We all LOVE a cup of tea. Its refreshing, revitalising, mild taste. It wakes us up in the morning, keeps us warm in the winter, cools us down in the summer, or simply keeps us company during a long day at work. You can always find a box, tin, matchbox or some kind of container with a tea in every household, all around the world. But where did this magic drink comes from? Who invented it, who cultivated it, who found its pleasing savour?
If we take a look at the legends and myths surrounding tea, they will take us back somewhere around 2700 BC, China, when mythical Shennong was the Emperor of those ancient lands. One day, while boiling a pot of plain water, a few leaves fell from a nearby tree and landed right into the Emperor’s drink. The steaming water changed its colour and, to Shennong’s surprise, gained a rather enjoyable flavour and refreshing properties.
Another well-known legend originated in India and talks about Prince Bodhi-Dharma, the founder of Zen school of Buddhism. While preaching his principles in China, he pledged to meditate for whole nine years, non-stop, without sleep. He did well but failed, and just near the end of the ninth year he fell asleep. When he woke up, he was so angry at himself and his weak body, he cut off his own eyelids and threw them onto the ground. His flesh took roots and from it sprang lavish tea bushes.
If we step away from the legends and myths, we will find that it is very hard to trace the birth of tea. We know that it originated somewhere in China and the earliest trace of tea could be found in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han, dating it back to the Han Dynasty as early as 2nd century BC. It is difficult to tell if back then tea was used within a mix of medical herb or drank on its own.
Tea found widespread popularity under the Tang Dynasty, in the middle of 8th century. The famous write Lu Yu wrote a book on the topic, describing how tea should be grown, processed and brewed. He standardized the whole procedure of the tea manufacturing and consumption, making it the most favourite beverage in China. An interesting fact that during those times tea bricks were used as currency and carried as much weight in far regions of China as gold coins.
Even though the tea story began in China, it quickly spread all over the world. In the 9th century, tea was brought over to Japan by a monk Saicho, and for a long time it was mainly cultivated by monasteries. Koreans drank tea and used it as an offering to ancestral god as early as 6th century. Caravans ran by Portuguese missionaries introduced tea to Europe in 1610, and soon enough the Dutch East India Company was hauling tea by a ship load. The Silk Road spread tea through the middle east and took it all the way to Russia.
But we cannot talk about tea without mentioning Britain, and the British love and admiration for tea. At first, tea was not a big hit in England, it was quite expensive and it took some time for people to warm up to it. That was when the East India Company came in, quickly seizing the booming trade and creating a monopoly on tea shipping. They brought it back home, and by the early and mid-1700s it started to appear in groceries and tea shops in London. The British preferred black tea over green, and made their own contribution to the way it was consumed by adding sugar and milk. By 1750s tea became the British national drink, and by 1801 more than 24 millions of pounds of tea a year were important into the British Empire.
Tea did a lot for the British, made them rich and powerful, and in return they spread it all over the world. They introduced it to India, export it all over Europe and took it all the way to the New World. In the United Stated tea had a troublesome history and party was the reason for the American Revolution. The British wanted to tax tea and the Americans in protest threw it into the ocean. Tea became the most popular drink in Turkey in the 20th century, pushing aside much loved Turkish coffee. Tea expanded to Africa and South America, to Australia and Iran. People took it and claimed it as their own, came up with new way of growing and consuming it.
These days we cannot imagine our world without tea, and the way we consume our tea is still changing and evolving. Now we have ice tea, flavoured tea, yellow tea, lemon tea, teabags and teapots of all shapes and sizes. We drink tea everyday, in the mornings, noons and evenings. As matter of fact, I am feeling like a cuppa right now.