Tea is derived from the Camellia sinensis plant and is today the second most consumed beverage in the world after water. With a history of over 5000 years, this wonderful plant offers a variety of teas, mastered over centuries by tea masters who bring out its finest tastes and characteristics.
Legends on the Origins of Tea
Tea is said to have originated almost 5000 years ago in China. The most popular legend is that of Emperor Shen Nung, who was a learned man and considered a doctor of herbal medicine who made a chance discovery. He used to boil his water for drinking and one day when he tasted some boiled water, he was pleasantly surprised by a new taste and saw that the leaves of a nearby tree had fallen into the boiling water. This is said to have been the first discovery of tea.
The first authentic account of tea manufacture was recorded by Lu Yu about 780 AD. There are stories of how there was a special type of tea drunk only by the Emperor and his court which was harvested from wild tea trees which were so tall that the leaves could only be picked by monkeys.
Tea Travels from China to the World
China became a tea exporter during the 8th century and first exported via porters carrying tea on camels to neighboring Tibet and Mongolia.
By the latter part of the 17th century China was exporting to Russia along the route taken by the tea caravans. These consisted 200 to 300 camels, each laden with four chests of tea. They travelled from China’s West border, through the Gobi Desert and passed through Ulan Bator on to Irkutsk. A round journey took about 3 years to complete and covered about 800 miles.
Tea seeds were first brought to Japan from China in the 9th century by visiting Buddhist monks. It is known that a Buddhist priest named Eisai brought tea plants to Japan in the 12th century. This led to the creation of a tea industry thereafter. Tea was first made by hand like in China but towards the 19th century, this changed with the introduction of new tea machinery.
The Dutch East India company first reported wild tea plants in Taiwan in 1645. However, it was only in the 19th century that tea cultivation began in Taiwan. China had restrictions on foreign trade and as a result so did Taiwan. However due to the first Opium war these restrictions were relaxed and thus trade began. In 1860 a Scotsman named John Dodd saw the potential of tea cultivation in Taiwan and pushed farmers to cultivate tea.
They started exporting Taiwan tea in 1869 and Formosan (Formosa is the old name for Taiwan) Oolong tea was well received.
Tea in Europe
The Dutch East India Company first carried tea from China in their merchant ships to Holland in 1610. It was transported to other European destinations and subsequently tea appeared in France and Germany.
Tea used to be shipped on slow merchant vessels that took over 6 months to sail from China to Europe but with the introduction of the Clipper ships the transit time was halved and this helped in propagating tea around the world.
The English East India Company brought tea directly to Britain around 1663. However, tea was first served in London Coffee Houses around the 1650s – the first being Garraways Coffee House.
Tea was considered a beverage of the nobility and upper classes. From China where it was enjoyed by Emperors and even in Europe, tea was prized as a drink of the discerning and wealthy. However, with the increasing demand for this beverage, the English East India Company (also known as the John Company) decided to check the viability of growing tea in British India and Ceylon. The production of these 2 countries also was shipped to England and other European ports.
The Birth of the Indian and Ceylon Tea Industries
An important part of the British colonial enterprise was the search for plants and seeds with commercial importance. These were then spread to the colonies and planted on a commercial basis – eg. rubber and cacao from South America and tea from China.
The discovery of tea plants growing in Assam in the 19th century, helped with the establishment of the tea plantation industry in India. Chinese artisans who were skilled in the cultivation of tea were brought to Assam by the British to teach them about making tea.
Today India is renowned for its Assam and Darjeeling teas which grow at high altitudes at the base of the Himalaya mountain range.
Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon, was a coffee growing country till a coffee blight destroyed all the coffee plantations. In 1867, James Taylor, a Scottish planter was given some Assam tea seeds from India to experiment on his estate called Loolecondera. He cultivated 20 acres of tea and manufactured it according to the orthodox process which he learned from Assam tea planters and his experiment was an immediate success. When the coffee blight destroyed the coffee plantations in 1869, all coffee areas were replaced with tea and today James Taylor is considered the father of Ceylon Tea.
Today Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka are known for their wide variety from such a small geographical region. The 3 main tea growing elevations – low grown, mid grown and high grown – provide teas of varying tastes and characters.
Another factor that made Ceylon tea famous are its Seasonal teas. There are two main seasons – the Dimbula season in February and March which is what made Ceylon tea famous and the Uva season in July and August.
Tea was introduced to Nepal by Colonel Gajraj Singh Thapa in 1873. He was the Governor General of the East of Nepal and after seeing the tea plantations of Darjeeling and enjoying the pleasant drink that they offered, he decided to cultivate tea in Nepal.
Tea Around the World
Tea is grown in many parts of the world today including Asia, Africa, and South America. Today the largest tea producer in the world is China, followed by India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. The global tea production is around 6 million metric tons, of which 70% is consumed in the producing countries and 30% is exported around the world. The highest per capita tea drinking nation is Turkey, followed by Ireland, England, Iran and Russia. The beverage discovered 5000 years ago in China is today consumed and loved by everyone around the world, making it a truly a global beverage.