The legends surrounding tea date back several thousand years. Peeling back the layers of tea history reveals fanciful Eastern folklore, Europe's emergence as a global commercial power, the beginning of the American Revolution ... and the history of a British tea company called Tetley.
The tea we drink is derived from Camillia sinensis, an evergreen tree of the Theaceae family. As Camillia sinensis is indigenous to China and parts of India, each culture has a claim to the discovery of this popular beverage.
Fortuitous Wind and a Remarkable Revival
In China, the most enduring legend dates back over 4,000 years. Emperor Nun Shen, a scholar and herbalist, was kneeling beside a fire, boiling water. With the water at a tempest, a breeze blew the topmost leaves of a nearby tree into the pot. The aroma drew Shen to taste the beguiling beverage. Immediately delighted, Shen claimed that this liquid was both delicious and invigorating.
India's legend originates with a saintly priest named Bodhidharma. About 1,900 years ago, the eventual founder of Zen Buddhism was in the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless contemplation of Buddha. Finding himself dangerously close to falling asleep, Bodhidharma snatched some leaves from a nearby bush and chewed them. He was immediately revived. Bodhidharma turned to these leaves—the leaves of a wild tea tree—whenever he again felt drowsy, and was thus, according to legend, able to complete his seven years of meditation.
An Eastern Rage Heads West
Tea's popularity as a wholesome, invigorating drink first spread throughout China and Japan. The first book on tea, Ch'a Ching, was written by the Chinese author Lu Yu in the eighth century. A definitive, poetic manual that covers the cultivation and production of tea, it is credited with helping tea become China's national drink long before it was ever tasted in the West.
Tea and tea drinking were first introduced to Europe by Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 16th century. Ships plying trade between Holland and New Amsterdam are believed to have brought tea to the New World sometime in the mid-17th century. English colonists in Massachusetts began to use tea to a limited extent soon after.
Monopolized Luxury to English Institution
Tea's importance as a global commercial product started with the founding of the East India Company in England. Created in 1600 under a charter granted by Elizabeth I to seek exotic riches, the East India Company had a monopoly on all goods entering Britain from outside Europe. This initially relegated tea to the tables of England's high society. Over time, sailors returning from the Far East shared it with family and friends, and enterprising smugglers avoided the East India Company's monopoly and the government's tariffs by illegally importing it. Tea was soon being requested in many of London's coffeehouses.
The new beverage was an immediate success. At the start of the 18th century, England imported 200,000 pounds of tea each year; by 1750, that figure grew to over two million pounds. Tea replaced ale and gin as Britain's most popular beverage and spawned new industries, from tea gardens to English pottery and porcelain.
Boston Throws a Tea Party
Tea's popularity in the American colonies followed a growth pattern similar to England's, but dissension was brewing. Britain's practice of levying high tariffs on imported goods, often as a means of financing military operations, outraged the colonists. Subject to England's laws but with no say in the British Parliament, their resentment became a slogan: “No taxation without representation.” The Tea Act of 1773 gave the East India Company the right to ship tea directly from China, making it impossible for many American importers to stay in business. This act, along with the bitterness of unfair taxation, drove a band of angry patriots to gather at Griffin's Wharf on December 16, 1773, and engage in an action that would forever be known as the Boston Tea Party. The men, disguised as Native Americans, boarded three East India Company ships, tore open all cargos of tea and threw them into Boston Harbor. Similar acts of rebellion followed in other American cities, and patriotic citizens turned from tea to coffee to register their disgust with British rule. This event, and others like it, would ultimately lead to the Revolutionary War.
A Global Phenomenon
America staked its own claim to the Chinese tea trade in the 19th century and soon found itself at war with England in a much more sporting fashion: racing clipper ships. The East India Company had for years relied upon big, slow ships to transport merchandise. Newly independent America, looking to make a splash in international trade, designed a new, more streamlined vessel that could carry more tea at a much greater speed. The first of these clippers (to “clip” is to maximize speed from wind) was launched in New York in 1845. It immediately halved the journey time from the Far East to London and allowed American crews to sell their cargos at better prices, which in turn created even more demand for tea in America.
Today, tea is the world's most popular beverage besides water. Since its discovery many centuries ago, it has played an important role in events, ranging from mystic to gilded to simply comforting. In China, tea remains a fixture of daily life, as it has for centuries. Buddhists focus on peace and simplicity while using it in a ceremony that can take up to three years to perfect. For the English, the “tea break” is a cultural touchstone, and for many Americans today, iced tea is a beverage that is as expected at a table as family and friends. Whatever your tea experience may be, one thing is certain: Every sip reaffirms your part in a remarkable, timeless story.