The Global Story of Tea
Legends, traditions, & history of tea around the world.
According to Chinese legend, tea was born in 2727 BC, when the Emperor Shen Nong was purifying water in the shelter of a tea tree, and several leaves blew into the pot. The resulting brew, of superb fragrance, color and taste, made the emperor rejoice. Tea soon became a daily drink in Chinese culture.
In India, another legend tells the story of Prince Dharma, who left his homeland for China, to preach Buddhism. He vowed not to sleep during his 9–year mission. Toward the end of his third year, when he was overtaken by fatigue, he grabbed a few leaves of a tea shrub and chewed them up. They gave him the strength necessary to stay awake for the remaining 6 years of his mission.
The Japanese version of this story has the exhausted Bodi Dharma falling asleep, however. Upon awakening, he was so disgusted with himself, he tore off his eyelids, to ensure that they would never inadvertently close again. The place where he threw them on the ground produced enchanted (tea) shrubs with leaves having the power to keep eyelids open.
"Its liquor is like the sweetest dew from heaven," wrote Lu Yu in his classic work Ch’a Ching. The 8th century scholar produced the first authoritative book on tea, providing details on every aspect of tea growing and manufacture, as well as wisdom on the art of drinking tea.
Tea has been appreciated in China since 2000 BCE, first for medicinal purposes and later for its refreshing qualities. The Chinese have valued this unique beverage, using tea leaves for gift giving, courtship rituals, ancestor worship, and imperial tribute taxes.
Beginning in the 9th century, the enjoyment of tea spread to countries outside China, first to Japan and Korea, then to the Middle East. For centuries China was the world’s only tea–exporting country. Beginning in the 19th century, however, stiff competition arose as India and Ceylon began to grow tea. Today China remains one of the largest suppliers of quality teas. Chinese Tea
Tea came to Japan from China. It was first served in the Buddhist temples to monks, priests, and the ruling class who attended special services. These temple tea practices were gradually adapted to incorporate aspects of Japanese culture as they were passed on for several hundred years. Eventually these ceremonies were codified by the priest Sen Rikyu in the mid 1500s. Today he is regarded as the founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and three of its schools.
In cultured circles drinking tea became recognized and valued as a way to transcend the mundane without participating in the vulgarity of wine’s drunkenness. Tea was also valued for its health benefits as early as the 1100’s. The luxury of tea eventually became regarded as a necessity in Japanese daily life.
The Japanese drink a wide variety of green teas. Color and delicacy of taste are important, and brews of fine fragrance and greenish–golden hues are prevalent. Matcha is the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. In decreasing order of quality, we find Gyokuro, Sencha and Bancha, for everyday use. Japanese Tea
India is the largest tea exporter in the world. Most of its tea production is consumed at home. This gives us an idea of the magnitude of production, and of its economic impact on the country. While tea plants are indigenous to parts of northwestern India, tea was not a part of the Indian diet until after the British began producing tea there circa 1850.
Many varieties of tea are produced in India. Darjeeling, known as "the Champagne of teas" grows high in the foothills of the Himalayas. Only at this altitude and microclimate is it possible to produce a slow growth of leaves with such delicate, complex power. Assam teas, more malty and full–bodied, are grown in the Northeast of India. The Nilgiri highlands of southern India are known for fine, fragrant, fruity teas.
The Indian palate was not satisfied by the thin, sugared beverage. But by drawing from their own cultural pantry they created the tea drink that we know as chai – black tea simmered with milk, sugar, and rich flavorful spices such as cardamom, ginger, clove and cinnamon. Every housewife and chaiwallah has his or her own recipe for what they call masala chai, or spice tea. Indian Tea
Tea was brought from China to Russia by the "Great Tea Road". This was a part of the famous Silk Road. The journey was not easy, taking over sixteen months to complete 11,000 miles. The average caravan consisted of 200 to 300 camels. The cost of tea was initially prohibitive and available only to the wealthy. By the time of Peter the Great, the price had dropped. Hearty, warm, and sustaining, tea was ideally suited to Russian life.
Russians drink mostly black tea. It is often sweetened, either with sugar, fruits or jam. Tea in Russia is always served hot, even in hot weather or as a thirst–quencher. One cannot imagine Russian tea without the samovar, adopted in the 17th century and inspired by Mongol kettles used since the 13th century. The samovar is a combination bubbling hot water heater and teapot. In summer the samovar is placed on a table in the garden; in the winter, inside, with a long pipe for the smoke to escape directly into the chimney of the house.
Via the caravan routes, tea penetrated all Mongol lands, Muslim countries and Russia, long before reaching Europe. In all of the Arab countries, tea has for centuries been the most popular drink. Tea is central in relaxing together with family or when entertaining guests.
Regarded as indispensable for welcoming visitors in Morocco, tea is served in a very refined way. In the reception room, incense is burned and the host and guests refresh their hands with rose or orange blossom water as they take their seats. The tea served is hot mint tea, prepared with fresh mint and sugar added to green tea.
The Muslim countries are amongst the highest per capita consumers of tea in the world. This has created all–day tea–drinking traditions, from sipping tea from ornate glasses in the traditional teahouses to samovars central in almost every home and gathering place.
One of the first French tea connoisseurs was King Louis XIV, who drank tea regularly, initially for health reasons. It was prescribed to aid his digestion, and as a preventive measure to guard against gout and cardiac disorders. After the French revolution, it lost popularity and saw only modest use until the mid–19th century.
Popularity in France has now grown to the point that there is a tea for every occasion, mood, event or even time of day. Thousands of beautiful and creative, cultural and gastronomic tearooms thrive, particularly in urban areas. It’s the French pastry which makes "the French art of tea" unique. The French have elevated pastry–making to an art form, with its popularity established long before that of tea drinking. However, its near perfect complement to tea drinking is what gives French Tea true character.
Outside of China, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are the largest per capita consumers of tea in the world. Tea was introduced to the Western world from China via the famous Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, when coffee was the drink of choice of the working class and hot chocolate the preferred beverage of the upper classes.
"Tea time" soon became an important feature of British life. Traditionally, the upper classes serve a "low" or "afternoon" tea around 4:00 PM. The tradition stems from the early nineteenth century, when a typical day’s dining for English aristocracy consisted of two meals per day – a late breakfast and a late dinner. Middle and lower classes have a "high" tea later in the day, at 5:00 or 6:00. It is a more substantial meal – essentially, it’s dinner. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served. Low tea is served on tables which we would call "coffee tables." High tea is served on higher (working) tables.
The story of our nation’s independence begins with tea. At the celebrated Boston Tea Party of 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped into the harbor in protest over high taxes on the tea being re–exported from Britain to the American colonies. In our formative years, we were a green tea–consuming culture. Until WWII, tea was the most widely consumed hot beverage in the United States.
Most notably, the US has made its contribution to global tea culture by popularizing iced tea. It was first introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A group of tea producers from India had set up a booth to promote their black teas. The sweltering summer heat and humidity prompted them to serve the tea over ice, just to get people to try it. In the 100 years since then, consumption of iced tea in the US has grown to over 40 billion cups per year.
In recent years, demand for specialty premium teas in North America has risen dramatically. New tea shops and tea houses are opening weekly, making quality tea, innovative tea drinks and tea-related products readily accessible to many Americans.
The diverse tea–drinking rituals and histories remind us that tea is much more worldly than people sometimes think. Without these cultural differences, we might not think of tea as more than something to keep us warm or quench our thirst.
Health research and lifestyle trends have of late given tea new importance. Increased understanding of the role antioxidants play in the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease has positioned tea as the ideal health beverage. Tea is now thought of as a stylish, healthy alternative to coffee and soda. It is fat and calorie–free, natural and untainted by additives. Manufacturers of cosmetics, perfumes and skin–care products are also developing new products that integrate the benefits and pleasures of tea.
The ideal is to combine the practicalities of the drink with the beauty of unique and inventive serving and use methods. In doing so, we not only pay tribute to this age–old beverage, but enlighten and hopefully enliven those who consume it.