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A History of Tea

Tea’s Noble Birth—True Serendipity

Tea’s birth story is infused with a blend of myth and fact and colored by ancient concepts of spirituality, and philosophy. According to ancient legend in China, the story of tea began in 2737 B.C. when the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong, a skilled ruler and scientist, accidentally discovered the tea. While boiling water in the garden, a leaf from an overhanging wild tea tree drifted into his pot. The Emperor enjoyed drinking the infused water with its unusual and delicious flavor. He felt invigorated and refreshed. As a scientist, this serendipitous event compelled him to further research the plant whereby he found tea to have medicinal properties. And so, the first cup of tea, generated by the mighty leaf, was created by accident.

Indian history attributes the discovery of tea to Prince Bodhi-Dharma, an Indian saint who founded the Japanese Zen school of Buddhism. In 520 A.D., he left India to preach Buddhism in China. To prove some Zen principles, he vowed to meditate for nine years. Towards the end of his meditation efforts he fell asleep. Upon awaking he was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids. A tea plant sprung up from where his bloody eyelids hit the ground to sanctify his sacrifice.

Traditional Tea Culture in China and Japan

Whatever the legend, tracing tea’s original roots proves difficult. It is probable that the tea plant originated in the region of southwest China, Tibet and Northern India. Chinese traders may have traveled throughout these regions often and encountered people chewing tea leaves. From these journeys, the Chinese learned tea’s use.

Early on, people primarily used tea for medicinal purposes. Not until the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), often referred to as the classic age of tea, did consumption become widespread and characterized as China’s national drink. An imposition of a government imposed tea tax further evidences the beverage’s growing popularity. During that time, compressed bricks of tea leaves were first softened by fire and then grated into boiling water.

A Buddhist monk, Lu Yu (733-804) composed the Ch’a Ching or Classic of Tea treatise. He described types of tea, uses and preparation and the benefits of drinking it. More importantly, he imbued the writings with a spiritual aesthetic that reflected Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian religious thought of the time. The tea ceremony served as a metaphor for expressing the harmony and simplicity that not only ordered but also streamed throughout the entire universe.

Later, in the Sung dynasty (960-1280 AD.), known as the romantic age of tea, poetry and artistic references to tea abounded. A precursor to the Japanese tea ceremony or Cha No Yu to come, the most popular method of preparation involved grinding delicate tea leaves into a green powder in a stone mill and whipping it into hot water with bamboo whisks.

During this period, Chinese culture significantly influenced and impacted art, politics and religion in the Far East. Consequently, around the early 9th century, a Japanese Buddhist monk, Saicho, is credited with introducing tea to Japan. While studying in China, Saicho became exposed to tea and brought back seeds to start growing at his monastery. Other monks over time followed suit, and soon small tea plantations sprouted up at secluded monasteries. However, due to the isolation, tea's popularity did not blossom until the thirteenth century.

At this time, like in China people only drank tea in powdered form. Inspired by Buddhist spiritual philosophy, this marks the origin of the Japanese Tea Ceremony or "Chanoyu".

The Modern Tea Steeping Custom Emerges

Not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was tea prepared by steeping leaves in water, like it is today. Instead of compressing tea leaves into bricks, the leaves were dried, rolled and then heated in iron woks. Brewing simply involved steeping leaves in hot water. The Chinese government further established a hold on tea trade by opening a Bureau of Tea and Horses. They introduced laws regulating interactions on the frontier, where people traded tea for horses. From 1644 to 1911, the Qing dynasty ruled China and eventually abolished duties on tea, a testament to how essential tea had become to everyday life and the economy.

In the 17th century, a Chinese monk traveling in Japan brought the new rolled form of tea that had replaced powdered tea in China. A tea merchant in Uji, Kyoto, Nagatani Soen invented a new Japanese method of steaming, drying and rolling green tea during the 18th century. This tea and style of processing became known as Sencha. The custom of drinking Sencha tea daily lives on today.

Tea Entices the West

Although Europeans first started importing tea in the 17th century, it appeared earlier in the West. Traders, missionaries and explorers traveling back and forth between Europe and the Orient became exposed to the budding tea traditions in China and Japan. Around the 9th century, references in Arab trade documents refer to the process of boiling bitter tea leaves. Later Marco Polo (1254-1324) alludes to tea in his travel writings about the East.

Tea finally arrived in the West during the 16th century - a Portuguese missionary is attributed with bringing tea to Europe while caravanning back and forth between Portugal and China.

Tea was not seriously traded though until Dutch merchants entered the picture. In 1610, the first shipments of Japanese and Chinese tea arrived in Europe via ships charted by the Dutch East India Company. Tea also flowed into Russia early on via camel trains that came from China on part of the famous Silk Road. The popularity of tea spread to cities including Amsterdam, Paris and London, however, its high price limited consumption to Europeans royal classes and aristocrats. Tea drinking, a novelty at the time, allowed the wealthy to partake in a bit of Eastern adventure during the age of exploration and discovery.

The Birth of an English Love Affair

The English did not gravitated towards tea immediately. Coffee remained the preferred drink in coffee houses frequented mainly by men. The tea fad caught on slowly with women who perceived it as a genteel drink. In 1657, the first shop to sell tea in England opened, run by Thomas Garraway. The shop sold tea imported by the Dutch. Tea’s popularity began to spread and consumption rose in London’s cafes and coffee houses.

The drink gained further legitimacy when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese royal, who adored tea and introduced the concept of tea time to the court. Soon thereafter, the British East India Trade Company (also known as the John Company), who was competing with the Dutch for tea trade, established their first foothold in the East by securing a tea factory in Macao.

A Tea Monopoly - The British East India Company

By the early 1700s, the British East India Company established via itself as the dominant trading power and would go on to monopolize the tea trade with China. Trading stations sprung up in India, including hubs in Bombay, Bengal and Madras. The Company, acting as an imperial arm of England would exercise significant political power in helping to create a wealthy and powerful British Empire. This included not only trading but also the right to annex land, direct troops and dictate British laws.
 
The British would exploit the tea trade for profit and political power over the next century. However, geo-political change involving new American colonies abroad and the French and Indian Wars in 1763 began to threaten the British East India Company’s privileged position. In addition, the Company would struggle burdened by financial mismanagement, corruption and growing tea smuggling operations.

Tea Plantations in India

Despite the Company’s dominance, interestingly enough, up until the mid 1800s, China remained the sole source of tea for Western demand. Looking to discover the tea growing secrets and to end their reliance on Chinese tea, the British Tea Committee sent Robert Fortune, an English botanist, on an undercover mission to China. Disguised as a Chinese merchant he traveled around the country learning about farming and processing techniques. Most importantly, he sent back tea samples and brought back Chinese tea experts who played an important role in enabling British tea planting and experimentation in India.
 
In around 1823, a British Army Major Robert Bruce stumbled upon indigenous tea bushes growing in the Northeast region of Assam, India. With this discovery, the British East India Company seized the opportunity to experiment with growing tea in not only Assam but in Darjeeling, a region in Northeastern India at the foot of the Himalayas. An East India Company employee, Dr. Campbell, first planted Darjeeling tea seeds in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling. The planting proved so successful that in 1847 the British government began developing tea estates in the area.
 
This marked the beginning of a new tea industry in India and an end to reliance on Chinese grown tea. With tea plantations springing up all over parts of India and the advent of the industrial revolution, the tea trade in India would flourish.

Tea in North America

Tea initially came to America in the mid 1600s via the Dutch who started a settlement in New Amsterdam, which after acquiring the colony, the English renamed it New York. A favorite of colonial women and wealthy colonists, a heavily taxed tea trade flourished between the colony and England. To bolster up the Company’s failing financial position, it had convinced the English Parliament to enact the Tea Act, which allowed them to ship tea duty-free directly to the colonists and profit by excluding the colonial merchants. The general notion of taxation without representation brewed great dissent among the colonists.
 
Political tensions came to a climax with the Boston Tea Party, as colonists protested England's high taxes by dressing as Native Americans and dumping tea into the water off East India Company's trading boats. This act provided an impetus for the American colonies fight for independence in 1776.
 
Although the American Revolution set back the Company, it managed to survive due to its immense size. But, when Richard Twining and thousands of independent tea merchants organized a campaign to reveal the Company’s corrupt practices and pressured the English government to end their monopoly, it would eventually crumble.

Clipper Ships and the American Tea Trade

American clipper ships began importing tea directly from China to America starting in the 1850s. In the wake of the Company’s downfall and the repeal of the Navigation Acts, which dictated that all tea must be shipped directly from England to colonist ports, clipper ships quickly became the preferred method for transporting tea. These graceful and sleek vessels with three masts easily outdated trading ships. Built for speed, the British and Americans raced clippers back and forth between China and England bringing the best teas for auction.

American Tea Inventions

During the 19th century, tea drinking played an important role in social life, from tea parties to afternoon tea in both England and America. New tea traditions began to develop in America as the beverage’s popularity grew. 
 
Iced Tea originated in 1904 at the Worlds Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. A tea merchant and plantation owner from abroad had intended to provide visitors with free hot tea samples. However, due to the unusually hot weather, it was not a big hit. To promote sales, he asked a nearby ice cream vendor for some ice. The American iced tea tradition was born when he dumped the ice into the hot brewed tea. Today, ice tea sales make up at least 80% of the entire U.S. tea market.
 
The original tea bags were handmade, hand stitched muslin or silk bags, much like Mighty Leaf’s handcrafted, artisan tea pouches. Patents for tea bags exist as early as 1903. However, Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant from New York is often credited with creating the first commercial tea bag concept.
 
Today, tea is the world’s most popular beverage after water. At Mighty Leaf we proudly carry on the ancient tea tradition, by packing our tea pouches with artisan blends of whole leaves, herbs and spices too big for ordinary tea bags, and sourcing only the finest single-estate teas.