History of Tea

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Where did the name Earl Grey come from?

by David Johnson

In prehistoric China tea was probably used as a relish and as a medicine. Tea was first brewed as a medicine around 2700 B.C. in the western mountains of China. Tea was likely seen as healthy in part because it was made with boiled water, which is safer to drink in an area of contaminated water.

Tea was also popular for stimulation. A Chinese document first suggested tea as a substitute for wine after AD 200.

A Necessity

Tea drinking, and commercial cultivation, spread during the T'ang Dynasty, 618–907, especially after a Buddhist monk, Lu Yu, wrote a book on the virtues of tea, Ch'a Ching. Tea gradually became one of the seven basic necessities of Chinese life. (The others are fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar.)

Zen Buddhist Favor Tea

A Japanese Buddhist priest, Saicho, is credited with introducing tea to Japan, when he returned from a visit to China in 805. In Japan tea drinking was considered medicinal, and became closely associated with Zen Buddhism.

Tea drinking also spread to Korea and Southeast Asia, and was taken over the Silk Road to Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.

Tea Goes Around the World

Dutch explorers became acquainted with tea in the 1590s and were soon importing tea to Europe. In 1657 the British East India Company held the first public sale of tea in England, while that same year Thomas Garraway began offering tea at his London coffee house.

In 1662 tea received a big boost in England when the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, married King Charles II and introduced tea drinking to the British court.

Gradually, the British fell in love with tea, and with the sugar that went in it. In 1665, less than 88 tons of sugar was imported to Great Britain. By 1700, it had increased to 10,000 tons of sugar. In 1768 the East India Company imported 10 million pounds of tea to Britain.

Tea Loses Favor in Boston

British tea policy also encouraged the American Revolution. Protests over the tax on tea and other products, imposed by Townshend Act (1767) led to the Boston Massacre, (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773). It had become unpatriotic for Americans to drink tea. And while tea has since made a comeback, it still holds a second place to coffee in the United States.

Afternoon Tea is Born

Meanwhile, British tea consumption reached 2 pounds per person per year in 1797, and 10 pounds 100 years later. In 1840, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, began serving tea in the afternoon, creating a fashionable British custom.

(Contrary to popular opinion, a "low" tea is the most fashionable. It is served during the "low" or early, afternoon, and consists of tea and light food. A "high" tea, on the other hand, is served later in the day and is a full meal, including meat. High tea is actually a working class supper.)

Cutty Sark is Launched

The profitable tea trade fueled the need for faster ships. In 1869, one of the most famous clipper ships, the Cutty Sark, was launched to transport tea from China to England. Despite her speed, the Cutty Sark was reassigned to the transporting Australian wool in the 1870s, as even quicker steamships took over the tea trade.

Cadbury, Pierce, and Harrod All Start with Tea

A number of famous retailers got their start in the tea business. In 1824 John Cadbury opened a tea and coffee shop in Birmingham, England, which grew into the Cadbury Chocolate Co. In 1849, London tea wholesaler Henry Charles Harrod took over a shop that would soon bear his name and become one of the world's most famous department stores.

In America, the tea market was also growing. Boston merchant Samuel Stillman Pierce opened a store, S.S. Pierce, to sell tea and imported fruit, while in 1859 the Great American Tea Company was founded. It later changed its named to the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, eventually simplified to A & P.

Earl Grey Makes His Mark

In 1834, Prime Minister Charles Grey ended the monopoly on tea imports enjoyed by East India Company. Grey is also important in tea history since Earl Grey, a prestigious black tea flavored with bergamot oil, was named after him.

Throughout the nineteenth century, farmers established tea plantations throughout the Empire, starting with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Burma. India's Darjeeling tea is considered one of the best blends in the world. Later in the century, British and Germans established tea plantations in the highlands of East Africa.

A Hot Day and Muslin Bags

Iced tea was first reported at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Richard Blechynden had planned to sell hot tea at this stand, but became concerned that no one would want to drink hot tea on a sweltering day. He began offering the tea with ice cubes and the new drink was a sensation. However, there is evidence that others had thought of iced tea earlier.

In 1909, New York merchant Thomas Sullivan sent some tea samples sewn in muslin bags to potential customers. Finding they could brew the tea simply by pouring hot water over the bags, the customers clamored for more, and the tea bag was born.

Major Tea Producers

Today, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Indonesia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are all major tea exporters.

Ireland has the highest per capita tea consumption in the world, four cups per person per day, while the United States consumes less than one cup per person per day.

Tea Leaves

More tea is consumed around the world than any beverage except water. Photo Credit: Arttoday.com

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