The Long and Storied History of Tea

Do you know where your tea comes from? You might know about the origins of the tea bags or loose leaf blends sitting in your kitchen, whether you purchased them at a specialty tea shop or your local grocery story.

However, few of us tea drinkers know very much about the history of tea – how it began, how it made its way across countries and continents, and how it became the world’s most popular drink (after water, of course).

This art depicts scholars meeting at a tea ceremony in the Ming Dynasty.
This art depicts scholars meeting at an ancient tea ceremony in the Ming Dynasty.

Tea took quite a journey over centuries, and as more and more people tasted it, it became an increasingly popular drink. While we have so many different tea options and varieties available today, this wasn’t always the case throughout tea’s history. If you’ve ever wondered how you – and so many others – came to enjoy and love tea, this is its impressive story.

It All Began in China

When we think of tea, many of us imagine the traditional teas served in England and the U.K. – but, as grand as the tea tradition is in this region, it isn’t the birthplace of the drink. Rather, the history of tea began quite far from Europe, more than 350 years in the past. The first days of tea are a legend in China, the first place in which tea was discovered and sipped. The Chinese believe that emperor Shen Nung first created tea in 2737 B.C., as he sat beneath a tree with a cup of boiled water. Legend has it that a gust of wind blew the tree’s leaves into Emperor Nung’s cup, and he continued drinking this new loose leaf infusion.

The history of tea is build on the backs of the workers who made it all possible.
The history of tea is build on the backs of the workers who made it all possible.

Fortunately for the emperor and tea lovers in the centuries that followed, the tree leaves that found their way into that first cup were off of the Camellia sinensis tree – the plant from which all varieties of tea originate.

Although we can’t be certain how much of this legend is fact, it is true that China is the birthplace of tea. For centuries after Emperor Nung’s reign, the Chinese people drank tea, long before the drink ever reached Europe or other Western nations.

It was China’s Tang dynasty in the years of 618 to 906 A.D. that cemented tea’s place in the history of China and the rest of the world. During this time, tea spread to the entire population of China, from the highest classes to the lowest. Everyone was drinking – and enjoying – tea.

Trade Brings Tea to Europe

Though China’s delicious leaf and herbal infusions quickly grew popular throughout the country, the rest of the world had no idea that tea even existed. It wasn’t until the 1600s that Europe caught onto China’s tea habit.

Thirteen Factories, the Canton (Guangzhou) area where the first foreign trade was allowed in the 18th century.
Thirteen Factories, the Canton (Guangzhou) area where the first foreign trade was allowed in the 18th century.

When Portuguese traders began trading goods with China, they discovered tea – and brought back some to their home country. From there, the Dutch discovered China’s favorite beverage, as they too began trading with the Asian nation.

When tea arrived in the Netherlands, it quickly took off among the wealthy. As the Dutch people began making tea drinking a fashionable and high class activity, increasing numbers of European people wanted to try tea, too. Later, the health benefits of teas like Turmeric became another catalyst for tea’s growing popularity.

The British Tea Tradition Begins

Thanks in part to the newfound love of China’s tea in the Netherlands, and to the British Empire’s trading practices in the 1600s, it didn’t take much time for tea to make its way to the cities and upper classes of England.

The history of tea in England has left a clear legacy on the nation that’s still visible today – and it all began with the British East India Company, England’s trading organization. Sailors who traveled the world on behalf of the British East India company’s trading arrived back in Britain after conducting business with China and other nations would often bring back gifts, and tea was one such gift.

via citiesandspatialcultures.wordpress.com
via citiesandspatialcultures.wordpress.com

However, only a few British citizens had access to tea in such a way. It was Mercurius Politicus, a London newspaper, that really propelled tea history forward and introduced it to England’s masses. In September of 1658, the newspaper ran an ad for something called “China Drink.”

The ad announced that “China Drink,” which it also called “Tay alias Tee,” would be available for purchase at a local coffee house. Readers of the time had no idea what, exactly, this drink entailed; though the coffee houses had taken off and made coffee popular a few years prior, this drink from China was a foreign curiosity.

Tea took another step forward in British history when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who adored tea. Tea history was forever altered when Catherine introduced tea at court, making it a favorite among the British monarchy and the wealthy of the nation. The monarchy set the trends, and soon all of England clamored for the Queen’s favorite drink – and the British East India Company began importing Chinese tea into England by 1664.

Tea Today

We now know that tea truly took off in England and throughout Europe, eventually making its way to the shores of America as colonization moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

Within a few centuries, the popularity of tea pushed forward another momentous moment in tea’s history: the invention of the tea bag. Invented in America and made popular by British tea drinkers, the ease of tea bags allowed tea drinkers to enjoy their beverage in an entirely new and simple manner. Who knows what lies ahead for the future of tea? New tea trends are always emerging, from organic brands, to new infusions and styles of drinks. With such a storied history spanning centuries and so many different nations, perhaps new advancements in tea will create an entirely new path.