Tea Time: The History of Tea

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Andy Meddick

Part 1, of a 2-part column. Next week I cover the different types of tea and how tea is made.

I’m from Britain where there is a rich history of tea as a national drink. Any commercial crop, grown on a large-scale has extensive geo-political, environmental, health, cultural, and economic affects. I am determined to ‘do’ tea well at G4U Market!   

Tea can be traced to pre-historic times in China’s Yunnan province. Legend says Emperor Shen Nung popularized tea as a beverage 5000 years ago, transitioning tea from a food commodity into Chinese medicine. During the Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 906 CE) tea became China’s national drink. As its consumption grew, China’s dynasties  improved tea production and distribution. Buddhist priests carried tea seeds to Japan, beginning a tea culture based on powdered tea. Buddhist priests also carried tea to India, where the Hindus embraced it and where the climate was very favorable to its cultivation. The Arabs were reputed to have brought tea to Europe via the Venetians circa 1559. However, it is the Portuguese and Dutch who claim the credit for bringing tea to Europe.

The Russian Empire shared an unofficial border with China, along which, beginning in 1618, merchants likely traded tea. By 1689 the Trade Treaty of Newchinsk established a common border between Russia and China and trade flowed freely. The Russians favor strong tea, highly sweetened with sugar, honey, or jam.

The first samples of tea reached England around 1652. England, however, was the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes, due in part to the unsteady ascension to the throne of the Stuarts following the Tudors, and the Cromwellian Civil War.

British trading companies commercialized tea, improving the cultivation and distribution. Tea quickly replaced ale as the national drink since lowered taxes allowed the entire population access. Britain became the dominant trading power in the 18th and 19th centuries with a large, growing portion of British trade including tea. In addition to a mercantile strategy, a formidable navy kept the sea-lanes open. Britain granted licenses to powerful trading companies like the John Company (founded in 1600 by Elizabeth I to promote Asian trade), and the East India Company.

World demand increased while China imposed export restrictions, stimulating British tea cultivation in northeast India, spreading to South India and Sri Lanka, where tea replaced coffee due to devastating loss of coffee to a fungus.

TEA (Continued from page 23)

The British developed “Tea Gardens” becoming hallmarks of fine hotels, with orchestral accompaniment. This encouraged classes and genders to mix, without social criticism.

In the USA, in 1650, the Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant brought tea to the American colonists in New Amsterdam (New York). Soon the colonists were drinking more tea than Britain. It was not until 1670 that English colonists in Boston became aware of tea, and it was not publicly available for sale until twenty years later. Tea Gardens first opened in New York City. By 1720 tea was a trade staple between the Colony and England.

Taxes, and the power to tax (particularly tea), kindled the American Revolution. By 1763, England had fought the French-Indian War, intended to free the colony from French influence and stabilize trade. Parliament felt that the colonists should shoulder the cost through taxes. Eager to get rid of a surplus of tea, the East India Company persuaded Parliament to levy a tax on English tea while still undercutting the price of smuggled Dutch tea. Rebellion had been simmering over taxes for some time, and the relationship between Britain and the colonies was deteriorating. On December 16, 1773, the Committee of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty prevented the English from unloading the tea shipment at Boston harbor. The situation erupted when 60 men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the tea ships, tossing 342 chests of tea, valued at £18,000 into Boston Bay. Leading citizens such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock were involved in this protest to the parliament’s Tea Act, known as “The Boston Tea Party.” Britain retaliated; closing the port. Boston was occupied by British troops. The colonial leaders met, revolution was declared.

In 1879, America began direct trade with China. America’s newer clipper ships forced the English to update their naval fleet to compete (becoming an issue in the 1812 War). By the mid 1800s, England and America lead a global clipper race. Each year, nations raced from China to bring the first tea to the London Tea Exchange, stimulating the profitable tea business. America refused to pay for tea with Opium (as the British John Company did), paying in gold bullion. America soon broke the English tea monopoly – with faster ships (setting sailing records that still stand for speed and distance) and paying in gold.

A tea plantation owner introduced iced tea to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, starting the fashion of drinking cold tea!

Americans introduced tea bags as a convenient way to serve tea, becoming instantly popular. Quickly, a tea company patented the tea bag. Thomas J. Lipton was responsible for designing a four-sided tea bag, dubbed the ‘flo-thru’ tea bag, which allowed tea to steep more quickly in the cup than the customary two-sided bag. Because the tea bag restricted the brewing space, lower grades of cheaper fannings were used and only one infusion was possible. Recently, tea companies have introduced new designs, such as pyramids and pop-out bags, which attach to the inside of your cup. Companies are also introducing unbleached, recycled paper bags, and fine muslin bags. Round bags are popular in Great Britain.

More on Tea next week …
Andy for Good For You Market.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, August 20, 2009.

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