His-TEA-ry: The Origin Of Tea

Tea's (Camellia Senensis) origin story is shrouded in mystery, but the most well-known story going back 5,000 years, to 2732 B.C. in Southernwestern China. According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shennong, the God of Agriculture, sat under a tree. He was boiling water to drink when leaves blew off a nearby branch and into the pot. It quenched his thirst, stimulated him, and left him feeling refreshed. He wrote, "Tea is bitter, drinking it one can think quicker, sleep less, move more nimbly, and see more clearly."

Through the Zhou dynasty, tea was embraced for its health benefits. It was usually made into a heavy, bitter brew, mixed with other ingredients, and used in many new religious rituals. Tea was reserved as an imperial tribute to the emperor's court up until the Tang dynasty. There was usually far too much for one person to consume, so it trickled down and was consumed by the emperor's court, family, and visitors.

The Tang dynasty (618-907) marked the golden age of tea. During this time, tea consumption became more widespread, mainly because it was made fashionable by the Tang dynasty's nobility. Tea became easily accessible, used by the common people for everyday pleasure, and as a muse and medium for scholars and artists. This can be traced to the literary work of Lu Yu. His book, the Ch'a Ching, describes the uses, preparation, benefits, and types of tea available. It also taught a traditional tea ceremony, incorporating spiritual aesthetics that reflected Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist religious thoughts. Due to its increasing popularity, tea started to be taxed and exported. Emperor Taizong strategically married his niece, Wen Chang, to the Tibetan king to secure peace between the two countries, with the bonus of obtaining horses. Wen Chang introduced tea and Buddhism to the Tibetans. Tea was and is still a crucial part of the Tibetan diet, which does not grow vegetables very well due to the terrain. Tea provided them with the much-needed nutrients their meat-heavy diets needed. This marriage would mark the beginning of the tea export to Tibet and neighboring regions; the next notable spread was to Japan, thanks to a Japanese monk, Saicho. Tea wasn't popularized in Japan until the Sung dynasty (960-1279). Then, Eisai, a Buddhist monk, brought powdered tea known as Matcha and plants that would begin tea cultivation in Japan. Through the Sung dynasty, tea became one of their most substantial exported goods. Through the re-opened Silk Road, tea was able to spread into Central Asia and Africa.

It wasn't until the 17th century when global trade began to take off that tea would spread further thanks to a Portuguese missionary attributed to bringing tea to Europe. It also spread to Russia via the Silk Road and Europe by sea routes. Dutch merchants were the first to seriously trade tea through the Dutch East India Company. As in China, tea started in Europe as a medicinal drink. Its popularity would rapidly spread to Paris, London, and Amsterdam as a novelty for wealthy aristocrats. The first established tea shop in London was founded by Thomas Garraway in 1658 C.E. It grew in popularity with the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. She adored tea. From there, tea became a staple throughout Europe and the American colonies. Tea reached American colonies in the late 1600s, becoming the most popular beverage in America by 1765. By the 19th century, tea had made it to the majority of the world. Each culture has variations of preparation, blends, and drinking customs. Tea is still the most widely consumed beverage in the world!

A few fun facts about Tea:

  • All tea comes from one plant, the Camellia Senensis. The difference between green, yellow, oolong, black, and white is the leaves' processing. 
  • Black tea is called red tea in China.
  • Darjeeling tea gets its name from the location it is grown. 
  • Iced tea was popularized at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The tea wasn't selling due to the hot summer, which prompted the vendor to pour tea into glasses packed with ice. Some people think this was the invention of ice tea, but it was first noted in a housekeeping magazine in 1851.

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