A Brief History of Tea

I love tea, though I didn’t really start drinking it until I was an adult. As a child, tea was either sweet tea or chamomile. I didn’t really care for either. Once in college, I started branching out, since I never developed a taste for coffee. Finally in grad school, I really took to tea. It can be a cheap luxury — you can get a box for just a few dollars. Many stores even sell bulk tea so you can have any flavor you want for a few cents.

Tea is both quite ancient and also very recent. It has a long history in Japan and China, became popular in Europe in the late 1500/early 1600s, but didn’t really take off in India until the 1900s.

A picture of many different kinds of tea on a shelf.
I have about 70 kinds of tea. And I’m always looking for more.

Part 1: What is tea?

“Tea” is a drink made from the Camella sinensis plant. Several drinks commonly referred to as tea aren’t; they are drinks made with plants steeped in water, but the plants are not C. sinensis. Chamomile and red tea, for example, are not actually “tea.”

Tea is often mentioned as a beverage in fictional medieval-ish worlds. Did medieval Europeans make drinks infused with plants? No doubt. Were those drinks “tea,” going by the botanical definition? No.

Of course, these days, that doesn’t really matter. It’s just semantics. I’d hate to be a bore and say I’m drinking a chamomile infused warm water beverage. If I say chamomile tea, you know what I mean.

Green, black, oolong, and white tea are all the same plant (C. sinensis); the leaves are at different stages of the drying process. White tea is the least processed and black tea is the most processed. Black tea also has the most caffeine and white the least.

“Chamomile” is a catch-all name for a family of plants related to daisies, though only one species is usually used to make tea (Matricaria chamomilla).

Red tea (rooibos) is made from the South African red bush.

Similarly, mate comes from the yerba mate plant from South America. It is not technically “tea.” It’s the one type of tea I have yet to try.

A picture of a green tea farmer in Japan.
A green tea farmer in Japan. Photograph by George Mobley. Photo from National Geographic

Part 2: A Short Technical History

One story explains that a tea leaf fell into Emperor Shen-Nung’s cup of hot, boiling water. The emperor decided to drink it, loved it, and thus tea was born.

People first drank tea in China (first in Yunnan Province, then spreading elsewhere) sometime before 1000 BCE. It’s not clear who was the first drinker or why they decided to give it a try.

Its first use was as a medicinal beverage among the upper classes and later as a religious offering. Buddhist monks used the drink to help them meditate.

The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) saw the growth of tea as a drink for everyone. Not only were more plants discovered, but the government supported their cultivation. Also during this time, tea spread to Japan. The first mention of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is from the ninth century; in 816, imperial tea plantations were formed.

Tea became popular in Europe during the 1500s. Portuguese merchants were introduced to tea by the Chinese, and the Portguese in turn brought tea to Europe. After the English Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza in 1661, tea became a royal drink, gaining in popularity among all citizens and leading to its import by the East India Company.

By the 1700s, tea was also a popular drink in Colonial America. High taxes led, of course, to the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

In the 1800s, the British experimented with growing tea in their holdings in India, in order to break China’s hold on the tea market. By the late 1800s, ad campaigns had sprung up to help convince the Indians to drink the tea being grown in their own country. The 1900s, of course, saw a rise in tea drinking and culture in India, leading to the popularity of “chai” (simply the Hindi word for tea).

A picture of a teapot from 1766 printed with te words "Stamp act repeal'd."
American teapot from 1766. “Stamp act repeal’d.” Tea pots seem so old fashioned, but even they could be political. From the Peabody Emerson Museum.

Part 3: A Short Cultural History

This is more of a cultural history of tea, especially as it relates to Europe and the U.S.. (Because what better way to discuss something discovered in Asia than through an Euro-centric lens?)

The first book about tea is probably Ch’a Chang (Classic of Tea) by Lu Yu, written in the 700s. This book describes the origins of tea, how to process it, store it, and drink it.

Tea was originally processed as bricks or cakes. One cut off or grated off the amount to be used. Sometime around the thirteenth century teas were sold in leaf form. By the fourteenth century, merchants and growers experimented with tea — drying it, adding different additives, etc, giving rise to the different varieties (black, white, etc) we enjoy today.

Queen Catherine of Braganza is said to have introduced tea to England. The cities of Tangier and Bombay were part of her dowry, so clearly her marriage to Charles II meant England could greatly expand its trade networks. Tea was popular in Portugal, where it was imported from China and Japan.

Tea was sold in English coffee houses starting in 1657. Tea was highly taxed and coffee houses had to be licensed to serve it. As a result, tea smuggling was a lucrative activity. High taxes in the colonies led to the Boston Tea Party (and thus tea led to the American Revolution in a way).

The tea party and afternoon tea were introduced in the 1800s and the idea of “tea gardens,” “tea dances,” and the like also spread.

Iced tea was an American invention, debuting at the 1904 World’s Fair. New Yorker Thomas Sullivan paved the way for easy to make tea when he invented tea bags.

According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., Inc:

Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in almost 80% of all U.S. households. It is the only beverage commonly served hot or iced, anytime, anywhere, for any occasion. On any given day, over 158 million Americans are drinking tea.

On a regional basis, the South and Northeast have the greatest concentration of tea drinkers.

The majority of that tea is black (85%), followed by green, and then small amounts of white and oolong. The majority of tea in America is iced.

A picture of a teapot shaped like an elephant.
My elephant teapot.

Do you enjoy tea? What is your favorite type? Share in the comments!

This post originally appeared in a modified form on Mirous Worlds.



By Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

9 replies on “A Brief History of Tea”

At the moment, I’m practically craving Indian milk tea after visiting friends over there for a fortnight. Unfortunately, I just can’t get the various English blends I’ve got to brew strong enough to replicate it properly. Normally, I live on English breakfast tea until about 7 pm when I start drinking redbush instead owing to the lack of caffeine

I took a Latin American culture class in college, and the professor brought his mate cup to every class and would start out his lecture while adding hot water to the yerba and then we would all pass it around. Every time it got back to him, he would refill the water and restart it. Mate is meant to be shared in a group, everyone drinking from the same straw. I was rude and didn’t join in. Colleges are breeding farms for influenza. I am a bad anthropologist.

Leave a Reply