instructed in the proper ways to prepare tea. In early cookery books, instructions were given to steep green tea with boiling water for ten to fifteen minutes. By our modern standards, that must have been a mighty bitter brew. We now understand that green tea is too delicate to stand a scalding by boiling water and a steep that long would have been enough to make the tea incredibly bitter. But then, the green tea that was available to them then had to endure a very long sea voyage and was very stale to start off with.
As tea re-entered the collective conscience in the newly created United States of America, Benjamin Franklin proposed that an American Tea Ceremony should be created. This was in a letter to Congress in 1779. In it he wrote about a special Japanese Tea Ceremony in which tea is celebrated and fixed in ancient custom. He questioned whether Americans might soon develop their own such traditions. Certainly many early culinary works do reflect on the fact that tea was ensconced in the culture of the time. Diaries and journals of socialites do mention the service of tea in their events.
As tea was a taxed commodity, smuggling became rampant. The British East India company realised that America was a new market that they could exploit. The Tea Act of 1773 was enacted to give the British East India company a monopoly over tea distribution in America. American colonists however failed to see the benefits of repatriating tax revenues from tea back to Britain. In December 1773, a group of Americans boarded British ships in Boston and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbour as a mark of protest. This defiant act, became known as "The Boston Tea Party" and the incident led up to the American Revolution.
It was at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 when Englishman Richard Blechynden attempted to entice Americans who were only familiar with green tea from China, to try some black tea from India and Sri Lanka. However because of a heat wave, few at the fair were interested in a hot drink. Blechynden had a brain wave – he added ice to his black teas, and iced tea came to being.
They are the invention of a New York tea and coffee merchant, who in 1904, sent to his special customers some samples of tea that were sewn by hand into silk bags, as it was less costly than using tin boxes that were popular at that time. To his surprise, the orders started rolling in as his customers favoured the ease of preparing tea-bag tea compared to loose tea.
The documented evidence according to the history of tea drinking in India dates back to 750 BC. Tea in India is generally grown in the North Eastern regions and the Nilgiri Hills. Having evolved since those early days, tea drinking in India has now come a long way. Today this nation is proud to be one of the largest tea producers in the world. Buddhist monks in India have used tea for its medicinal value since thousands of years.
According to a very interesting legend, the history of tea drinking in India began with a saintly Buddhist monk about almost 2000 years ago. It so happened that this monk who later became the founder of Zen Buddhism, decided to spend seven sleepless years contemplating the life and teachings of Buddha. While he was in the fifth year of his contemplation and prayer, he almost fell asleep. He took some leaves from a nearby bush and began chewing them. These leaves revived him and enabled him to stay awake as he chewed on them whenever he felt drowsy. Thus he was able to complete his penance for seven years. These were the leaves of the wild tea plant.
The British parliament had always been wary of the dependency on China as the sole source of tea. “Why painstakingly import tea from China when one can plant them in the colonies?” was the question asked by the English in early 19th century. As a consequence, great effort was put into seeking an alternative source for tea supplies. Since the British East India Company was to administer India on behalf of the crown, the parliament encouraged the commercial venture to develop alternative sources of tea in India.
Clandestinely and surreptitiously, Chinese tea seeds were taken from China and planted in Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens in the early 1800s and then sent to Assam for cultivation. The British however discovered that the Chinese seeds did not grow well but a local Assam bush seemed to be able to produce a similar tea. The first set of local Assam teas sent to England were so well received that it kicked off the Indian tea industry. Assam teas are however different from Chinese teas, and today is known for their malty liquors and promoted as "milk teas".
Not long after the Assam trial, another experiment in Darjeeling involving Chinese seeds as well as Assam seeds, proved to be a success. At lower elevations, the Assamese plant seemed to do very well, while the Chinese plant excelled at higher elevations. It was Robert Fortune, adventurer, traveller and botanist who was responsible for smuggling 20,000 Chinese tea plants to Darjeeling. Today, Darjeeling teas are prized for their unique muscatel flavour and are best enjoyed without milk.
Until the 1860’s the main crop produced on the island of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was coffee. But in 1869, the coffee-rust fungus, Hemileiavastatrix, killed the majority of the coffee plants and estate owners had to diversify into other crops in order to avoid total ruin. The owners of Loolecondera Estate had been interested in tea since the late 1850’s and in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds in 1867, on 19 acres of land. Taylor had acquired some basic knowledge of tea cultivation in North India and made some initial experiments in manufacture, using his bungalow verandah as the factory and rolling the leaf by hand on tables. Firing of the oxidized leaf was carried out on clay stoves over charcoal fires with the leaf on wire trays. His first teas were sold locally and were declared delicious. By 1872, Taylor had a fully equipped factory, and, in 1873, his first quality teas were sold for a very good price at the London auction. Through his dedication and determination, Taylor was largely responsible for the early success of the tea crop in Ceylon. Between 1873 and 1880, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons. The first vessel recorded as carrying Ceylon tea to England was the steam-ship ‘Duke Argyll’ in 1877.
The production of black tea in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) began after a deadly fungus destroyed most of the coffee crop on the island. An English coffee estate owner, James Taylor decided to plant 10 acres of land with tea bushes. Taylor harvested the leaves, rolled them by hand and fired the oxidised leaves on clay stoves over charcoal fire. In 1875, the first shipment of Ceylon tea arrived in London and was sold at the London auction at Mincing Lane for a very good price in a tea auction. A comment was that this tea possesses extraordinary quality in liquor, and is composed almost entirely of small “golden tips.” A record price 10 pounds 12 shillings and 6 pence was paid per pound of tea.
Because tea plants’ growing conditions are similar to that of coffee, many former coffee estates were converted to tea plantations.
Over a decade later, in 1893, a million Ceylon tea packets were sold at the Chicago World Fair. A world record was attained, and the rest is history.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, and it is a major industry in Sri Lanka today. Tea brings in 65% of export revenue, 15% of foreign exchange and contributes to 2% of the GDP. Over 2 million persons in Sri Lanka are involved in the tea industry.