Origins and history of tea

Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world at three billion cups a day, only second to water. It is loved by all (except a few, who obviously don’t know what they’re missing out on). Each civilization has their own special way of making tea, unique to their culture. From thyme leaf tea to black tea, there are many different kinds, each with a distinct taste and aroma. But have you ever stopped and wondered how such an amazing beverage came about? Well, then continue reading!

According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree sipping on boiled hot water prepared by his servant, when leaves from a nearby tree blew into the cup. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the concoction that had accidentally been created and was delightfully surprised. The tree was a Camellia Sinensis, and the resulting drink is what we now call tea. According to archaeological evidence, tea was cultivated first in China as early as 6000 years ago.

Tea was originally consumed as a vegetable, shifting to a drink only 1500 years ago. There were many different variations to the method of tea preparation, the most common one being heating the tea, packing it into cakes, grinding it to powder and then finally adding to hot water. The resulting concoction was called “Matcha”, which became extremely popular. Books were written about tea and it was the favorite drink of the emperors. It was also used as an art medium, like the espresso art common today in coffee shops. It was also made into bricks and used as a form of money in the outer regions of the Chinese empire!

During the 9th century, during the Tang dynasty a Japanese monk brought the first tea plant to Japan, which resulted in unique rituals developing around tea, the most famous being the Japanese tea ceremony. In the 14th century Ming dynasty, loose leaf tea became common. China held the tea plant monopoly at this time, giving it great economic power in the world as tea drinking spread across the globe. In the 1600s, Dutch traders brought tea to Europe in large quantities. Queen Katherine of Braganza, a Portuguese noblewoman is credited to the spread of tea in Great Britain when she married Prince Charles II in 1661. The popularity of tea spread to Britain’s various colonies around the world. By 1700, tea was more popular than coffee, selling for ten times more, while still being produced only in China.

Britain was initially paying for tea using silver which soon became too expensive and hence was replaced by opium in exchange for tea. This created health issues in China as people became addicted to opium. In 1839, a Chinese official ordered the burning of opium shipments from Britain as a statement against British influence over China, which resulted in the first opium war between the two nations. In 1842, the Qing Dynasty was defeated by the British.

In India, before the British rule, tea was grown for medical uses. Britain decided to grow tea there as the climate was similar to that of China’s hoping to stop relying so heavily on China for tea supply. The British East India company also wanted to be able to grow tea themselves to have greater control over the market. In 1833, botanist Robert Fortune was commissioned to steal other tea varieties from China. He smuggled tea trees and experienced tea workers from the mountainous regions of China, into India and plantations began. Using Chinese seeds and techniques, the British started their tea trade by giving land to anyone who agreed to grow it and export it. India became the largest producer of tea in the world for nearly a hundred years! Today China and India are the world’s largest tea producers with many other countries growing and cultivating tea too.

What’s more interesting is that each “type” of tea may also have its own history. For example, thyme leaf tea came about as a result of the healing and medicinal properties that thyme is known to have over the generations. For example, it was used by ancient Egyptians for embalming, while ancient Greeks used it as an incense in their temples. It has also been associated with courage, with women giving it to their men going to war, believing it to bring courage to the bearer. It was also placed under pillows at night to ward off nightmares and also aid in sleep. It was placed on coffins during funerals, in order to assure passage into the next life. It was used in bandages, to aid constipation and many other reasons related to health and well-being. So it isn’t a surprise that people eventually started consuming thyme as a beverage in the form of tea to take advantage of its many benefits.

Today tea time is common in most countries and across various cultures, each having their own unique way of preparing and consuming tea. The tea consumed in India is definitely different from that consumed in Turkey or England, but what is common is the shared love for a freshly brewed cup.

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