The day was bright and warm when Emperor Shennong and his companions stopped their journey to rest. It was summer, and it was hot, but Shennong was a dutiful and caring leader and he was not one to neglect the wellbeing of his subjects. So, he and his men sat on the side of a road leading to yet another distant region of China; another destination through which he could fulfil his self-imposed duty of visiting his people, a shepherd tending to his flock. Perhaps he sat in the shade of a tree, or by the side of a flowing river, but wherever he sat, he sat boiling a pot of water.
As an avid scientist, scholar, and herbalist Shennong was intelligent, and health conscious. He believed that boiled water was better for the body and would prevent poisoning from anything that may have contaminated the water. He decreed that all of his subjects should boil their water before drinking it, and sat on this sparkling sunlit day in 2737 BC doing the same. While he waited for his water to boil a gentle breeze picked up. The playful breeze eased a dried leaf off a nearby bush and sent the leaf spinning and tumbling directly towards Emperor Shennong. It landed right in his pot of boiling water. He could have removed the dried leaf from his water, but he didn’t. Something stopped him.
Many say it was the fragrance released from the leaf as it steeped in the hot water; some say it was the fact that he was a scientist, never one to turn away from a new discovery. Whatever the reason, Shennong left the dried leaf in his water, and as he took the first sip – tasting the delicate flavour – the idea of tea was born.
Chinese records claim that Emperor Shennong, along with discovering the medicinal attributes of hundreds of different herbs, was the first to discover and bring attention to the wonderful world of tea. But, although tea has its roots in China, it has a long and vast history that travels the world. A history that has changed lives, changed the world, and is still changing the world today.
Tea began in China as an herbal remedy. As Shennong was a devoted scholar and scientist he preformed many experiments and he found, so it is said, that tea could be used as a cure for over 200 illnesses and symptoms. But use of the tea leaf did not stop there, people began harvesting the green tea leaves to use in soups, mix with rice, eat with other vegetables and even make ointments for wounded or irritated skin. They were placed in boiled water and drank as well, but it wasn’t until 200 BC that people began to drink tea for pleasure, because the taste of this new beverage was enjoyed so much. Tea moved beyond the traditional views of medicinal use, and into the lives of people on a daily basis.
As tea became more popular amongst his people the Chinese Emperor began looking at the possibility of using tea as a commodity to trade with other countries. Around 138 BC the Chinese Emperor started sending out emissaries, targeting Asian destinations, and countries such as India and Ceylon. By around 200 or 300 AD tea had gained such favour and popularity that it had become a very valuable trading currency. To trade with nearby countries the tea leaves were steamed and then compressed into cake-like or brick shapes. They were packed and shipped, and stored until they were ready for use. Then the tea cakes would be baked, and broken down into small pieces, often combined with ginger or orange to add flavour. By this time the perfect conditions and countless hours needed to grow and prepare this beverage had hyped its status, tea was now a beverage fit for emperors.
By the 7th and 8th centuries the market for tea had grown to such an extent that China had planted their first tea plantations and was mass producing tea for trade. But before being shipped for trade the tea plants needed to first be grown and cared for; this job was lovingly and devotedly completed by monks. The Buddhist monasteries proved to be the perfect location for growing tea, often up high in the mountains, the climate was ideal: high altitudes, high humidity, and many patient hands to carefully pluck, steam, and compress the leaves into cakes or bricks ready for trade.
Around 900 AD a new style of preparing the leaves for drinking came about, rather than being steamed the leaves were dried, and then ground into a very fine powder that was mixed into boiling water. By 1300 AD dried leaves were the new rage. Replacing the old fashioned method of steaming the leaves and pressing them into cakes, the new dried leaves were being stored and shipped in large containers, cutting back on costs, labour, and time. But, according to the Chinese, this new method also cut back on flavour. With time, however, drying methods were improved and the traditional “tea” flavour they had come to know and love returned; dried loose leaf tea became as popular as sliced bread. China even began to trade abroad.
As Chinese tea became a hot commodity on the market, the Dutch decided to get in on the action. Around 1600 AD the Dutch began to sell tea to other countries from their trading base at Java, Indonesia, and most likely became the first middle-man in tea history. The Dutch soon had regular shipments going out to Europe: France, Portugal, Germany and Belgium being some of the regulars. Britain, although a country well known for its love of tea today, did not (as records indicate) begin drinking tea until 1658. But once tea reached Britain they jumped on the band wagon too. Although it took them over a decade to gain permission, the English East India Company finally built a trading post in Canton, China around 1684. This allowed direct shipment of tea from China to London, and trade quickly developed between Britain and China.
Tea was in. Even Russia fell in love with tea. They began trading furs for tea with China in 1689.
As quickly as the news of tea was spreading, in Europe another fad was beginning: the excitement of the New World, the undiscovered lands of North America. While Europeans began to pack their belongings into bags and their families into ships, tea was right there amongst their parcels, tucked in between the long johns and the petticoats. After all, what would a new world be without the comforts of home? The Atlantic Ocean became familiar territory as orders from the new land came rushing in. Tea became as popular and well loved in America as it was back home in Europe, so you can imagine the surprise and anger that arose when George III of England placed import taxes on tea being shipped to the Americas. This rash decision strained an already fragile relationship and led to an iconic act of history, the Boston Tea Party. In utter defiance of these new taxes the American colonies rebelled. The tea rebellion eventually led to war, and the fight for independence in the American Revolution. It also put a stop to tea drinking in America.
During the 1800’s Britain went to war again, this time against China. Britain, which had nothing China desired, began to look for other trade options. The property they owned in Bengal, India produced opium, and as Britain ran out of products to trade for tea, they turned to underhanded dealings. In a deviously secret scheme Britain began importing opium into China, merchandise that had been banned by the Chinese government. Through a middle man Britain was able to sell their opium, the money they received paid for their much loved tea and nobody was the wiser. The Chinese government eventually put an end to Britain’s fun and seized all imported opium. Britain could no longer get their tea and so declared war on China, beginning another historic event, the Opium Wars.
Luckily for Britain, soon after their declaration of war on China, tea was found growing wild in India. Plantations began to be established there, with the first of them being placed in Assam in 1823. By 1838 Britain had found a new trading partner for tea, and once Britain was involved, plantations were built throughout India and tea started being commercially produced.
The tea industry had been set free from China, and now that the cat was out of the bag many other countries began experimenting with the tea plant. Camellia Sinensis seeds were purchased and shipped throughout the world, everyone wanted in. China, Indonesia and Japan were no longer the only countries that could produce tea.
As the industry and demand for tea expanded, shipping methods improved, literally. By the 1840’s a boat had been designed specifically to carry tea safely and quickly from the Eastern plantations to Europe. The Clippers. Often referred to as the “golden age of sailing,” the clippers combined speed with stability and security and have never been bested by another commercial sailing vessel. These boats were designed to skim along the waves rather than plough through them. With long, narrow hulls, three masts, and a multitude of sails these boats were built for speed, they removed 5 – 7 months off the journey from China, to Europe or North America.
Sadly, the “golden age of sailing” ended with the invention of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, and the Clippers were put to rest. An extremely long, somewhat narrow artificial “water bridge,” so to speak, the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The Canal shortened tea transportation times even more as it allowed ships to travel from Europe to Asia without having to chart around Africa. Unfortunately the clippers could not sail through the canal, and steamships – which were much slower but more reliable as they did not rely on the wind – replaced them.
Much as the clippers were replaced by the canal and steamships, loose leaf tea was about to be replaced by our current day concept of tea: bags. It happened as a mistake in the 1900’s, but it was a mistake that was bound to change the future of tea. An American man named Thomas Sullivan, apparently a man with expensive tastes, was known to ship tea samples to his customers in tiny silk bags. One of his customers misunderstood the purpose of the silk sack, and put the entire thing in their pot of water rather than removing the leaves as intended. To Mr. Sullivan’s surprise, many orders for his tea came in, all requesting bagged tea. It proved to be a much quicker, and simpler method of removing the steeped tea leaves. A new trend had begun. In the 1920’s gauze replaced silk, and in the 1930’s the heat-sealed paper bags that we know today were patented by a man named William Hermanson. Britain did not catch on until 1960 but, once Britain caught the tea bag bug sales rose exponentially, and the tea bag was here to stay.
Just as tea has helped shaped history, it continues to wind its story through the present.
1750 – Tea travels to the Azores* islands as an ornamental plant.
1812 – Tea moves to Brazil in a mass planting of 6000 bushes at the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. Apparently the plants were a gift for the King of Brazil, Dom Joao VI, from the Emperor of China.
1824 – Tea travels to Australia where bushes were planted at Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens.
1840 – Bangladesh, India, begins to cultivate tea.
1878 – Azores develops tea plantations and factories to produce tea commercially in Europe. the tea production goes into a major decline. 1888 – The end of the slave trade in Brazil also marked the end of tea production, with no workers to harvest and manufacture
1914 – Cameroon, Africa, begins to commercially produce tea from tea grown on the fertile slopes of Mount Cameroon. At this point tea is not yet an essential crop as palm oil, rubber, and bananas are all in production.
1920 – In Brazil the tea industry is resuscitated when Japanese immigrants smuggle tea seeds from India into Brazil and plant them.
1928 – The first tea from Kenya was sold in London and today the country ranks third in production.
1940 – Major plantations had been set up in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
1950 – In Cameroon, Africa, tea is rising as an important crop that brings in a lot of money. 1951 – Tea cultivation starts in Argentina as a development of the production of yerba mate a herbal infusion made from leaves of llex Paraguayensis tree.
1960 – Bangladesh moves from the traditional method of harvesting tea (by hand) to the more modern method of CTC – using machinery to crush, tear, and curl the leaves. While in Australia commercial production starts to grow as new plantations are developed on Australia’s mountains.
1962 – In Ecuador the first tea plantation is developed and named Te Sangay, after a nearby volcano. At the edge of the Amazon Jungle, 1000 meters above sea level, the plantation has ideal growing conditions, and practically produces “tropical” tea. The tea is manufactured by CTC methods, grown mostly for blending, and tea bag use. It is shipped mainly to the USA, and Latin America, but has brought money to a country that doesn’t see much
1968 – In Cameroon, Africa, new plantations are developed on the mountain and tea production is increased.
*The Azores, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal, is made up of nine volcanic islands that are located in the Atlantic Ocean and is the only part of Europe where tea can be produced. The Azores island of San Miguel (or Sao Miguel) was first introduced to tea as an ornamental plant in 1750, but in 1878 Azores hired two Chinese nationals to develop a tea industry, and Azores has been producing tea commercially since then. 14 factories were created, but only two are in operation. Azores produces three grades of black tea, and one green tea.