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A Brief History of Tea

Updated: Oct 5, 2022


By Rei Ang

Tea. It is one of the most famous, iconic beverages worldwide and is reportedly the second-most widely consumed drink- after water. From helping to set off the American Revolutionary War to sparking a global craze when added with milk and boba, there is no doubt that it is deeply embedded in many cultures. So when did it all start?

The roots of tea began, as many good things have, in China. Even as early as 2700 BCE, it is said that fragrant leaves, typically of the plant Camellia sinensis, were boiled and steeped in water to produce a primarily medicinal beverage said to have medicinal and even spiritual effects. A common legend attributes the invention to a gust of wind: one day in 2737 BC, a servant was pouring Emperor Shen Nang a cup of boiling water when a gust of wind blew leaves from the tree above into the cup. Containers of tea have been found dating back to the Han dynasty. However, it was only around 3 CE that it became a daily, cultivated drink. It spread first to Japan in 800 by way of seeds, slowly spreading to other Asian nations, where it grew in popularity and was further cultivated. Finally, in 1600, it was brought to Europe by Dutch Traders. While tea was initially grown exclusively using the Camellia plant, other plants and production methods soon arose, producing different flavors and kinds of tea. For a long time, tea was known as a largely unknown privilege of the upper class. However, when the Portuguese tea-addict Catherine of Braganza married Charles II, it boomed in popularity. One of the major protests that set off the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, involved the destruction of the valued value product. Smuggling became common as the British East India Company monopolized the tea trade with China until the government took control and regulated trade.

The final invention that truly commercialized tea was the tea bag, accidentally invented by Thomas Sullivan in 1908. When the New York Dealer shipped tea, he packaged it into silk bags for the trip. However, customers brewed the tea samples in the bags, inadvertently creating a new method for storing and producing tea. Now, tea bags are more popular than loose leaf tea for their convenience and accessibility, despite their significantly poorer quality. As tea increased in popularity, different versions were created as different cultures used their regional plants. Tea is made chiefly of two plants, either Assam, which creates red to black tea, or Camelia, producing greenish tea. Names such as green tea or black tea, however, deal more in the oxidization of the tea leaves: tea made of fully oxidized and dried leaves is called black, while green is made of leaves that have barely been oxidized. Other teas, such as white, oolong, or yellow, come in between, while others are named for specific, rare leaves. And of course, we all know the signature Taiwanese bubble tea, which mixes milk with tea to create a unique, world-sweeping drink. At the end of the day, tea has come a long journey, from a teacup in 2700 BCEs to the bō bà nâi chá you shake before sipping. Whether loose leaf or bag, green or black, it truly is a drink that extends across centuries and continents.


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