The History of Tea Part 1: How did tea get here?

Tea is a fascinating, world-changing, and of course, delicious subject. Its impact on and simultaneous expansion with the rise of the modern world seems to point to more than a mere correlation. The origin of tea in the ancient world is also linked undeniably with the religions that also spawned from the same areas. There are two main mythologies for the history of tea, based within the Eastern genesis of this delicious species, also known as camelia Sinensis. There are doubtless many more.

History of Tea

Confucianism’s acolytes chronicle a Chinese farmer, Shennong, who, inventing farming and medicine, decided his magnum opus would be an ode to the soul with our beloved brewable botanical. When in the protection of a camelia tree from the sun, one of those serendipitous gravitational miracles thus kickstarted a movement when a bud landed in his cup of boiling water and produced the first cup of tea. Because of the apparent destiny of the tea leaf splashing down so benevolently into that first cup, the Chinese myth captures a key part of the philosophy and worldview that brings this story to us. There is something powerful in ancestry, the fates, and nature’s tendency to come through in big ways.

In Buddhism, the origin is borne of self-rebuking rage redeemed. Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism, was said to have fallen asleep after a long meditative walk, whereupon he tore out his eyelashes in a fit of fury at the lack of discipline. The eyelashes found a new home in the soil to become the first tea plants. The notion relayed is that removal from the material world, even when seemingly negative, brings about enlightenment. Tea, a sort of drinkable dialectical spiritualism itself, is ubiquitously revered for its ironical synthesis of calming yet invigorating effects across origin stories.

History of Tea

In the history of tea, the far east is commonly recognized as the main source of the origin of the use and widespread cultivation of the tea plant. The word tea, is most likely based off a transliteration of the word ‘te’ from Malay, and possibly other southern coastal dialects of the Chinese sphere of influence.This accounts for the common use of ‘te’ starting words in languages linked to China via water. This is contrasted with the Mandarin word chá. Mandarin was spoken mainly in landlocked parts of China and this can be seen by noting the word for tea in countries tied more readily by land to China via the fabled silk road that linked the east to west. The spices associated with chai can thank the long cohabitation with the tea on long journeys upon camels’ backs for being an honorary member of accepted tea blending staples that we have come to know and love as chai.

The spread of ocean-going trade has had a huge impact on the history of tea. More specifically in the post-Spanish Armada world (that was dominated by the English ships), the mercantilistic, or state-sponsored corporate English formed the East India Company. Using silver at first to get tea, the English through this quasi-governmental institution developed an even stronger dominance along with tea commoditization to the world. The balance of trade, with regards to silver, finally caught up with the English and they got into the opium business which had been mostly grown in East India where they controlled the estates. Trading opium for tea was addicting both ways and “Opium” wars broke out. China’s connection to the west was closed off again and, with it, the bulk of the source of tea for the west.

History of Tea

English anticipation of a cutting off of Chinese tea led to the development of the Assam and Darjeeling provinces of West Bengal, in East India. Opium was replaced by tea as the main crop in the region. The plant was a different variation called Assamica. This tea was slightly more bitter, strong, and astringent. Assam tea was thusly born and, in 1839, and it became a nationalistic symbol of independence for England from the whims of the Chinese (or retribution, as the case may have been). East India became England’s private tea garden. The nationalistic sentiment forced what had been considered lower quality tea to go for much higher than previously held superior Chinese origins, and it became the robust base of the staples of English Breakfast Tea and Earl Grey. Our Front Porch Special tea pays special homage to this tradition of Assam’s bold flavor while linking it to a distinctly American sensibility.
Another Anglo-American pioneering of tea expansion came about when there was a coffee tree blight in Sri Lanka. Sir Thomas Lipton saw an opportunity to use the already developed estates to produce tea. At a higher elevation, the ‘Ceylon’ estate teas are more crisp and clean which allows our fruity black teas to shine with their less intrusive, but still delightful taste and texture. Sri Lankan tea remains a very prominent part of Piper and Leaf’s arsenal, especially as it relates to its fruity black teas. Lemonberry Blush, Monk’s Meditation, and Pom Pearadise are teas that show the abilities of Ceylon leaves to let the fruit lead the way while still maintaining a strong flavor.

As the English were developing the tea trade in south Asia in general, several developments staved off the widespread acceptance of green tea, or less oxidized and processed tea leaves. While this green tea, or ‘Hyson’ as it was known in the early 1700’s, was considered preferable and ideal, it was not known in the West that the green and black teas were from the same plant. It was also easier to counterfeit green tea with certain types of ash or dye to make black tea look similar to green tea. Also, the dyes were generally poisonous, often laced with arsenic. As a result, the Anglophone world came to avoid green teas. Even after quality control standards and dyes became a thing of the past, the tradition of English black teas was already established. Ye Olde habits ‘dye’ hard. The history of tea is filled with many stories of moments that the hinge of fate could have swung easily many ways.

Piper and Leaf usually sources green teas from Japan. Sencha green tea is almost always steamed to process it, as opposed to dried with heat or pan-fried as with Chinese Dragonwell. Unlike Dragonwell and Matcha (powdered green tea), Sencha is generally very clean and is shorn of the ‘umami’, or starchy note so prominent in the other green teas. The Sassyfras Strawberry is an example of an award-winning green tea by Piper and Leaf that includes Sencha.

How did tea get here? The Chinese invented it. The English took it global. But the history of tea continues…

For more reading
“The Art and Craft of Tea-an enthusiast’s guide to selecting, brewing, and serving tea”-Joseph Wesley Uhl

“A Social History of Tea: Tea’s Influence on Commerce, Culture & Community” -Jane Pettigrew

One thought on “The History of Tea Part 1: How did tea get here?

  1. Love it! 🙂

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