The History Of Tea

Whilst it is impossible to know exactly when the first cup was brewed, legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sat beneath a Camellia sinensis one day in 2737BC when a few leaves were stirred by the wind. As his servant boiled drinking water in a pot, the leaves fell in and so accidentally resulted in the world’s first cup of tea. To this day, every cup of tea enjoyed around the world comes from the same plant; the Camellia sinensis.

Medicine, folklore, and ritual

From its earliest recorded use, tea was widely believed to refresh the spirit, alleviate tiredness, fight off depression and illness, and boost energy. It is for many of these reasons that we still enjoy tea today, and in fact it is the world’s number one beverage after water. Tea is a drink that penetrates all cultures and continents.

A growing phenomenon

The widespread use of tea is evident during the Chinese Han Dynasty (AD 206-220) and a wealth of elaborate tea paraphernalia and equipment survives today as testament to its growing popularity. It’s widely believed that during this time the first managed plantations began to emerge, as wild tea bushes were stripped of their leaves to keep up with demand. By the end of the third century AD, tea had become China’s number one beverage, and by the eighth century AD the Chinese were trading tea to Tibet, the Arab lands to the West, to the Turks, to the nomadic tribes of the Himalayas, and along the “silk road” into India. Tea first reached Europe in the late sixteenth century, but the delicate leaves often suffered during the long sea voyages from China to the continent. Profit-conscious tea producers were forced to adopt more sophisticated methods of manufacture, packing and transportation.

Any colour… as long as it’s green

Until this point in its history all tea was green; the natural pigmentation within the leaves preserved by the careful steaming process that still takes place today. It was the European export market that first saw rise to the innovative introduction of new processes that resulted in black tea. Allowing the leaves to oxidise naturally before drying resulted in the dark colour and produced a tea which stood up better to foreign export. Whilst the Chinese continued to drink green tea, it was black tea that really took Europe by storm.

A middle-class indulgence

Tea didn’t begin life in Europe as the drink of the people that we all enjoy today. The incredible distance it travelled was one of the reasons for its hefty price-tag; tea was an exclusively middle class indulgence. Whilst it enjoyed a brief period of fashionable favour in France and Germany, it was quickly usurped by coffee as the favourite Parisienne beverage, whilst it was regarded in Germany as a medicinal drink, rather than one to be enjoyed in its own right. It was Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, future wife of King Charles II, who was largely responsible for making tea a fashionable drink amongst the English when she arrived at Court in 1662, although it had been on sale at Thomas Garraway’s general store on London’s Exchange Alley since 1657.

A Georgian obsession

By the Georgian period, tea had become a British obsession. Dr Samuel Johnson, one of Georgian England’s most prominent and fashionable authors, poets and “gentleman of letters” described himself as “a hardened and shameless tea drinker” whilst whole rooms in wealthy and fashionable houses were given over to the taking of tea. The poorer classes increasingly wanted to partake in this delicious indulgence and scruples tea traders began to mix Camellia sinensis leaves with all manner of additives and fillers including leaves dyed with sheep’s dung and clay. The problem became so serious that the government introduced huge fines for traders of illicit ‘smouch’ in an effort to stamp out the practice. Image courtesy of All Things Georgian

The people’s drink

Despite Britain being a culture obsessed by class or ‘station’, tea had shaken off its exclusive label by the mid-eighteenth century to become to favourite beverage of all classes. Whilst it was still enjoyed throughout the palaces and stately homes of Britain, it could be found on the breakfast and dinner tables of poorer classes and throughout places of work. It even formed part of a worker’s wages, and is used as an enticing extra when included in the ticket price of London’s visitor attractions. Tea has become the drink we know and love today; to wake us in the morning, to get us through the working day, and to calm and refresh us during the evening. To enjoy alone, or in company as part of an elegant and extravagant feast, or the simplest of suppers. Quite simply, it is the drink that fuels Britain.

Further reading

We highly recommend the following books:

“Tea Classified: A tea-lover’s companion” by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson

“The Social History of Tea” by Jane Pettigrew