Tea History

From China to the World

It is said that the Chinese discovered the magic in tea almost 5000 years ago. Its discovery is attributed to herbalist Shen Nong who is said to have first tasted the infusion when a few stray leaves drifted down into his cauldron of hot water from the overhanging branch of a wild tea tree. Having decided that the brew alleviated drowsiness, revived the body, and brought comfort and calm, it is thought that he encouraged the local people to drink tea as their everyday beverage. Manufacturing methods developed over the centuries and books were written giving instructions for planting, cultivating and pruning the bushes, and plucking and processing the harvested leaves.

From China, tea found its way into surrounding lands with traders who exchanged it for other necessary goods such as salt, iron goods, and horses, and with Buddhist monks from Japan, India, Burma and other nearby lands who visited China to study their religion. Then at the beginning of the 17th century, the East India companies of Portugal and Holland began to explore the South China Seas and to trade with China, and tea began to find its way into European cities. It was the Dutch who were responsible for introducing tea to London and, since it was very expensive at that time, this new herb was the luxury indulgence of the rich who purchased and drank it in small quantities. Through the 18th century, although tea continued to be a high-cost indulgence, less wealthy members of society also started to drink it and relied on cheaper supplies smuggled in from France and Holland. Tea gradually replaced alcohol at breakfast and provided refreshment and a little nourishment (especially when drunk with milk and sugar) to all who drank it.

As Britain’s relationship with China grew steadily more and more difficult - on account of the high cost of tea and the illicit trading of opium by England’s East India Company into China - the British started to consider growing their own tea. When the tea plant was found growing wild in the jungles of Assam in north east India, a country at that time governed by the British, experimental tea nurseries were established and the first black and green teas were manufactured by British pioneers. The first shipment of black Assam tea was shipped to London from Calcutta in 1838 and sold at the London tea auctions in January 1839. Other regions of India (Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Kangra, etc) were also developed as tea growing areas and in the 1870s, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) also became a major tea producer. By the 1880s and 90s, Britain was truly a nation of tea drinkers and as the demand for tea grew through the 20th century, tea production expanded in several East African countries, including Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Today, some 56 countries grow tea and consumption is steadily rising as consumers around the world recognize the powerful health benefits and the fascinating ability of the enchanting and miraculous tea plant to deliver a little magic into our lives.