The story of tea begins like most things do: as part of a mystical legend. In 2737 B.C.E, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong discovered tea on accident. According to ancient tales, stray tea leaves drifted into the emperor’s boiling pot of water. And so began a centuries-long love affair with tea.
While legends abound, pinpointing the exact origin of tea is difficult. Most researchers believe the tea plant originated in the Yunnan province of China.
Additional evidence demonstrates that Tibet and Northern India may also have been home to native tea plants. While discovered in the B.C.E time period, it didn’t become a popular beverage until much later.
Tea finally gained widespread popularity under the Tang Dynasty, which ruled in 600 to 900 A.D. It was during this time that the tea ceremony was developed. The Tang rulers felt tea was such an important part of the culture that they declared it the national drink of China.
After its popularity soared in China, it was only natural that tea would make its mark outside the country’s borders as well. Visiting monks from Japan, including the famous Saichō, brought tea seeds back from China to Japan during the early 9th century. However, it would take more than 300 years before tea plantations became large enough to attract a true following in Japan.
In China, the tea leaves were typically brewed in hot water. The Japanese chose to instead grind the leaves into a powder for infusion. Known today as matcha green tea, it was prepared with a bamboo whisk known as a chasen and a large wide-brimmed bowl called a chawan. This tea drinking ceremony is known as the Japanese tea ceremony. It consists of brewing techniques, accessories, and presentation.
We have Japan to thank for the way we drink tea today. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, tea drinking consisted simply of taking fresh tea leaves and soaking them in water. The Ming Dynasty created the tea production process including harvesting, drying, rolling, and heating that is used today.
Tea didn't become popular in the west until the 17th century when global trade was established. The wide reaches of trade brought tea along the silk road to Russia and the Middle East. A Portuguese missionary brought tea back to Europe after completing work in China. The Dutch East India Company began delivering the first major shipments of tea from Asia in 1610.
While tea stated to make a splash in the west, it was still largely a luxury item. It was mainly restricted to aristocracy in large European cities such as Paris and London. The exotic origins of tea made it a sign that the drinker was of elite status.
It wasn’t for another 50 years that tea began to appear in local coffee houses across London. Thomas Garraway was the founder of the first successful British tea shop. He sold tea leaves imported by the Dutch East India Company.
As the demand for tea grew, the British East India Company established itself as a direct competitor to the Dutch East India Company. The company created tea plantations in Macau and India in order to counter the Chinese monopoly of tea.
Experts from China were brought over to India to teach the British and locals how to harvest and produce the beverage. By 1823, the Assam and Darjeeling regions of India were producing large quantities of tea. Tea estates were built and soon tea plants dominated the rolling hillsides.
Tea naturally made its way from Britain to the United States when it was a colony. Today, the tea industry has exponentially increased the available flavors and varieties. Tea no longer comes only from the leaves of one plant. There are infusions from spices and herbs, flowers and fruits—all because one day, thousands of years ago, a tea leaf fell into a pot of water.