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From myth to modern day, the humble cup of tea has inspired wars, spurred rebellions, and made for one of the most calming morning rituals to grace our routine.
The most popular global beverage (after water, of course) has a history that has changed the course of the world. So here is tracing this epic journey.
The very discovery of tea is shrouded in legend. Perhaps a few leaves fell into Emperor Shen Nung’s boiling water or a magical tea plant sprouted on the spot to sanctify a monk’s desperation – we will never know. But we do know that tea was first discovered some 5000 years ago.
At the time, however, it was a trusted medicinal drink.
A Chinese Tradition
4th Century – Before the Gold Rush Millionaires, before the Railroad Barons, there were Tea Tycoons.
Tea transformed from a medicinal drink to a daily refreshment around the 4th Century, and numerous tea plantations took root across China.
The tea merchants saw the opportunity and soon became one of the wealthiest communities. However, the Chinese Empire’s tight control over tea cultivation made it a drink for the elite. Elegant tea wares soon popped up, added to its status (so now you know what inspired that fancy china of yours!)
A Tibetan Currency
When you know you’ve struck gold, why not show off a little?
China introduced Tibet to tea and noted an astronomical demand for it. The landscape in the region, however, made it impossible for Tibetans to cultivate tea. So instead it was transported through yak caravan expeditions, battling tea thieves and pirates that hid in the mountains.
The precious status of tea made it a form of currency in Tibet, and blocks of compressed tea could buy you anything!
Journey to Japan
9th Century – In a classic case of study-abroad, a Japanese monk studying in China brought this popular beverage back home.
It’s ability to boost alertness yet calming properties made it a godsend (quite literally) as monks meditated for long periods of time. This was around the time matcha was created. However, it only gained popularity across all levels of Japanese society by the 14th Century, with it’s early monastic connections lending tea it’s spiritual flavour.
Experiment in Export
Mid 17th Century – Until the mid-17th century, it was only Green Tea that had captivated the East. But it wasn’t easy to export.
Desperation (and the promise of wealth) as it so happens, is the best fuel for innovation. And experimenting with methods to preserve the beverage over long periods of time led to a fermentation process that created – by a happy accident – the famous black tea!
It had a stronger aroma and flavour, which remained unchanged over long periods of time, opening the doors of world trade just a little wider.
A Regal Beverage
Late 17th Century – Despite the renowned English obsession with tea, it was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who brought it to Europe.
Elite English circles have King Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, to thank instead. As part of her dowry she brought along a chest of Chinese tea. She then shared her love for this drink by hosting elaborate afternoon teas, soon making the drink a symbol of society’s finest and beginning the tradition of high-tea.
A Sign of Rebellion
18th Century – As the global obsession with tea grew, it became perhaps the most precious commodity exported by Britain to her colonies. Noting this, the crown decided to capitalise on it.
They levied a ‘tea tax’ which eventually reached 119% ! Fighting the atrocious price tag, America saw one of the most famous rebellions in history – the Boston Tea Party – which also planted the seeds for the American Revolution.
The Opium Wars
19th Century – The Chinese Empire’s continued monopoly over tea made it one of the most sought after drinks in elite society. Moreover, China also had a self-sufficient natural economy, creating an import-export imbalance in their favour. In a bid to disrupt this, Britain supplied (i.e., smuggled) opium into China, bolstering addiction and increasing the outflow of silver.
While the Opium Wars were being fought, Britain also sent across botanists and spies to bring back tea plants and disrupt China’s carefully designed monopoly.
This led to the cultivation of some of the finest tea plantations across India – and they remain to this day.
Black tea isn’t just one steeped in health benefits and refreshing advantages, but one shaped by history. So the next time you have your morning cup, just think of the journey it has embarked upon to reach you!
What do you think about the history of tea? Share your fun facts in the comments below.