Whether it’s black or green, iced or hot, tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world. As of 2019, 80% of Americans had some form of tea in their homes (1). Likewise, more than 159 million Americans drink it each day (2).
And yet, despite the popularity of tea, not everyone knows where it originates. As tea has a long and eventful history, however, its story is worth taking the time to learn.
中国古代 (Ancient China)
While Americans, English, and many other Westerners rely on a hot (or cold) cup of tea to start their day, tea originated in ancient China thousands of years ago.
According to legend, in 2737 BC, a Chinese Emperor named Shennong was drinking hot water under a tree. As a gust of wind blew, a couple of leaves fell from the tree and landed in his cup. The emperor then took a sip and realized how enjoyable the brew was to drink. From that point on, he began drinking it regularly. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, so Shennong’s newly discover drink was tea.
While the story of Shennong may be a legend, archaeologists have found cases of tea in China from as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). However, at that time, tea wasn’t popular throughout the country. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) when tea became the Chinese drink of choice.
After spreading to Japan and other parts of Asia, tea remained exclusively Asian until well into the 16th century. Around that time, European explorers in the Indian Ocean first began mentioning tea, and presumably, drinking it. Most of the earliest Western mentions of teas came from Portuguese missionaries and traders who lived in China and other East Asian countries.
While some Europeans may have brought a case or two back to their native countries, it was the Dutch who first popularized commercial tea imports to Europe. Around the end of the 16th century, they set up a trading post on the island of Java. From there, they began shipping tea back to Holland. It quickly became popular among wealthy European aristocrats.
Popularization in Great Britain
The English had always been suspicious of continental European trends, so tea took longer to arrive to the Isles. It wasn’t until the mid-17th century when coffee houses first began serving the new and exotic Chinese beverage.
For a time, coffee remained the English drink of choice. However, the wife of King Charles II was a Portuguese princess who happened to be a tea addict. Her love for the beverage caused it to become fashionable in the English court. From there, it spread to the wealthy aristocrats, and eventually, the entire country.
In 1674, the East India Company began importing tea to Great Britain. As the British Empire grew in the following centuries, the English love for tea grew and spread with it.
Today, many tea drinkers rely on tea bags to get their fix. Quick and convenient, tea bags were first invented in the United States in the 20th century. They gained popularity in 1970s England where, as tea did centuries before, they then spread across the world.
Appreciate and sip
Next time you drink a cup of tea, take a moment to appreciate the thousands of years of history that surround it. Few other foods or drinks have such a long and colorful history!