History Of Tea

History of Tea


history of tea

Tea, the world’s second most consumed beverage after water, has a complex history, deeply rooted in Chinese culture. There are numerous legends and tales about its origins, centered around the first cup of tea that was ever brewed. The best known among these is the story of Emperor Shen Nung from China, who is believed to have sipped on tea by chance, when strong winds channelled a few tea leaves into a pot of boiling water. Some legends have it that tea was first consumed in China between 1500 BC-1046 BC when the Shang Dynasty discovered it as a medicated drink. The true facts about the origins of tea may never be verified. However, its roots in Asian culture remain strong, making it a staple drink in the region till date.


Tea and its Chinese origins


  • Tea was discovered between the 30th and 21st century BC. Initially, tea was used for its medicinal properties and the fresh leaves were chewed on for their refreshing and energising effects. Its was much later that tea leaves were brewed to make an infusion.

  • Between 722 and 221 BC, the Chinese began to brew these leaves, sometimes adding other healthy ingredients such as ginger and orange peel. At this points, the infusion was consumed by mixing with rice to prepare a meal.

  • This gradually evolved to be a beverage, often offered to noble lords and high ranking officials as a refreshing drink. Varieties of tea were soon distinguishable, and tea was presented as gifts, with rare varieties presented to emperors. As tea became a coveted trade item, the commercial practice of trading in tea began.

  • Between 420 and 589 BC, tea became embedded in Chinese traditions. Interest grew around the methods of cultivation, and its consumption rapidly increased.

  • Several tea shrubs were planted between 618 and 907 BC by the Tang Dynasty. At this point, Japanese monks carried seeds with them as they travelled back to Japan. Thus tea began to spread overseas.

  • Scented varieties of tea were explored in the years that followed, between 960 and 1279 BC. This included Wu Yi Tea in the Fujian Province of China.

  • By 1271 BC, machines were used in the production of tea, even though commoners prefered loose tea for brewing. The introduction of machinery marked a significant development in crafting methods. Tuocha and Tea Cakes were still given to the lords in exchange for favours as these were prestigious items worthy of presenting to royalty.

  • During the rule of the Ming dynasty, roasting of tea leaves became popular. In the years that followed, leaves were rolled into strips, and loose tea leaves were used to make drinks.

  • Between 1636 and 1911 BC, the Qing dynasty rules over China. By this time, tea had become a part of people’s lifestyle, and the popularity of varieties of tea such as Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, Yellow Tea, etc. had spread. Tea was instrumental in bring foreign trade to China, as it was gradually exported across the world.


The spread of tea across the world

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Tea assumed the position of the number beverage in China towards the later part of the 3rd century AD. The Chinese began trading tea with Tibet, and then the Arabs, the Turks and the Indian nomadic tribes in the Himalayas by the 8th century AD. Using the ‘silk road’, tea was the traded to India. Its spread to the western world was gradual, reaching European soil in the 16th century, and finally spreading to Britain in the 17th century.


Initially it was Green Tea that was exported out from China to various other countries in the world. Due to the long distances between China and the west, the leaves would sometimes be damaged during transit and loose their freshness by the time they were finally consumed. This lead to losses for the tea producers, who had to look into finding methods to ensure that the freshness was retained for longer. Research resulted in them oxidising the tea naturally before the drying process in order for them to retain the freshness. Due to the dark colour of the resultant brew, it came to be known as Black Tea.


Tea in Europe


As for the European continent, tea first arrived in Holland in the 17th century. It was imported in England half a century after this.

The import of tea was initially opposed in Britain under Charles II. High taxes were levied on it and the East Indian Company had full monopoly on the trade of tea, growing tea in its colonies. Due to this, smuggling of tea was predominant. Interestingly, afternoon tea as a ritual was first introduced by the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza who was married to Charles II.
For almost a decade, tea was at the centre of trade, playing a major role in the dynamics of economies and politics.


Tea and the world

As tea began to spread to the rest of the world, different variations have evolved based on the method of preparation, flavour combinations, and the type of tea used. Japanese Sencha, for example, is an unfermented variation of Green Tea. Turkish Black Tea is a must-have for all tourists visiting the country. Most of the tea consumed in America is sweet and iced. India has its very own preparation known as ‘chai’, a sweet and milky version of tea.

This is essentially what makes the history of tea so unique. In its journey across the world, tea has become strongly embedded in cultures, and assumed new variations with unique flavours. And at the core of this is a simple tea leaf, brewed in numerous unique ways.


An overview of the Indian tea industry


Tea is believed to have been brought to India centuries ago through the ‘silk route’ via caravans that travelled to Europe from China. The Camellia Sinensis plant is in fact native to India, but its value and use was not recognized until the British attempted to cultivate plants from China. Prior to the British, tea was incorporated into the diet of native Indians, primarily for its medicinal benefits. Its initial uses were in the preparation of soups and vegetarian dishes, far from today’s famous ‘chai’ preparation. Today, chai is prepared using black tea, which is sweetened with sugar and milk and flavoured with spices such as ginger and cardamom.

The British introduced the plant to India, primarily to put an end to China’s monopoly on the cultivation. Indian soil was perfect for its cultivation, and the hills of Assam and Darjeeling were used for large scale production. For the British, it took nearly 14 years to produce tea that was as good as the Chinese varieties. Today, India remains one of the largest producers of tea in the world.


The native Indian tea species

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As the British were attempting to grow tea by smuggling the seeds into their colonies to end the Chinese monopoly over its cultivation, scotsman Robert Bruce discovered a native species of the Camellia Sinensis plant. He came across it through the Singpho tribe, who would drinking an infusion similar to the tea consumed in China. When samples of this native species were analyzed, it was found to be a variety of the plant grown in China, which was Assamica after the region in which it was found.

Indian soil was found to be unsuitable for the cultivation of the seeds smuggled into the country from China. Thus, interest grew around the cultivation of the newly discovered Assamica variant. After numerous trials, the first commercial tea plantation let by the British was set up in the year 1837 in a region named Chabua in Assam.

By 1840, the tea industry began to take shape in India. Since the soil around Assam was found to be unsuitable for growing the varieties of tea from China, attempts were made to cultivate these plants in higher elevated areas such as Darjeeling and Kangra. These attempts were successful, and tea cultivation officially began in Darjeeling in 1841.


The Indian tea industry today

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Even after the British left the country, the tea industry in India continues to flourish. There are a large number of tea gardens in Assam, Darjeeling and in the Nilgiris. The Tea Act of 1953 contains a system of certifying authentic tea from these regions. Interestingly, the Geographical Indications of Good Act of 1999 has the words ‘Darjeeling logo’, ‘Darjeeling’, ‘Nilgiri logo’ and ‘Assam logo’ registered for teas from the respective regions.

In a diverse country such as India, a gradual evolution has taken place in the tea drinking styles across regions, with regional variants of chai evolving based on flavour preferences in different states. However, the chaiwallas of India continue to prepare the signature Indian chai for hundreds of working men and women irrespective of class and regional divides, while high-end gourmet tea rooms serve fine teas to those who want a taste of a gourmet tea drinking experience.


The history of Black Tea 

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Black tea originated in China during the 16th century in Lapsang, the mountainous region in the Fuiyan area. The original black tea was known as Lapsang Souchong, named after the Lapsang region and ‘Souchong’, which refers to small leaf teas. The Lapsang Souchong tea is a variety that it still popular till date.

‘Souchong’ tea leaves are the fourth and fifth leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. The aromatic compounds in these leaves are not as many as the highest leaves at the top of the plant. These leaves are roasted using a Bamboo basket and warmed over burning wood. This gives the smoky taste to the tea, a distinguishing feature of Lapsang Souchong tea.

Black tea retained its popularity throughout China. During the British rule in India, the East India Company attempted to plant tea in the elevated region of Darjeeling using seeds that were smuggled from China. This led to the production of Black Tea in India. While attempts were made to grow the plants from China in India, a native species of tea was discovered in Assam that was consumed by the local tribes Singpho tribes. The leaves of this variant were found to be longer, and gained popularity years later as the base for breakfast teas in the West.


The history of Green Tea

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Amongst the varieties of tea available, the history of Green Tea has caught the attention of many, having been extensively documented across cultures in southeast Asia.

The first known instance of steeping Green Tea leaves was in 2737 BC, when Emperor Shennong stopped to take refuge during his journey. It is believed that the Emperor always wanted his water to be boiled before consuming it. While boiling the water to quench his thirst, a few tea leaves made their way into this water due to winds around them. The Emperor consumed this slightly darkened infusion and found it to be very refreshing. From then on, he requested his convoy to prepare this infusion for him.

This is considered to be an important event in the history of teas, as some believe that this was the very first time tea was brewed and consumed.

However, some historians believe that Green Tea was consumed far earlier, approximately 3000 years ago. Local tribes around tea growing regions in southeast Asia chewed the tea leaves and ate them for medicinal and recreational purposes. It was far later that the processing of tea leaves came into practice in order to prepare flavourful infusions.

Steaming, a process that is crucial in the processing of Green Tea leaves, was first developed in China in the 8th century. This process arrests the enzymatic oxidation of the leaves, leaving them with a greener colour than their darker oxidized counterparts. Fixing of tea leaves using machinery was introduced far later in the 18th century by Japanese tea masters.

Most Green Tea leaves are steamed and/or pan-fired today, wherein they are roasted at high temperatures in a large wok for short durations to bring out the flavours.

 White Tea - History, Origins and Exotic appeal

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The historical origins of white tea are unclear. Some records state that this premium tea was first consumed during the reign of the Song dynasty between 960 AD and 1280 AD, while there are some instances of its consumption during the rule of their predecessors, the Tang dynasty.

There are records of tea being offered as a tribute to the imperial ruler of the Tang dynasty. For this, the youngest and finest buds from the plants would be picked and made into teas for offerings. There is evidence of this in poetic references, which describe these teas as the modern white teas we consume today.

During the reign of the Song Dynasty, this custom of offering teas as tributes was retained. There are documents written by Chinese Emperor Huizong which tell about the details of the traditional tea ceremony in Imperial China. Emperor Huizong was a connoisseur of tea, and is said to have built a culture are tea and while also altering the way tea was produced and processed.

In the year 1857, a new species of tea plants was discovered in the Fujian province of China. This variety had larger buds and a dense pekoe growth with a strong aromatic profile. These buds were processed into silver needle White Tea, with details about the processing mentioned in ‘Zhuquan Xiaopin’, a book about Chinese teas written by author Tian Yiheng.

By the late 1800s, these silver needles gained popularity and export of these teas to western nations began.


A brief history about Oolong Tea

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As in the case of white tea, there is little clarity on the origins of Oolong Tea. Folk tales tell of the story of a humble tea grower during the reign of the Qing dynasty in China. According to these legends, a deer distracted him while he was on his way back after a day of plucking leaves in the gardens. Due to this distraction, he did not process the leaves he had plucked that day, which resulted in them naturally wilting and oxidizing. As he did not want to let these leaves go waste, he processed them even though they had wilted. Since they had naturally turned brown, he subjected them to little oxidation.

The result was a tea that was similar to the black tea available, but it lacked the bitterness and tannic strength. The tea was sweeter in taste, smoother in texture and more fragrant. This tea was named ‘Wu Long’ by him, after himself. In Mandarin, the words Wu Long also mean ‘Black Dragon’.

Some believe that Oolong Tea originated during the Tang dynasty, when Emperors were presented with tribute teas. These teas were called ‘beiyuan’ and were presented as a brick containing dark teas. The bricks were stamped and sealed with a phoenix or a dragon. Later, these bricks were no longer produced, and tea was sold loose instead. The teas that were presented had characteristics of Oolong tea as they were oxidized naturally using bamboo baskets, after which they were rolled and baked in large ovens.