How Tea Touched the World

on July 21, 2022

For most of us, the day doesn't begin without our mandatory cup of tea. It is how we choose to embark on yet another 24-hour adventure; with a drink so potent that it has caused nations to go to war, led revolutions to free the people, opened our minds to peace, and drawn humankind towards mysticism and transcendence.

Undeniably, tea has touched the world and has changed the course of human civilisation. Here’s plucking out a few pages from the annals of history that illustrate so.

Tea Trivia: Besides water, Tea is the most popular beverage worldwide, more than coffee and soft drinks!

A Serendipitous
Discovery in China

Long before a rogue apple fell on Isaac Newton's head, a few leaves of tea accidentally wafted their way into Emperor Shen Nung's cup of hot water. They changed the colour of the water, and upon drinking it, Shen Nung was pleasantly surprised by the flavour and stimulating properties of the brew. Or that is how the legend goes. While no one knows the exact circumstances of how and when tea became popular in China, historical findings show its consumption as early as the 2nd century BCE.

The earliest evidential book on tea, the Cha Ching (Tea Classic), dates back to the 8th century CE, written by poet-scholar Lu Yu, with detailed descriptions of planting, harvesting, processing, brewing and drinking tea.

For the next 700 years, tea would become a cultural beverage in Asia, from Turkey to Japan, contributing to the growth of trade and exchange of ideas across the continent.

Tea Trivia: Tea leaves were found in the tomb of Emperor Jing Di of the Han Dynasty. It is the oldest tea ever found; some 2,200 years old!

Tea Reaches Europe

Christian missionaries travelling to the East were probably the first westerners to taste and write about the virtues of tea. In the 1600s, having established a connection with Asia via sea, Dutch traders started importing tea from China and Japan. Word got around regarding the invigorating effect and medicinal benefits of tea. However, it was so expensive that only the aristocracy could afford it.

Britain was not far behind in its ‘discovery’ of tea through the East India Company. It was introduced in London’s coffee houses by the 1650s. But a holy matrimony led to a deep-rooted connection between tea and Britain. In 1662, King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (from Portugal), an avid tea drinker. This made tea fashionable at parties, in the Royal Court, and with the European upper class. Gradually, tea began to be perceived as a status symbol in the whole of Europe.

Tea Trivia: The most expensive tea in the world is the Da-Hong Pao, an oolong tea grown in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province, China. 1 kg could cost anywhere between INR 5-8 crores, 10 times more expensive than gold!

Middle East – Trade,
Tea, and Hospitality

The Middle East served as a crucial pitstop for traders plying the Silk Route. This connecting link between Asia and Europe facilitated more than just trade. Besides the exchange of silk, paper, gems, herbs and gunpowder, the trade route also led to a sharing of ideas, culture and, to an extent, tea. Tea reached the Middle East sometime around the 1200s but remained obscure for centuries. Black tea only became a favourite as late as the 18th century. European trade ships, by now traversing the corners of the world, found a sizeable market in the Middle East. Tea soon became part of the Middle East’s hospitality, just like in India and Britain, where a guest would be welcomed with a cup of hot tea.

Tea Trivia: Turkey consumes the most amount of tea per capita in the world, about 1300 cups per person every year!

Tea Trivia: 85% of the tea sales in the US are in the form of iced tea!

A Revolution Brews in
North America

The Dutch and the British introduced tea to their North American colonies sometime around the 1650s. By the 1750s, it became an essential commodity and contributed immensely to the nation’s wealth. Not surprisingly, it came to be heavily taxed along with other commodities of great economic importance. Consequently, growing unrest amongst the colonials lead to several protests and demonstrations. In 1770, Britain rescinded all taxes, except for tea. This led to a defining moment in world history. A consequence of this was the Boston Tea Party, where British tea was dumped into the sea at the Boston Harbour, sowing the seeds of liberty in American hearts. The Revolutionary War followed, leading to the American Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July, 1776.

Tea Trivia: 85% of the tea sales in the US are in the form of iced tea!

The India Story

India is one of the largest consumers of tea in the world. But this wasn’t the case until recently. In fact, the commercial cultivation of tea only started in the 19th century by the British to curtail the Chinese monopoly on tea. Initially, they used Chinese tea plants and cultivation techniques to create India’s tea industry. Later, tea was discovered in Assam and along the borders of present-day Myanmar. Tea production has massively increased since then, with India being the home to major tea estates and brands.

Tea has a special place in Indian culture and homes. From milk tea served at every street corner and café to Darjeeling Muscatel teas, green teas, and oolongs preferred by connoisseurs and the health-conscious, India’s relationship with tea will probably last for an eternity.

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