History of Tea

A Brief History of Tea


The Origins of Tea

In 2737 BC, legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung drank a cup of boiled water which some tea leaves had accidentally fallen. After drinking the tea, his pains disappeared and it is believed that this is when the beneficial effects of tea on health were first discovered. Initially regarded for its medicinal properties, tea was used as early as the third century BC to increase concentration and alertness.  By the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 AD), ‘Thee Golden Age of Tea’, it was no longer  drunk for medicinal purposes alone, but was taken as much for pleasure as for its ‘restorative powers’.


The Tea Ceremony

The Japanese developed the traditional teas ceremony alongside their Buddhist beliefs, creating the Cha-no-yu, a complicated and unique ceremony based around the service of tea, where hosts and guests strive for spiritual refreshment and harmony with the universe.


Tea Comes to Europe

Tea arrives in Europe in the 1600’s brought by the Portuguese and Dutch shipping fleets and by the end of the seventeenth century Germany, Portugal, Holland and Italy were all importing tea. However coffee was well established in these markets as the most popular beverage. It was in Russia and England that the tea market really grew.


Tea Arrives in England

In England the first authenticated reference to tea is by Mr. Wickman of the East India Company’s agent in Firando, Japan, in 1615. It started to compete with coffee and chocolate by the middle of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. In 1657 Garraway’s Coffee House advertised tea putting a high value on it “Those very nations famous for Antiquity, Knowledge and Wisdom do freely sell among themselves for twice its weight in silver”

He goes on to list its many medical virtues covering such things as: ‘Headache, Stone, Gravel, Dropsy, Scurvy, Sleepiness, Loss of Memory, Looseness or Gripping of the Guts, Heavy Dreams and Collick proceeding from Wind. Taken with Virgin’s Honey instead of sugar, tea cleanses the Kidney and Uterus and with Milk and Water it prevents consumption: if you are of a corpulent body it ensures good Appetite  , and if you have had a surfeit it is just the thing to give you a gentle vomit…’ Tea was so new to England that these claims could be taken seriously! As an indication of its novelty, Samual Pepys wrote in 1660 ‘I did send for a cup of tea (a Chinese drink) of which I had not drunk before’


Tea Become Fashionable

The Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza marries Charles 11 in 1662. As part of her dowry she brought with her a chest of China Tea and as a confirmed tea drinker she started serving it to her aristocratic friends. Word spread and soon more people wanted to try it, although it remained the preserve of the rich and well connected.

It was the host or hostess who brewed it, and from the 1670’s comes the introduction of fine cups, bowls, saucers, pots, ladles, spoons, trays, caddies etc., made of silver, pewter and pottery for using with tea.


The East India Company & The Boston Tea Party

The monopoly of tea importing was held by the East India Company for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Through British trading alone the spread of tea was enormous, covering the British Possessions and across the Atlantic to North America.

It was due to a tax levied on tea by our Westminster Parliament that the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, sparking off the American War of Independence.


Tea Clippers

The picturesque era of the tea clippers was celebrated by the Great Tea Race of 1866, (these legendary ships carried both tea and adventurers across the China seas). The race began at Foochow, ending in London Docks, took 99 days and after 16,000 miles by sail, only ten minutes separated the winners.


Afternoon Tea

Anna the Seventh Duchess of Bedford is credited with the invention of afternoon tea. She is said to have experienced what was called a ‘sinking feeling’ in the middle of the afternoon due to the long gap between light luncheon and her evening meal. To relieve her hunger pangs she asked her maid to bring her a pot of tea and a little refreshment and soon she enjoyed this ritual so much she started inviting friends over to join her. Soon all fashionable London was indulging in afternoon tea.


Tea for Everyone

By 1880 Great Britain imported 160 million lbs of tea each year. Each person in England drank about 5.5 lbs a year; by 1970 this had risen to 10 lbs each. In the 1950’s English drinkers were consuming five times as much tea as coffee; whilst the North Americans consumed twentyfive times as much coffee as tea!

Tea is now an integral part of British life, in the 1960’s Parliament legislated to include the right of two tea breaks a day for the British worker. In 1982 Great Britain imported 400 million lbs of tea.


Tea Blending

Blending tea started once it was known teas had different flavours dependent on the regions of origin. English cabinet makers’ tea boxes of the 1730’s show that whoever brewed the tea, also blended it from six to eight different compartments containing the varieties. (Many of these attractive boxes can still be found in antique shops).

By the early 1800’s blending was done by the grocer or warehouseman, for the client. Earl Grey’s blend is the most famous and possibly the earliest ‘special’ on sale to the public