The Beginnings of Tea
I am not a world renowned tea expert, but I have developed a deep love of it over the past few years, and as I’m one of those people who research to death things they love, I’m happy to share all about tea that I’ve found.
Tea is said to begin in 2737 China, and by accident (figures). As the story goes, some leaves from a Camellia sinensis (tea) bush fell into some water that was being boiled (I assume to purify it, because the taste of water doesn’t improve just by boiling it). Anyways, scholars don’t really know if this anecdote is actually true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Some of the greatest inventions are made by accident.
What we do know is that tea was found in tombs from the Han dynesty (206 BC – 220 AD). Japanese monks visiting China in the late eighteenth century were introduced to the beverage, and of course they ended up taking it back to Japan with them. For more info on tea history, check out tea.co.uk.
Tea In Japan
(image from Wikipedia)
In Japan, tea was originally the drink of priests, but soon also became the drink of royalty after the Emperor discovered how awesome it was. Over decades, priests developed their own tea plants from the seeds originally brought back from China, creating the first green tea. It was still only for upper classes, though, and was in semi-religious customs and diplomacy.
Over time production increased, tea quality evolved, and it became available to your average citizen. The unfermented green tea we know and love today was developed in the mid-1700’s, and is still the most popular tea in Japan.
Tea In Britain
(image from Amazing Threads)
Oddly enough, the first European people to import tea from China were the Dutch, in the very early 1600s. The Russians were next, signing an agreement with China for regular tea deliveries. It took a year to get tea from China to Russia, but it was worth it!
It spread to other European countries from there, but Brittain was actualy slow to pick it up, until Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in the late 1600’s. Catherine loved tea (girl after my own heart), and of course everyone wanted to follow whatever trend royalty were doing, so tea picked up as a popular drink among the wealthy. It was still hella expensive though, partly from being shipped all the way from China, and partly because the government put ridiculous taxes on it.
Did you know that a whole tea smuggling trade was born because of how expensive tea taxes were? I mean, when I think of bootlegging I imagine cases of moonshine, or guns, or some other wicked vice. Nope. Tea smuggling developed whole organized crime factions. They even cut the tea with other additives, just like drug dealers do today. Sometimes the color became too light, so to make it look more legit they added sheep poop. No joke.
Anyway, the government smartened up, tea became more affordable, and no more sheep poop tea was sold. Yay for no more poop tea!
Tea In India
(image from Seattle Times)
My favourite tea in the whole world is chai. Chai means ‘tea’ in India (or, as my Indian student called it, ‘cha’), so do me a favour and don’t order ‘chai tea’. Back before I knew any Indians, I remember going into to a fast food place in the States, where the menu items included ‘queso cheese’. My husband and I got a kick out of being offered cheese cheese, and we laughed at the ridiculousness. Now, I cringe a little whenever I remember happily ordering my ‘chai tea’. Tea tea.
We last left off with Britain becoming addicted to tea, and now we fast forward from the 1600’s to the 1800’s. By this time China held a monopoly on tea, because duh, it was the only place you could get it from. The East India Trade Company, however, were innovators, and decided to break that monopoly by growing tea in India. Indian tea popularity overtook Chinese tea, then dropped as sailboats made trips to China faster and cheaper, and swung back again as India slashed their tea prices. A vicious battle of tea indeed! It set tea as a permanent part of India though, which I’m personally grateful for.
Today chai is a staple in Indian households. My student has informed me that a pot of chai is kept hot and ready always, to be served at all times during the day, and especially if guests drop by (which happens a lot). Chai is a mix of black tea leaves and a variety of spices, combined with milk and with a whole lot of sugar.
Teabags, the latest and greatest in tea technology, were invented in America. Most people are more familiar with the teabag (and I’m not talking about testicles) than loose leaf tea. More recently, however, loose leaf tea has been on the upswing in North America, becoming a luxury drink and not just a daily ritual. On the other hand, tea drinking in general has been on the decline in Britain, the Nation of Tea Drinkers, which I find both shocking and sad.
Oh well, more for me!
Since there’s so much information I want to share about tea with you, I’ve had to split it into two posts. The second part to ‘All About Tea’ will go over the different types of tea and the best way to enjoy them!