Tea has been cultivated and enjoyed for centuries, and is currently experiencing a surge in popularity. Let’s look at the fascinating history of tea. 

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It is more popular than coffee, alcohol, and soft drinks combined. Although it is a calming, social drink, it has been the cause of wars and revolutions. It has unique chemical properties that affect human health, and plays a central role in cultures all over the globe. Let’s explore this extraordinary beverage. 

History of Tea

Today, “tea” can mean any herb or botanical brewed with hot water, but original tea comes only from the Camellia sinensis. This shrub is native to East Asia, on the borderlands between northern Myanmar and southwestern China. 

Tea leaves brewed with hot water have a bitter, astringent taste, and have naturally-occurring caffeine, so the beverage was originally a medicinal drink, dating back to the earliest history of the region. Archaeological evidence of tea drinking has been found in Han dynasty tombs dating back to the 2nd century BC, and many ancient Chinese texts refer to tea as medicine and as a luxury drink for kings and emperors. 

Introduction to Europe

The first European reference to tea was from Venetian geographer Giambattista Ramusio, who was introduced to tea in China in 1545, followed by Russians visiting Mongolia in 1567. The first shipment of tea from China to Europe was made by the Dutch East India Company in 1607. 

The Dutch enjoyed this new exotic drink, and it became fashionable among the upper classes in The Hague, who then introduced it to Germany, France, and to their colonies in North America. 

But nobody took to tea like the English. In the early to mid-1600s, it was mostly a novelty drink, imported for those who had a taste for it. Samuel Pepys mentions tasting tea in 1620. Catherine of Braganza popularized the drink in the English court of Charles II, and it was sold in coffee houses in London. However, for the next hundred years tea would remain too expensive for the middle classes, and not part of daily life in Britain. 

The Tea Wars

By the 1700s, tea smuggling was rampant. The British East India Company was required to sell exclusively in London, and paid a hefty tea tax to do so. British merchants would then transport the tea from London to the colonies in North America. The successive taxes and markups made tea an expensive proposition. Unless…

Unless British merchants violated the Navigation Acts and bought tea from the Dutch East India company instead, an act that the English called “smuggling.” Indeed, many British and American colonists thought that English tea tasted better, but chose to smuggle tea as an act of protest against tea taxes. 

By 1770, resistance and protest against high tea taxes led many English people to begin to avoid tea altogether, while in the colonies more than 85% of all tea purchased was smuggled from the Dutch. This jeopardized the revenue of the British East India Company, which had warehouses full of surplus tea. In 1773, the Tea Act allowed the British East India Company to transport and sell teas directly to the American colonies without paying the export tax, which was meant to undercut the value of smuggled tea. It also may have been an attempt to get rebellious colonists to consent to the Townshend tea taxes. Famously, the colonists were having none of it. Secure in the knowledge that they had ready access to Dutch tea, they dumped an entire British tea shipment overboard in an event called the “Boston Tea Party.”

This act appalled the British, who quickly passed a number of acts called “The Intolerable Acts”, intended to punish radical colonists. These new laws only exacerbated tensions, leading to the American War of Independence. 

Did you think that was the only tea war? Goodness no. 

One hundred years earlier, in 1685, Qing Emperor Xuanye took the rather extraordinary action of banning foreign products from being imported or sold in China, insisting that all exports be paid for in silver. For European traders, accustomed to making profit by importing and exporting goods around the globe, paying cash for tea was an unwelcome expense. 

In an effort to circumvent the need to pay silver for tea, the British East India Company began importing opium into China. For centuries, opium had been considered a relatively harmless painkiller and aphrodisiac in China, and was not regulated. The Portuguese had discovered a market in China for opium as a recreational drug, and the British exploited it. 

The British East India Company developed a practice of purchasing tea in China, and then repaying merchants with opium smuggled into China from India. By 1729, more than 200 chests of opium were being smuggled into China every year, and opium addiction had become widespread and harmful. That year, the Yongzheng Emperor criminalized the drug, in a series of edicts that would go on for a century and have little effect on the problem.

In the meantime, British exports of opium into China had grew from about 15,000 kg in 1730 to 76,000 kg in 1793. By 1804, the British East India Company had reversed the direction of trade: now the deficit from the cost of tea was surpassed by the profit from selling opium. Now opium was not just leading to addiction and dissipation, it was draining the Chinese economy. 

In 1836, the British East India Company began cultivating tea in India, in an effort to break the Chinese monopoly. And in 1839 came the First Opium War. 

The First Opium War concluded with a British victory in 1842, and was sealed by the first of what the Chinese would come to call “The Unequal Treaties,” which gave Hong Kong to the British. The Second Opium War followed shortly after, in 1853, where China once again attempted to halt the opium trade, was once again defeated by European forces, and was forced to concede. The resulting treaty forced the legalization of the opium trade, among other trade and travel concessions to Europeans. 

Meanwhile, in 1856, the British launched Darjeeling tea, produced in India from seedlings smuggled from China. Due to the new source of tea and the new relationship with China, tea began to steadily increase in availability and lower in price, and became a daily fixture in the British home. 

Tea Today

Tea is enjoying a huge surge in popularity today. It has long been thought of as a soothing, calming beverage, boosted by its associations with charming British traditions and its reduced caffeine content. Tea never went out of style, but new Insta-worthy tea drinks have brought it into fashion. As traditional tea brands are seeing a lag on grocery store shelves, private label tea, tea franchises, and tea innovators are stepping into the spotlight. 

New tea brands are focusing on clean labels, with organic ingredients and transparent supply chains. Technologies like DNA barcoding allow teas to be identified and classified with over 99% accuracy, assuring authenticity and eliminating counterfeits. Drones equipped with “smart” AI-driven computer vision are being used to differentiate healthy plants from unhealthy ones, weeds from wanted cultivars, allowing surgical use of weed-removal techniques. Tea has the longest genome yet discovered in plants, and the most desired varietals are being cloned for their specific adaptations and characteristics. While it takes 20 or more years for cloned tea crops to enter full production, tea clones are now being cultivated specifically for Japan, Kenya, and an advanced Darjeeling. While it’s one of the most ancient beverages in the world, the latest technologies are being used to cultivate, package, and market tea.

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