History of Tea
Tea is an ancient drink, and people have been drinking it for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, there are some legends about its origins. According to one tale, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong, who had also developed agriculture and medicine, discovered tea in 2737 BCE.
Archaeologists have tracked tea’s origins to China’s Yunnan province during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC). In 2016, they found the earliest known physical evidence of tea-drinking when they found tea leaves in the tomb of Emperor Jing, who had reigned during the 2nd century BC.
Over the centuries, tea slowly spread through China. During the Sui Dynasty (589 – 618 CE), Buddhist monks brought tea to Japan. Emperor Saga, who ruled during the early 9th century, encouraged the cultivation of tea plants
Lu Yu (733 – 804), who was known as the “Sage of Tea,” wrote “The Classic of Tea,” which is the world’s first known book about growing, producing, and drinking tea. At the time, the Chinese compressed tea into blocks called “tea bricks” for storage. People also used tea bricks as a currency, particularly if they lived in remote areas.
During the Song Dynasty (969 – 1279), the Chinese developed new ways of processing tea. For example, they began keeping tea is a loose-leaf form similar to that of modern teas. They also developed powdered teas.
Tea had made its way to the Middle East by the 9th century CE. Researchers have found Arab trade documents from that time that describe tea. The Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324), who traveled throughout Asia, described tea in his book about his travels.
Tea, however, didn’t really become part of European culture until the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company, which was founded in 1602, began importing tea from China and Japan. By 1636, tea had made its way to France. The Chinese also began selling tea to the Russians in the late 17th century.
The English were surprisingly slow to adopt tea-drinking. Coffee was the beverage of choice, and men often went to coffeehouses. Women, on the other hand, liked tea, and Thomas Garroway opened the first shop to sell tea in 1657. King Charles II (1630 – 1685) took Catherine of Braganza as his queen, and she introduced the idea of tea time to the English court.
By the start of the 18th century, the British East India Company, a competitor of the Dutch East India Company, had become the dominant trading power in Europe – but China was still the primary source of tea. Determined to break the Chinese monopoly on the tea trade, the Company brought tea plants to India, which was then a British colony. In 1823, Major Robert Bruce found native tea plants growing in Assam. British tea companies experimented with the plants and eventually developed Assam and Darjeeling tea.
The American colonies also began drinking tea in the middle of the 17th century. The United States began importing tea directly from China as the British East India Company declined. One of the American tea companies was the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, which was founded in 1859. It eventually became the supermarket chain A & P and survived as such until 2015. The early 20th century saw the development of both iced tea and modern tea bags.