History of Tea

According to legend, tea originated in ancient China more than 5000 years ago.

Emperor Shennong, who was a scientist and patron of the arts, dictated that all drinking water be boiled as a health precaution. One day, while visiting a distant province, his servants began boiling water and leaves from a nearby bush fell into the pot, producing a golden infusion. As a scientist, Emperor Shennong was intrigued. He drank some of the liquid and found it refreshing, which led to the birth of tea.

After Emperor Shennong, the history of tea is one of adventure, ritual, mystery and discovery. From tea’s beginnings in the Far East to the coffeehouses of Shakespeare’s day, from the Imperial Russian court to modern tea houses across the United States, tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed throughout the whole world.

One of the first recorded uses of tea is in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), in which it was taken medicinally. The earliest record of tea as an everyday beverage comes from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE).

The Japanese Influence

The first documented tea seeds were brought to Japan in the 12th century by the Buddhist priest Yeisei, who had seen the value of tea in China in enhancing religious meditation. As a result, he is known as the Father of Tea in Japan. Because of this early association, tea in Japan has always been connected to Zen Buddhism. Tea received almost instant imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from the royal court and monasteries to the other sections of Japanese society.

Tea Comes to the West

While tea was at a high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this mysterious beverage was only beginning to filter back to Europe. Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned it, but were unclear as to its exact appearance and taste. The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560.

As tea caught on in Portugal, the Portuguese developed a trade route, shipping tea to Lisbon. Then, Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland and the Baltic countries.

Because of the success of the Dutch navy in the Pacific, tea became very fashionable in the Dutch capital of The Hague. The high cost of the tea had immediately made it a status symbol. Slowly, as the amount of tea imported increased, the price fell as thevolume of sale expanded. By the year 1675, tea was available in common food shops throughout Holland and much of Europe.

Beginning in the late 1880s in both America and England, fine hotels began to offer tea service in tea rooms and tea courts. Served in the late afternoon, Victorian ladies and their gentlemen friends could meet for tea and conversation. Many of these tea services became the hallmark of the elegance of the hotel, such as the tea services at the Ritz (Boston) and the Plaza (New York).

Tea Inventions in America: Iced Tea and Tea Bags

In 1904, trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products to America's first World’s Fair in St. Louis. One such merchant was Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner. Originally, he had planned to give away free samples of hot tea to fair visitors, but when a heat wave hit, no one was interested. To save his investment of time and travel, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first "iced tea". It was the hit of the Fair.

Four years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York developed the concept of "bagged tea". He had been carefully wrapping samples of tea delivered to restaurants and recognized a natural marketing opportunity when he realized the restaurants were brewing the samples in the bags to avoid the mess of tea leaves in the kitchens.

Tea Today

Today, tea is more popular than ever—in fact, it’s said to be the second most consumed beverage in the world, coming after water. Currently, there is a re- awakening interest in tea as many people seek a more natural, flavorful beverage.