Do you ever pour yourself a morning cuppa and wonder where tea came from? Perhaps you ask yourself why there are so many kinds of tea and why it’s so wonderful!
Tea was invented in China, but its history transcends country borders. As tea drinking spread from nation to nation, each country built its own unique tea culture. Let’s learn about the history of tea and global tea culture together.
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What Is the History of Tea?
To understand today’s tea culture, we can start by learning about the history of tea. From its origins to now, tea is an integral part of world history and culture.
The exact origin of tea is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that around 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung (also known as Emperor Shennong in some renditions) discovered tea when he sat down to meditate one day.
According to lore, the emperor was boiling himself some drinking water when leaves blew into the water. The leaves turned out to be from the Camellia sinensis plant. Through this happy accident, tea was born!
We can trace hard evidence of tea drinking in China to as early as the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 CE) that tea drinking really took flight.
During this time, tea became a popular beverage amongst Chinese people. In fact, Chinese writer Lu Yu wrote the first-ever book on tea in the 8hh century. This book was called the Ch’a Ching, which can be roughly translated as “Tea Classic.”
The Song Dynasty began in 960 CE and continued until 1279 CE, and it’s well-known today for its thriving tea economy. Under the Song Dynasty, formal tea cultivation was born, and many plantations were established.
Following the Song Dynasty was the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 CE. The ancient tea tax was removed under the Ming Dynasty, as the Emperor decided that tea had become a necessity for Chinese citizens.
Over these years, tea consumption went through drastic changes. In the Tang Dynasty, tea drinkers made boiled tea using powdered tea cakes. In the Song Dynasty, these tea cakes were instead used to make whipped tea.
Finally, the Ming Dynasty saw the development of steeping loose leaf tea, which is how we drink tea today. With this development came specialized devices like the teapot.
Tea Comes to Japan
Tea arrived in Japan as early as the 8th century. Chinese monks drank tea in order to stay focused during their meditations, and the Japanese Buddhist monks adopted this practice, too.
Tea soon spread beyond religious circles. Soon enough, tea drinking was a popular pastime among the Japanese royals and elite. However, tea was too delicious to stay exclusively amongst the upper classes. During the Muromachi Period (1333 to 1573 CE), tea drinking was common even among the lower classes.
In the 16th century, Japanese citizens started practicing a spiritual tea ceremony that was designed to bring enlightenment and connection. Due to an artistic movement at the time known as wabi-sabi, Japanese tea utensils were very rustic and simple. Wabi-sabi is a concept that embraces the impermanence and imperfection of the world, often relating to beauty.
The Japanese tea ceremony is the birthplace of matcha, which is still a popular form of tea today. In fact, the highest quality of matcha today is known as ceremonial-grade matcha because of the highly spiritual and artistic nature of Japanese tea ceremonies.
Tea Lands in Europe and Britain
As trade began to open up, tea began to move its way west and soon found a more than willing audience with the Dutch and the Portuguese. The Dutch were the first to negotiate a tea trade with China, and soon enough tea was spreading throughout Europe.
Tea was immensely popular with both the Portuguese and the Dutch royal families. Tea was extremely expensive to import, which made it a greatly exotic treat that exemplified royalty.
Britain didn’t initially care for tea, but that all changed in the 17th century when Charles II married Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Princess Catherine craved tea, and it was her deep love for the drink that made it popular in Britain’s elite circles.
Because tea was so expensive, British tea-drinkers only enjoyed tea in social settings. Members of high society would gather for tea dressed in all their finery, which typically included gowns, hats, and gloves.
In the mid-19th century, Duchess Anna Maria Russell invented British afternoon tea. Due to new technology that allowed British citizens to have light throughout the evening, the citizens often took dinner late in the evening.
To help curb her hunger in the meantime, the Duchess would drink tea and eat small snacks in the afternoon. Over time, this personal practice evolved into the famous afternoon British tea of today.
Tea eventually became popular with the lower classes despite its high prices. With a whole country dependent on highly expensive luxury tea, it wasn’t long before Britain would do nearly anything for tea.
The Birth of Indian Tea
At this time, China was the only country that produced tea. Adding to the economic bottleneck, the British East India Company was the only supplier of imported tea in Britain.
Because of these two monopolies, tea prices continued to skyrocket. Britain eventually banned monopolies, which left the East India Company in a precarious position. New tea houses were springing up left and right, and East India now had to stand out from their competitors.
The East India Company decided to cut out the middleman and start growing their own tea. The only problem was that China’s tea cultivation secrets were closely guarded.
To combat this setback, the East India Company hired Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, to infiltrate the Chinese tea industry and discover their tea-making secrets in the mid-19th century.
After months of exploring, Fortune made some key discoveries:
Black tea and green tea came from the same plant,
Tea leaves needed to be oxidized before they became drinkable tea, and
The Chinese had been using ferric ferrocyanide to alter the color of some of their exported teas.
Fortune also stole tens of thousands of tea plants, tea seeds, and tea plant cuttings, which he shipped to India. These plants were used to create the first Indian tea plantations.
Once India began exporting tea, Britain quickly displayed a preference for Indian tea. This is likely because Fortune’s third key discovery stirred up a lot of distrust amongst the British against Chinese importers. By the end of the 19th century, 90% of Britain’s tea was Indian.
The Boston Tea Party
Britain attempted to colonize North America in the late 15th century, and many of the settlers brought their tea-drinking habits with them.
However, the British people on the mainland were getting themselves into a bit of trouble. The country’s love for tea meant that the nation was importing massive amounts of tea, but Britain was receiving very few requests for exported goods. The nation was about to enter an economic disaster.
Britain responded in two ways:
First, they cultivated and exported highly addictive opium to China in order to secure their trade. This ultimately started the Opium Wars.
Second, they imposed heavy taxes on the colonists to recoup their losses.
Specifically, Britain required heavy taxes on tea. Unsurprisingly, the British colonists didn’t take kindly to the heavy taxes on a beloved item.
Influential colonists like Samuel Adams and John Hancock began to boycott the East India Company and smuggled in Dutch tea, leaving England with massive amounts of product and no profit. The British eventually lowered the price of their tea and even tried to force their stock onto the colonists, but it was too late.
In what is now known as the Boston Tea Party, a group of protesting revolutionists threw over 45 tons of tea into the Boston Harbor. This was about one million dollars worth of tea. A wave of copycat tea destruction followed, and the colonies ultimately won their freedom in the 18th century American Revolution.
Once free, the colonies over time became the America that exists today. While many American citizens drink tea, the country as a whole tends to favor coffee. This is an interesting leftover sentiment from the days of the revolution when colonists gave up tea in order to distance themselves from their British heritage.
Tea Culture of the World
Who knew that one drink could have such a large impact on world history? Not only did tea change the course of history, but it’s also still in style today.
Many nations drink tea as a gesture of hospitality or even in religious ceremonies. Here are some of our favorite tea traditions from around the world.
European Tea Culture
Europe has an incredibly rich tea culture. Although each country approaches tea differently, the drink remains an integral part of many European cultures.
In England, tea is an essential part of everyday life. The English afternoon tea is still a popular afternoon pastime and is closely associated with hospitality. Although tea and coffee houses serve herbal tea, the English often prefer black tea with cream and sugar over herbal concoctions.
Irish tea culture closely mirrors the English. Many Irish people take their tea extra strong and prefer to add milk and sugar to mellow the taste. One of our favorite Irish teas is Stash Tea Super Irish Breakfast, which contains extra Assam black tea for a truly Irish experience.
French tea is not tied with hospitality or social events. Rather, in a fitting French twist, tea is seen as a culinary experience. The French sought to distance themselves from the black tea of their neighbors and instead focused on developing unique and innovative tea blends.
Moroccan Tea Culture
Tea is a major part of Moroccan hospitality. Tea is typically prepared by the men of each household and follows an interesting steeping process.
Moroccan people first rinse out their metal teapot with hot water and then add a concoction of Chinese gunpowder tea, freshly crushed mint leaves, and sugar. This mixture is steeped in boiling water for a few minutes before it is served. As the host pours a Moroccan tea, they must raise and lower the teapot to encourage froth.
South African Tea Culture
South Africans enjoy a different kind of tea. Rather than drink tea from the Camellia sinensis plant, South Africans drink herbal tea made from the rooibos plant. This caffeine-free tea is often known for its smooth, nutty flavor and unique antioxidants.
Chinese Tea Culture
Even 5,000 years after inventing tea, Chinese tea culture is still going strong. Nowadays, tea is an important element of the Chinese wedding ceremony. In this tea ceremony, the newly married couple serves tea to their families to symbolize their new relationship.
Indian Tea Culture
India is another large producer of tea, so it’s only fitting that they have its own unique tea culture. Indian chai tea is a mixture of black tea and chai spices, which can include cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and nutmeg. The spice recipe varies depending on the tea house or host, but it’s guaranteed to be a delicious cup of tea every time.
Argentinian Tea Culture
Argentina is home to an incredibly rich tea culture, although they don’t always drink traditional tea. Rather than drink traditional teas like Darjeeling and oolong, many Argentinians drink tea made from the yerba mate plant.
Traditional yerba mate is highly caffeinated and typically enjoyed daily. Instead of using a teapot, Argentinians brew the mate in a gourd and drink the tea through a metal straw.
Tea has been around for thousands of years and has been involved in many major world events. Many of today’s modern cultures developed around tea, and the popularity of tea has only risen over time.
Countries from every continent have their own unique tea cultures, depending on their history with tea. To get a taste of these cultures, check out our monthly tea subscription. All you have to do is tell us your preferences, and we’ll ship a world of tea right to your door.
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About Sips by: We’re a female-founded and led startup that makes discovering tea fun, personalized, and affordable. The Sips by Box is the only multi-brand, personalized tea subscription box. Each month, we match tea drinkers across the U.S. with delicious teas from over 150 global tea brands that we’re sure they’ll love. Based out of Austin, Texas, we are adept at savoring a hot mug even when it’s seasonally inappropriate.
Tea: A Very Short History | China Heritage Quarterly
Catherine of Braganza | UK Tea and Infusions Association
The Boston Tea Party: A Turning Point in a Revolution Date(s) | History Engine