History tells us that in 2737 BC the second Emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered tea when leaves from a nearby tree blew into his vessel of hot water.
Myth or not there is no doubting that tea has been drunk in China through the millennia and written records of this go back to 350 AD. Originally called ‘Erh Ya’, the consumption of tea rose for centuries and it was seen as medicinal. Early teas were often infused with ingredients like ginger to boost their medicinal benefits.
By 400 AD tea was called ‘Kuang Ya’ in the Chinese dictionary. Over the next 100 years tea spread to other countries lead by Turkey and Japan. By this time tea was recognised for its taste as well as its health benefits.
By the seventh century tea plantations were common and the term ‘Cha’ was used – which, of course, later became an expression used for a ‘cuppa’ particularly in Cockney London. Around this time, the first tea cakes (began to make an appearance).
By the Sung Dynasty from 960 AD onwards teahouses had become part of Chinese culture and were seen as elitist. However, when the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty arrived in 1206, tea lost its high society status and became the drink of the people.
By the 14th century the teas we know today were in existence — green, black, and oolong were all easily found in China. By the 16th century the preparation of tea ‘steeping’ had become a ceremony called Cha-no-yu based on the influence of Japanese tradition – lead by Zen Priest Murata Shuko.
As far back as the late 16th century Europeans were acknowledging the apparent life-lengthening properties of tea and ‘Chaa’ is mentioned in English by a travelling Dutchman.
By 1610 the Dutch East India Company was shipping tea to Europe with the Dutch and Germans amongst the first to tipple.
But it took till 1650 for the first tea to be sold in Britain when Garway’s Coffee House launched it as a health drink. Royalty took to tea when Charles II married the tea drinking Catherine Braganza of Portugal. Tea became so chic that alcohol consumption declined.
Tea was becoming big business and so the English East India Company convinced the government to ban Dutch imports of tea. Generally speaking, it was black tea until about 1680 when milk was popularly added.
By around 1700 tea drinking was thriving in the UK and Thomas Twining served tea in his Coffee House.
In 1773 Colonists disguised as native Americans board East India Company ships and unloaded hundreds of chests of tea into the harbour as a protest against British tax levies on tea. The ‘Boston Tea Party’ was the first of many such actions and, some say, it contributed to the dissatisfaction that lead to the American War of Independence.
Tea smuggling was rife in the late 1770s as the British Government levy import taxes on the 11 million pounds of tea brought into the UK. By the turn of the century, tea drinking multiplied by a factor of five.
Into the 19th Century where tea coming from India was very much pioneered by the British and the East India Company.
English Quaker John Horniman introduced the first retail tea in sealed, lead-lined packages in 1826. In 1833 the British Prime Minister Charles Grey passed an act to take away tea monopolies and a tea named after him.
By 1840 Ceylon was producing tea and soon after tea wholesaler Henry Charles Harrod used his ‘tea gains’ to buy a grocery store that, as history records, became one of the world’s most famous department stores. Even in the later parts of the 19th century most tea sold in Britain still came from China and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shortened the journey between the source and the UK.
In 1876 Thomas Lipton opened his first shop in Glasgow and within 15 years owned tea estates in Ceylon.
Into the 20th century and Englishman Richard Blechynden created iced tea during a heat wave at the St Louis World Fair. In 1908 New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan inadvertently invented tea bags when he sent tea to clients in small silk bags, and they mistakenly steeped the bags whole.