The History of Tea

Tea offers a fascinating history; the scholars hailed the brew as a cure for a variety of ailments; the nobility considered the consumption of good tea as a mark of their status, and the common people simply enjoyed its flavor

Next to water, which has no equal, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world.  Are you curious about where tea originated?  Do you wonder how tea arrived at the point of being the number one drink worldwide?  If so, steep yourself a nice hot cup of this simple leaf and review its history.

It is impossible to know precisely how the first cup of tea came to be.  One legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung sat beneath a Camellia sinensis plant one day in 2737BC as the wind stirred.  While his servant boiled drinking water in a pot, leaves fell in and accidentally resulted in the world’s first cup of tea.  Every cup of tea enjoyed around the world comes from the same plant; the Camellia sinensis. For several hundred years, people drank tea because of its herbal medicinal qualities.  From its earliest recorded use, tea was widely believed to refresh the spirit, alleviate tiredness, fight off depression and illness, and boost energy.  It is for many of these reasons that we still enjoy tea today.  Tea is a drink that penetrates all cultures and continents.  By the time of the Western Zhou Dynasty, tea was used as a religious offering.  During the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), tea plants were quite limited and only royalty and the rich drank tea not only for their health but also for the taste.  As more tea plants were discovered during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), tea drinking became more common among lower classes and the Chinese government supported planting of tea plants and even the building of tea shops so everyone could enjoy tea.

Also during the Tang Dynasty, tea spread to Japan by Japanese priests studying in China.  Similar to the Chinese adoption of tea, tea was first consumed by priests and the rich for its medicinal properties.  Tea is often associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan because priests drank tea to stay awake and meditate.  Soon, the Buddhists developed the Japanese Tea Ceremony for sharing tea in a sacred, spiritual manner.  The Emperor of Japan enjoyed tea very much and imported tea seeds from China to be planted in Japan, making tea available to more people.

Tea finally arrived in England during the 17th century when King Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza.  The Queen made tea the drink of royalty and soon tea became a popular import to Britain via the East India Company.   Afternoon tea or tea parties became a common way for aristocratic society to drink tea.  Though tea was regularly imported to Britain, the taxes were so high that smugglers would get and sell tea illegally for those who could not afford it.  In attempts to turn profits during the tea smuggling period, the East India Company began exporting the tea to America.  The American tea was also taxed heavily and contributed to the cause of the Boston Tea Party.  To this early introduction to America, many people rightly attribute the higher popularity of coffee in the United States!

Want to know more about the history of tea?  Read about the discovery of tea in China and the detailed accounts of how tea came to England and tea’s arrival to America.  Understand modern day tea drinking and the tea products and teas used today.