The History of Tea

Tea is one of the world’s most popular drinks, with around 165 million cups a day being enjoyed in the UK alone. Tea drinking is by no means a recent invention, but has actually been around for thousands of years, ever since its serendipitous origins in China.

One day in 2737BC, Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting outside, waiting for a cup of hot water being prepared by his servant. A few leaves from a nearby bush were stirred by the wind and fell into the water, and lo, the first cup of tea was brewed. This was no doubt enjoyed by the Emperor, who was probably thinking his plain cup of hot water could use a bit of pep. This bountiful bush was the Camellia Sinensis plant is used to make both green, white and black teas. After this enlivening discovery, tea grew in popularity in China thanks to its various purported medicinal qualities until during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) it was declared the country’s national drink. By the eighth century, the Chinese were trading tea to Tibet, the Arab lands to the West, to the Turks, to the nomadic tribes of the Himalayas, and along the Silk Road into India.

Tea first reached Europe in the late sixteenth century, but the fragile leaves often didn’t survive the long sea voyages from China to the continent, so people began preserving it by gently steaming the leaves. This… kind of worked, and did help to preserve the tea’s green colour, but it was found that allowing the leaves to gently oxidise before drying helped them not expire in transit, and resulted in the dark brown colour of modern tea.

Tea didn’t begin life in England as the unifying drink of the people that we all enjoy today, as it was once only consumed by the upper class. The incredible distance it travelled was one of the reasons for its hefty price-tag; tea was an exclusively high end indulgence. British traders had to pay China for its tea with silver bullion, leading to a massive loss of wealth that had to be recouped – by exporting opium from colonially occupied India. This isn’t the last of tea’s shady backstory either. Unscrupulous tea traders took advantage of the everyman’s desire for tea and made a fast buck by selling tea trimmings mixed in with leaves dyed with sheep’s dung and clay. Tasty.

By the end of the Georgian period, our national obsession with tea had fully taken hold, and had become the no.1 beverage of all classes and the drink we all know and love today. Much like the first cuppa, the humble teabag was invented by accident too. In around 1908, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan sent out samples of his tea in tiny silk bags. His customers assumed they were some kind of infuser, and threw the whole thing into the teapot, bag and all. The British were naturally wary of such a radical change in their tea-making methods and resisted the use of the teabag until the 1950s, when finally we collectively grew tired of having to empty loose tea leaves out of the pot. Today the average Brit quaffs 2 to 3 cups of the delicious brew per day, mostly brewed with teabags. Neat.

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