The History of Tea

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Sometimes over 3000 years ago, somewhere in Southwestern China, a leaf from the Camellia sinensis plant may have accidentally found its way into a pot of boiling water. 

Noticing that the leaf had turned the water a different color, some person unknown to history drank the concoction and found that it was good. 

That was the start of something which is today a globe-spanning multi-billion dollar industry that millions of people indulge in every day.

Learn more about tea, its origins, and how it spread around the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origins of tea are shrouded in history. We don’t know who first discovered that the tea leaf could be used to make a beverage. 

The current best estimate is that tea probably originated in what is today the Yunnan province of China sometime around 3000 to 3500 years ago. One of the problems in dating the origins of tea in China has to do with the fact that the Chinese word for tea, Cha, only began being used in the 8th century. 

There is an ancient Chinese legend regarding the discovery of tea. The mythological Emperor Shennong was about to drink a cup of boiled water because he had made a decree that everyone in the kingdom had to boil water before drinking it. 

While his servants were preparing the water, a leaf from a bush landed in the water, which caused it to change color. The emperor tasted the water and found that it not only tasted good but also was invigorating.

The oldest archeological evidence we have of tea consumption comes from the tomb of the Emperor Jing of the Han Dynasty, who died in the year 141 BC. The tomb, found in Xi’an, China, found biomolecular markers of tea in ancient plant compounds found in the tomb.

Unambiguous references in Chinese text indicate tea drinking in the year 59 BC, but other texts make allusions to tea drinking going much earlier. The earliest consumption of tea was probably as a medicine rather than as a beverage. 

Before I go much further, I should probably explain exactly what tea is. 

Tea is a beverage made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This is the only plant that can make a true tea. Tea plants are found natively in the region along the border of what is today northern Myanmar and Southwestern China. 

Camellia sinensis would be considered a shrub or a bush, not a full-blown tree, although sometimes it is called a tea tree. The plant can grow in a wide variety of areas where there is ample sunlight, warm temperatures, and plenty of rainfall. Tea plants usually do best at higher elevations.

Tea drinking, for the most part, was only a practice in Southern China until about the 8th century, outside of Chinese emperors and other high-ranking officials. 

It was during the Tang Dynasty, around the 8th century, that the practice of tea drinking became widespread throughout China. 

The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu wrote the book Cha Jing, which translates to the Tea Classic, which is the earliest known work about the subject of tea. Written around the year 760, Lu Yu documents tea culture, including preparing, making, and growing tea.

During the Tang Dynasty, tea was usually made from tea bricks, which were tea leaves compressed into blocks or bricks. Binding agents such as flour or blood were often added so they would retain their shape. Tea bricks were a common form of currency throughout China at this time, and they were easier to transport than loose tea leaves.

During the Song Dynasty, tea consumption changed as powered tea became popularized. Instead of steaming tea leaves, which had been the method of preparation, they were now often roasted and then crushed into a powder. 

Just as tea spread throughout China, it also was taken to nearby countries. Tea was believed to have been brought to Japan in the 7th century by Buddhist monks, and the earliest evidence of tea in Korea was in the 7th century as well. However, it may have existed there much earlier. 

Tea drinking in Japan was originally something only consumed by Buddhist monks and eventually spread to the upper class in society. By the end of the 12th century, tea seeds were brought to Japan, and tea cultivation began in the country.

In the 14th century, tea competitions began where contestants would try to distinguish teas grown in different regions, similar to wine tastings today. 

In the 15th century, elaborate tea ceremonies were imported from China and given a unique Japanese interpretation. The founder of the Japanese tea ceremony is considered to be Sen no Riky?, and the tea ceremony served a central role in diplomacy and political life. 

After Riky? died, his children carried on the practice, and the three major Japanese schools of tea ceremonies today can all be traced back to his children. 

Tea was known outside of East Asia, but it wasn’t widely consumed beyond  the region. There is a reference to tea by 9th-century Arab traders who ventured to China and tasted it.

Also, by the 9th century, tea had reached Persia and Central Asia via the silk road, mostly via the exportation of tea bricks. 

Marco Polo mentioned tea in his writings in the 13th century, the first European to mention tea.

Despite the exportation of limited amounts of tea bricks, for all practical purposes, tea consumption was limited to East Asia. 

The thing that radically changed the tea industry was its discovery by European traders in the 16th century. The Portuguese established a trading post on the island of Macau in 1557, and tea became popular as it was brought over by many of the Chinese workers on the islands. 

In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company began importing small amounts of tea to the Netherlands. Tea became trendy amongst European royalty as the new thing, and it also found a place in coffeehouses in Europe. 

However, tea never really became the dominant drink in most European countries. Coffee always tended to be more popular, save for some brief periods when tea became trendy. There were tea rooms that did spring up, and tea wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t dominant. Russia did mostly embrace tea over coffee, but it was after Tsar Michael I first rejected tea in 1618 because he didn’t like it. 

However, there was one country that fully embraced tea: England. 

The popularity of tea in England is credited to the wife of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, from Portugal in 1662, although there is a record of tea being served at a coffee house in London five years earlier. 

Tea imports to England began rather small, with only two pounds of tea being recorded as imported in 1664, and those were just a gift for the king. 

However, the popularity of tea in England exploded. The British East India Company began importing tea from China, which at the time held a monopoly on tea production. 

Demand for tea in Britain exploded throughout the 18th century. By 1801, the amount of tea imported into Britain had reached 24 million pounds annually—a 12 million fold jump in imports over a period of 139 years. 

Tea played a role in the American Revolution when the British taxed American tea imports.

The Chinese monopoly on tea and the lack of desire by the Chinese for the importation of many Western products produced a huge trade deficit between Britain and China. To rectify this, Britain began importing optimum to China, which resulted in the first Opium War, which began in 1839. 

Eventually, in the mid-19th century, Britain sought to break the Chinese monopoly on tea and began cultivating tea in Northern India. 

This eventually led India on a path that made it the largest producer of tea in the world.

The British also brought tea production to other colonies they held around the world, which were suitable for growing it. The biggest tea-producing regions outside of India were Sri Lanka and Kenya. 

In the Americas, tea consumption in the United States decreased dramatically after the revolution, but tea was dominant in Canada due to British ties until the second world war when coffee overcame tea. 

Brazil, due to its ties with Portugal, became the biggest tea consumer in South America and was its largest tea producer as well. 

Despite being one of the largest tea producers in the world, tea in India wasn’t commonly consumed by Indians until after independence. Tea producers wanted to stimulate domestic demand and so began promoting tea consumption internally. 

Tea also became very popular across the Muslim world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, competing with coffee as a non-alcoholic beverage. Today half of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of per-capita tea consumption are predominantly Muslim countries. The biggest tea-consuming country is Turkey. 

China only ranks 21st. 

Today there are over 6 million metric tons of tea which is produced every year. The largest producing countries, by a wide margin, are China and India, followed by Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. 

The global tea industry is now estimated to be close to $100 billion dollars annually.

Tea has also gone well beyond its consumption as a hot beverage with steeped leaves. Ice tea and other sweetened tea-based drinks have become popular as soft drink alternatives. 

Before I end, I should address a question that many of you might have. Earlier, I said that there is only one species of plant, Camellia sinensis, that is a tea plant. (technically, there are two varietals of the same species, but for all practical purposes, there is one tea plant.)

You might be thinking that when you go to the store, you can find a wide variety of teas. There are entire shops that sell nothing but different types of teas. How can all of this come from one plant? 

That is an excellent question. 

For starters, anything called herbal tea isn’t really a tea. It doesn’t use tea leaves from a tea plant. It might be called a tea, but it really isn’t a true tea. It is simply prepared in a way similar to tea. It would be like roasting beans from a non-coffee plant and calling it coffee. 

Likewise, chamomile tea doesn’t come from a tea plant but rather comes from the chamomile flower. It tastes good, but it isn’t technically a tea. I had some fantastic chamomile tea when I stayed in a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum in Jordan. 

Beyond that, in the world of true teas, there is green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, and yellow tea. All of these different teas are due to how tea leaves are processed and how long tea leaves are allowed to oxidize. 

Tea leaf oxidization is nothing more than the natural process of reacting with oxygen, no different than what happens to fruit when you leave it out.

Green tea is made from minimally oxidized tea leaves, which preserves the natural green color of the tea leaves. 

Yellow tea is where the tea leaf is allowed to yellow before being consumed. 

White tea is where the leaf has wilted, but it is mostly unoxidized. 

Oolong tea is where the leaves are wilted and partially oxidized. 

Black tea is where the leaves are fully wilted and fully oxidized. The leaves are often so brittle that they are crushed into a powder. 

Beyond black tea, there is something known as Dark tea, where the leaves are allowed to ferment. 

The oxidization process can be stopped through the application of heat, which can be done via roasting, sun drying, baking, and even microwaving. 

Beyond the different methods of processing leaves, each region where tea is grown will result in different flavors due to the inputs that went into its creation. 

The end result is a wide variety of teas, all made from what is basically a single plant. 

Today tea is the largest manufactured beverage in the world, and its production equals that of all beverages combined, including coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol.

It all began thousands of years ago because some person probably had a leaf accidentally fall into their pot of water. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Brage Kopperdal over on Apple podcasts in Norway. They write:

The best

This podcast is the best thing I’ve ever heard. I’m only 12 years old and still love this podcast. Keep it going, Gary????

Takk skal du ha, Brage! I’m glad you enjoy the show. If you are getting this much out of the show at the age of 12, you will have a huge leg up over all the other kids in school. To be honest, you’ll probably have a leg up over most adults as well. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.