The History of Tea
The histroy of tea by Wild Foods
The History of Tea
The tea we drink today has been evolving and changing for thousands of years.
Ancient civilizations in southeast Asia have cultivated and consumed the camellia sinensis plant (the plant you get tea from) for many generations, which is why we have a near limitless variation of tea options to choose from in our modern cultures.
Although tea originates specifically in what is today India, Burma, China, and Tibet, it was modern day China that shows evidence of the the earliest cultivation and use of tea leaves. Due to the only available historical evidence, China is considered the birthplace of tea.
History of Tea in China
Legend has it that in 2737 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nung sat under a tea tree with a pot of hot water when the wind blew leaves into his water.
Deciding to try the accidental infusion, he became the first man to drink tea.
He loved the flavored liquid so much that he decided to spread it across the kingdom.
While the legend is a bit romantic, the historical evidence suggests a different timeline for tea.
According to scholars, tea was first used as a medicinal drink during the Shang Dynasty (1500 BC - 1046 BC) in modern-day Yunnan province.
Initially, tea leaves were just one ingredient of many—other leaves, tree bark, mushrooms—used to make medicinal soup-like liquids.
It wasn’t until the end of the Zhou dynasty (1122 - 256 BC), when Chinese cultures started to boil tea leaves alone for consumption. The drink was stimulating and flavorful and soon caught on.
As with most discoveries, timing is everything. Luckily for tea, three great philosophical traditions started around the middle of the Zhou dynasty. Tea was quickly adopted in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, which lead to the spread of this “elixir of life” across China.
Geo-political changes in China, including the unification under the Qin emperor (221 - 210 BC), helped spread tea throughout the land.
By the time the Great Wall of China was built, workers were using tea as a source of energy to complete their laborious tasks.
For almost 800 years, the Chinese people had a monopoly on the tea trade and had yet to share this wonderful leaf with the outside world.
The Tang Dynasty Has Visitors
During the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 AD), a unified China brought emissaries from neighboring countries who were eager to increase trade and establish friendly relations.
Buddhist monks from Japan visited China and brought seeds of the tea plant home. Recorded Japanese literature mentions tea as early as 815, which started out as an expensive drink exclusive to nobles and monks.
In Tibet, tea came to the country in 641 through the marriage of the Chinese princess, Wen Cheng, and the Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo.
After tea became more popular throughout the country, merchants setup regular trading caravans to fulfill demand.
Traveling outside of China and spreading throughout Asia, tea became a major source of revenue and commerce of the continent.
Typical of the politics of the time, the best quality tea was reserved for Chinese nobility. The Tang court devised a way to generate revenue by creating “border tea”, which were compressed bricks of low-quality tea.
At the time, the Chinese were already creating tea cakes to transport high quality tea across the country, but this new border tea used twigs and other parts of the tea plant to make the product cheaper.
While low in quality compared to the Chinese version, this allowed many of the lower classes to develop a taste for tea.
Modern Tea Development and Production
The modern production and preparation of tea originates during the Song dynasty (960 - 1279) in China before spreading to Japan, Tibet, and neighboring areas.
This new style of tea was called "loose leaf tea."
Loose leaf tea was developed to preserve the delicate flavor of the tea leaves compared to older processing methods that treated the leafs more harshly.
Initially, the Chinese roasted then crumbled tea leaves. Other methods of production including gentle heat drying, tumble drying, washing and steaming.
In addition to innovating tea processing to produce better flavor, the Chinese innovated ways of conducting tea drinking and commerce.
Consumption of tea became ritualized, with a series of establish formalities, as it become more ingrained in Chinese culture.
Chinese tea houses started opening up to offer a public gathering place for the drink (much like how the first coffeehouses were born).
These became a place to conduct business, play games and listen to poetry. In Japan, the practice of “Tocha” (tea competitions) became popular amongst the Samurai class. These were the early forms of tea ceremonies, which we still see today.
By this time, tea had spread to neighboring regions of Japan and Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam. Each culture developed their own ceremonial process with tea as well as their own ways of drinking, preparing, buying and selling.
As southeast Asia was refining their relationship with tea, the rest of the world started taking notice.
Tea Debuts in Europe
Although tea is recorded in western (Arabic) writing as early as 879, it wasn’t until the 13th century that it entered the vocabulary of European elite.
Famed traveler, Marco Polo, mentions tea in 1285, but it wasn’t until 1610 when the Dutch East India Company first transported leaves to Amsterdam that tea started it's ascent into European culture.
Around this time, the Japanese had developed a tea style—via growing and processing methods—of its own and European countries were buying different types of tea from it and other smaller tea-producing countries across southeast Asia.
In 1636, tea was introduced to France and quickly become popular amongst aristocracy.
The Russian Czar was gifted tea in 1618 and German pharmacies were selling it as early as 1657.
The greatest catalyst for the spread of tea to the rest of the world was when the British, most specifically the Dutch East India Company, secured regular trade routes for buying tea from Asia.
Due to the sheer volume of tea this single corporation could move with its vast fleets, tea demand skyrocketed as new markets were created almost overnight.
After sending tea to the American continent and colonies, it quickly spread throughout north and south America.
Due to the relatively mild taste compared to coffee, which was pretty bad due to limited innovation in shipping, growing and brewing methods, tea spread in popularity among both the upper and middle classes.
To break Chinese domination of the tea market, the British introduced tea to the Indian subcontinent. With an ideal tea growing that could support many types of tea, India quickly grew into one of the largest tea producers in the world.
The British then used their position in India to lower costs and ramp up tea production so it could introduce larger quantities to the rest of the world.
While tea popularity was growing in India, Europe and Asia, tea in America hit a growth roadblock. In an ironic twist, the British Tea Act enraged the British colonies in America and lead to the Boston Tea Party. During this time in America, it was seen by many as unpatriotic to drink tea, which is ultimately why coffee became the more popular drink in the states.
Tea culture in America has never reached the same apex while tea in British culture is a standard part of life.
Modern Tea Culture
As the world has become more globalized, the traditional ceremonies and formalities of tea culture have spread from southeast Asia into the western world. Most countries have developed their own formalities with tea, no doubt influenced by teas' Asian roots.
While not made from the camellia sinensis plant, and not actually classified as "tea," there is a plethora of herbal teas that are prepared similar to traditional tea. Some of the more popular herbal teas include yerba mate, red and green rooibos, honeybush, chamomile, hibiscus, to name a few.
We will cover these in the rest of this guide, so stay tuned because there's a lot to appreciate about herbal teas!
The psychoactive components of the camellia sinensis, which can make one feel relaxed, focused and invigorated, has helped it become one of the most popular drinks in the world.
At Wild Foods, we are fanatical about tea. It's delicious, versatile and enjoyable. In fact, the Wild Foods Guide To Tea is our first step in our Drink More Tea campaign that we are working on!
Whether you are enjoying a hot cup of tea on a cold day or an iced cold tea on a hot day, take a moment to ponder the thousands of years and millions of manpower that it took to bring that tea to your cup.
Mary Lou Heiss, Robert Heiss “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” (2011)
Colleen Taylor Sen “Food Culture in India” (2004)
John Adams “The Adam Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 1” (1774)