An Extremely Brief History of Tea

Tea has a long and fascinating history and this section covers just a few of the highlights. We offer a selection of well written and highly recommended books that cover the various aspects of tea's history, if you would like to explore it further.

In the Beginning

Tea is an ancient beverage and one legend says that it was discovered in China around 2737 BC by Emperor Shen Nung. He is reportedly the second emperor during the early mythical years of what is now China and is considered the Father of Chinese Agriculture and the Father of Chinese Medicine. He studied plants, including tea, in order to identify their healthful properties and toxic effects. Official records from China's early history mention tea as a beverage and by the second century BC it was widely consumed throughout the territory of the Qin Dynasty. Tea became an integral part of Chinese society and culture and certain teas were used to pay tribute to the Chinese Emperors. Around 760 AD, Lu Yu wrote the Cha Qing or "Classic of Tea". This is the first book written about tea and details tea culture and customs of the time.

Tea Beyond China

Tea first appeared in Japanese records dating to 814 AD. It is believed that tea was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks from China sometime prior to this date. Tea was brought to Europe in the early 1600's by the Dutch. It was quite expensive – a pound of tea reportedly cost as much as the annual wage of a common laborer. It was, therefore, only enjoyed by the very wealthy and quickly became a symbol of status and wealth. Today we think of tea as being an integral part of British culture; however, tea did not immediately become popular in Britain when it was first introduced to Europe. In fact, it was not until the mid-1600's – about fifty years later – for tea to become popular in London. In the early 1800's, tea gardens were established in India, followed in the mid-1800's by the planting of tea gardens on the island of Ceylon, presently Sri Lanka.

Modern Tea Inventions

Here are the stories about how two of America's favorite tea inventions came to be:

  • Richard Blechynden is credited with "discovering" iced tea at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. However, Southern recipe books from the 1870's and an 1840's travelogue about Saint Petersburg, Russia indicate that the iced tea tradition is older.
  • Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant in New York, is said to have inadvertently created the teabag when he provided tea samples to his customers in silk sachets. His customers did not realize that the tea was supposed to be removed from the sachet because they threw the entire bundle into the pot. They liked the ease of use of the teabag, so they began requesting it when visiting Sullivan's shop.

Forms of Tea

The form of tea has undergone three identifiable transformations over the past several thousand years:

  • Brick Tea – For ease of transport, tea was initially pressed into bricks, which could be easily stacked or picked up if spilled.
  • Powdered or Whipped Tea – Sometime between 960 – 1279 AD (during the Song Dynasty) the powdered form of green tea was developed. Brick tea was ground into a powder, which was then combined with water in a shallow bowl and whipped. This form of tea still exists today as Japanese matcha.
  • Loose Leaf Tea – this form dates back to the end of the Song Dynasty because it was easier to produce and prepare than the other forms; however, the infusion the leaves created was quite bitter. A pan-firing process was discovered sometime during the Yuan Dynasty (1280 – 1368 AD) that altered the characteristics of the tea and improved the flavor.

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