How Tea Changed the World

Legend has it that a Chinese emperor discovered tea by accident in 2737 BCE. fotohunter/Shutterstock

About the time ancients in the Mediterranean basin were realizing the benefits of grapes and olives, people from a much different civilization on the other side of the world were making their own remarkable discovery. They realized that the leaves of a certain plant had aromatic properties that could do something magical with water.

The country was China, and the plant was Camellia sinensis. As legend has it, a fortuitous accident led to the discovery that the camellia leaves turned ordinary water into a fragrant drink so refreshing that it helped monks ward off sleep during long hours of meditation. The drink would become known throughout the world as tea, but it would take centuries for it to escape China’s once famously closed society.

Today, next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, according to the New York-based Tea Association of the USA, which describes itself as the recognized independent authority on tea. On any given day, more than 158 million Americans in almost 80 percent of U.S. households drink tea, according to the group.

History of tea

The likely origin of Camellia sinensis is in an area that today includes northern Myanmar and the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan in China. All of the world’s nonherbal teas come from this single variety of camellia. The various flavors are the result of different methods of processing the leaves.

Historians haven’t found accurate records of who discovered the secret of the leaves’ aromatic properties, but Chinese mythology attributes the revelation to an accident. According to legend, Chinese Emperor Shennong, known as the "Divine Healer," was boiling a pot of water in 2737 BCE when some tea leaves from Camellia sinensis accidentally blew into the emperor’s kettle.

The resulting drink became known by various names in Chinese languages, but it was prized for its common medicinal abilities to relieve fatigue, delight the soul, strengthen the will and repair eyesight.

Camellia sinensis grows at a plantation in Munnar, India
Camellia sinensis grows at a plantation in Munnar, India. Jakub Michankow [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Buddhist monks drank tea extensively to prevent drowsiness during long hours of meditation, and Taoists even used it as an ingredient in their elixir of immortality.

In some cases, it was turned into a paste and used on the skin to relieve rheumatic pains. It would take centuries of crude use before tea would be drunk more for its taste than as a medicine.

Tea apparently made its way out of China by several means. According to various reports, Buddhist monks took seeds of Camellia sinensis to Japan, and Chinese tea merchants exported leaves to Iran, India and Japan as early as 206-220 CE during the Han Dynasty. Finally, in the 1600s, Dutch merchants imported tea leaves into Holland. From there they spread across Europe.

Commercial tea growing started in the 1840s when an undercover British botanist posing as a tea merchant brought thousands of tea plants and Chinese workers who knew how to grow them to British-ruled India, according to Cassie Liversidge in her book “Homegrown Tea, An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting and Blending Teas and Tisanes.” Tea is now grown commercially in many parts of the world.

Tea in history

Tea has played a central role in several important historical events such as the First Opium War and the American Revolution.

By the end of the 18th century, the use of tea in England was interwoven with opium; trade in both was essential to supporting the country’s fiscal and other policies. Revenue from tea helped finance the Napoleonic wars, for example. The British were growing opium poppies in India and selling the opium to China and importing Chinese tea to Britain.

At the time, tea was considered a rare and precious beverage. As such, it was expensive, and under the British class system, only the well-to-do could afford it.

Various types of tea fill a stall at an Istanbul market
Various types of tea fill a stall at an Istanbul market. Maks Karochkin [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The Chinese rebelled against addiction and other problems that opium caused, but they were defeated by the British in the First Opium War (1839-42), ceding Hong Kong as a trading base to British merchants in the process.

With tea for opium no longer a viable option, Great Britain set up large-scale tea production in India and Ceylon through the government-controlled East India Co. The period marked a turning point in global tea trade and consumption as tea became increasingly plentiful and was introduced to people around the world.

Tea also played a central role in one of the defining moments that led to the American Revolution.

On Dec. 16, 1773, demonstrators in Boston, some dressed as Native Americans, destroyed a shipment of tea from the East India Co. The demonstrators opposed the Tea Act because they believed that even though it imposed no new taxes, it was an attempt to gain support for unpopular taxes already in place. The protesters threw the tea into Boston Harbor in an act of defiance that was the final spark that ignited the American Revolution.

That moment in American history lives on today in the Tea Party political movement, which formed in 2009 as a result of what its adherents see as government overreach.

The birth of the tea bag

The popular custom of buying tea in tea bags came about quite by accident in 1908, according to Liversidge. She attributes the accident to the method a New York tea dealer named Thomas Sullivan used to send tea samples around the world.

Sullivan’s wife made silk bags to ship the samples, with the idea that people would remove the leaves from the bags to brew the tea, according to Liversidge. But, Liversidge writes in "Homegrown Tea," when the samples arrived, people thought they were supposed to brew the tea in the bags. Thus were tea bags introduced and accepted around the world.

In 2012, more than 65 percent of the tea brewed in the United States was prepared using tea bags, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Ready-to-drink and iced tea mix constitutes about one-fourth of all tea prepared in the U.S., with instant and loose tea accounting for the balance, according to the group. Instant tea is declining and loose tea is gaining in popularity, especially in specialty tea and coffee outlets.

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea
The custom of afternoon tea started during the Victorian era. Robin Zebrowski [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

"Anne, Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, began the custom of having afternoon tea in the early 1840s," food historian and author Francine Segan said.

"The duchess started having tea during that part of the day as a way to stave off light-headedness and hunger between lunch and dinner. She began asking for tea and small nibbles to be brought to her private quarters to share with the other ladies of court. Soon the trend began spreading in court, and even Queen Victoria herself began hosting afternoon tea events."

The term afternoon tea should not be confused with "high tea," Segan added.

"High tea was the English term for a simple supper on a high table — a dining room table," Segan explained.

Tea and health

After water, tea is considered one the best beverages for health, according to the Beverage Guidance Council, which was formed by a group of nutrition experts from across the United States. The group ranked beverages into six levels based on calories delivered, contribution to intake of energy and essential nutrients, and evidence for positive and negative effects on health.

Without additives, tea and coffee are calorie-free and include antioxidants, flavonoids and other biologically active substances that may be good for health. As many as three or four cups a day are considered a healthy portion. Green tea has even received attention as possibly protecting against heart disease. Studies have shown that some teas can also potentially reduce the risk of some cancers.

Tea and coffee contain caffeine, and the jury is still out on how much of either women should consume when pregnant. The verdict is in, though, on additives such as cream and sugar. They can turn a healthful drink into one that is not so.

Production and consumption of tea

loose tea leaves and a cup of tea
Consumption of tea has been steadily increasing. A Girl With Tea [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Tea is the only beverage commonly served iced or hot, anytime, anywhere, for any occasion, according to the Tea Association.

In 2012, according to the group, retail supermarket sales alone surpassed $2.25 billion in the United States. That figure represents a continuing trend of increased consumer tea purchases, which the group said has been increasing in away-from-home consumption by at least 10 percent annually during the past decade. Total sales have increased 16 percent during the past five years, according to the group.

Reading the tea leaves

And if you’re a superstitious type, ditch the tea bag and brew a cup with leaves that you can use to tell your fortune.

Tasseography, also known as tasseomancy or tassology, is a fortune-telling method that interprets the patterns tea leaves, coffee grounds or wine sediments leave in the bottom of a cup.

If nothing else, you’ll enjoy a flavorful beverage and possibly reap the benefits of one of the world’s most healthful drinks.