For as long as recorded history, people have been drinking tea for thousands of years. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, can be traced back to its original home on the edges of southwest China, a landlocked area bordered by commercial tea-producing countries such as Nepal and Myanmar. Some several traditions and stories are closely associated with the history of tea drinking.
Ancient Origins in China
It is believed that the origin of tea drinking can be traced back to China, as far back as 2737 BC. According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Nung was the first person to discover tea. The story goes that one day he was boiling a pan of water under a tree when some leaves from the tree fell into the pot. After tasting the water, he discovered its soothing flavor, and thus, tea was born.
The first documented record of tea consumption in Chinese culture dates back to the Tang Dynasty in the year 735 AD. By this time, tea had become a favored drink for the aristocracy and wealthy merchants, as well as being served in temples and monasteries. Its medicinal benefits were also well documented, and it is recorded that tea was used to treat many physical ailments, such as headaches and cold symptoms. During the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, tea became even more widespread and popularized, with tea houses springing up all over China and tea exports to other countries such as Japan increasing exponentially.
Spread of Tea Drinking Across East Asia
In the mid-13th Century, tea-drinking customs began to spread across East Asia and beyond. Following Emperor Kublai Khan’s conquest of Japan in 1290, the tea-drinking culture flourished in Japan and soon became firmly established. By the 16th century, Japanese tea ceremonies had been developed, focusing on the appreciation of the tea itself, becoming a major part of Japanese culture.
During the mid-17th century, tea was introduced to Tibet, where it remains popular and highly valued to this day. Despite the bleak weather and cold climate, tea is cherished and grown in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Here, tea is made from various herbs and ingredients, including butter, salt, and yak milk, to make a warm, salty, and creamy beverage.
Growth of Tea Drinking in the West
Tea drinking also spread westward during the 17th and 18th centuries, when all of Europe and the Western Hemisphere began to embrace and enjoy tea. The first recorded tea import to the United States was in 1644, and by the end of the eighteenth century, tea had become a popular indulgence and was widely consumed. In fact, tea drinking was so popular in England that it facilitated the development of major trade routes, creating a major boost to the global economy.
The tea trade was dominated by the British East India Company, who held a monopoly on the tea trade from 1693 until 1836. In the 18th century, tea was both a luxury and an everyday necessity for the British people. It was so popular that taxes and government regulations were put in place to keep the prices as affordable as possible. Consequently, tea became accessible to all classes of society, spreading the culture of tea drinking across the nation.
Revolutionizing Tea Cultures
The Georgian and Victorian eras witnessed a huge rise in the popularity of tea drinking across Europe and the further development of tea culture. Tea became the go-to drink for those seeking a warm and sociable pastime. As a result, tea Houses and Tea Gardens began popping up in various cities and towns throughout the UK. These establishments provided music, theatres, and games to entertain their patrons along with the tea.
The tea-making process was also revolutionized with the invention of the tea infuser. This handy little device allowed for brewing single-serve cups of tea, making the whole process much more convenient. During this period, many tea connoisseurs and devotees also began to recognize the regional distinctions of different types of tea; for example, the Darjeeling tea of India and the delicate green teas of China.
Modern Experiences of Tea Drinking
Today, tea is enjoyed by the masses worldwide and its wide varieties, from herbal to green to black tea, are widely available. It has also become a major social occasion in many countries. For example, in Japan, tea ceremonies remain an essential part of the culture and are a classic way to show respect when visiting someone’s home.
Tea is also widely known for its medicinal properties. While it is now enjoyed mainly for its flavor and relaxation properties, it is also thought to have many health benefits. For example, some studies suggest that green tea is linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and can help reduce stroke risk.