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History of Tea

It is hard to say how tea became the second most popular drink in the world after water.  But what we do know is that it has been around for thousands of years.  Most scholars will agree that tea was first drank in what is known as Southeast Asia probably China.  There are many legends that have formed on who and how tea became a drink.  Some of the most popular of these early legends are as follows:



In the Chinese legend of how tea was discovered.  The 2nd emperor, Shen Nung of china, around 2737 BC, always had his water boiled before drinking it to ensure it was clean.  While on a military campaign in a distant region of china he and his army stop for rest.  He ordered his servants to boil some water for him.  While his servants were boiling water a light breeze started to blow and a couple of dried leaves blew into his boiling water.  As these leaves sat in the boiling water they started to release a brownish color and a wonderful aroma.  This went unnoticed by the servants and they presented the drink to the empire. The emperor was intrigued by this and decided to taste this brew which he found to be delicious and refreshing.  It is said that these leaves were from a wild tea tree; this led to the drink we know as (Chi) or tea.


India’s legend is based in Buddhism.  The legend goes that Prince Dharma was touched by Buddha’s divine grace and was called to preach the teachings of Buddha in China for the next nine years.  In order to make himself worthy for this mission, he vowed that he would not sleep during his journey.  The legend states that towards the end of the third year he was overcome by drowsiness and was about to fall asleep.  He was determined to keep his vow and started looking around for something to chew on to help wake him up.  By chance he plucked a few leaves from a wild plant and began to chew them. Buddha had sent him to a wild tea plant.  Prince Dharma found that the stimulating qualities of tea immediately awakened him.   Prince Dharma became alert and attributed the new strength he found to stay awake to the leaves he was chewing.  He continued to chew these leaves over the next six years while he completed his apostolic mission.


The legend of the beginnings of tea in Japan is based on Prince Bodhi Dharma and spreading the teaching of Buddha.  But in this version Prince Dharma after three years of traveling the country side is exhausted.  He stops to rest his body and pray.  While he is praying he falls asleep, upon awaking, digusted by his weakness and breaking his vow, he decides he must repent for his sin.  He decides that the only way he can be sure this will not happen again is to cut off his eyelids. So to repent for his sin he cuts his eyelids off and throws them to the ground. He continues on his mission to spread the teaching of Buddha. Several years later, his travels have him passing the same spot.  To his surprise he finds that where he through his eyelids there are bushes growing. He believes that his eyelids had given birth to these bushes since he had never seen anything like them before. He decides to try the leaves of this bush which he discovers has the property of keeping a person awake.  Prince Dharma tells all the people he meets after that around his discovery.  The people see this as a sign from Buddha and began to cultivate these plants.  From then on every where he travels he tells the people of this story and they too begin to cultivate these plants. Over time these plants come to be known as tea.

Tea in recorded History

Tea is recorded as early as 350 AD in Chinese historical records as Erh Ya.   Some where between 400-600 AD demand for tea as a medicinal beverage rises in China and cultivation processes are developed.  This is also when we see tea drinkers adding flavors of onion, ginger, spices, and orange to their teas.  As early as 400 AD  you can find Chinese writings on tea, detailed infusion and preparation steps.

The Spread of Tea Cultivation Around the World

Tea has been spread around the world in order to meet the need of tea drinkers, some areas of the world have been much better at cultivating commercial tea plantations and gardens. Around 593AD Buddhist Monks journey from China to Japan and took tea with them. Japanese monks studying in China carried tea seeds and leaves back to Japan.  Between 618 -907AD  tea becomes a popular drink in china for both medical properties and its flavor.  Japanese monk Gyoki plants the first tea bushes in 49 Buddhist temple gardens, although tea is rare and expensive it is enjoyed by high priests and the aristocracy.  Although tea is grown in China and Japan it wasn’t until the 1700’s that tea plants were imported to other countries for mass production.  From about 1700’s until the early 1900’s tea plants are exported to different countries around the world to increase tea production to meet the demand of tea drinkers.  Attempts to cultivate tea in the United States started around 1744 when tea seeds were sent to the Trust Garden in Savannah, GA. The first recorded successful cultivation of the tea plant in the United States is recorded as growing on Skidaway Island near Savannah, GA in 1772.  Junius Smith succeeded in growing tea commercially in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1848 until his death in 1853. Dr. Alexis Forster oversaw the next short-lived attempt in Georgetown, South Carolina, from 1874 until his death in 1879.   In the 1830’s the first tea from imported Chinese tea plants to India is sold.  In 1840s and 50s first tea plants, imports from China and India, are cultivated on a trial basis in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).  In 1856 tea is planted in and about Darjeeling providence of India.   In the late 1800’s native Assam tea plants of India take over imported Chinese plants in India and its tea market booms. Tea was introduced in Hawaii in 1887 and was commercially grown until 1892 but never took root as a commercial industry.  In the early 1900’s tea cultivation continued to Sumatra, Indonesia followed by Kenya and parts of Africa.  As for America in 1863, the New York Times reported the discovery of tea plants growing natively in western Maryland and Pennsylvania.  This sparked an interest in cultivating the plants commercially. The US Government planted an experimental farm outside Summerville, South Carolina. They ran the program from 1884 until 1888. They concluded that it just wasn’t economically feasible to grow tea on a commercial bases.  In 1888 Dr. Charles Shepard established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation close to the government's farm. Dr. Shepard secured laborers for the fields by opening a school and making tea-picking part of its curriculum, essentially ensuring a force of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise obtain. Pinehurst produced award winning teas until Dr. Shepard's death in 1915. The garden closed after Shepard's death and Pinehurst lay unattended until 1963.  In 1963, The Lipton Tea Company, worried about the instability of the third world countries that produce tea, paid to have the surviving tea plants at Pinehurst moved to a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island. Lipton operated an experimental tea farm until it was sold in 1987 to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall, who converted the experimental farm into a working tea garden. This became the Charleston Tea Plantation. In order to find a way to reduce cost and be competitive they had to come up with way to pick tea without a large work force. They have developed a tea picking machine which is a hybrid cotton picker/tobacco harvester modified to harvest from the upper parts of the plants without injuring them.  In 2003 Bigelow Tea Company became a partner in the Charleston Tea Plantation.  In 2000 horticulturist Francis Zee found a strain of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, that can flourish in the tropical climate and volcanic soil of Hawaii. A new joint study of commercially growing tea in Hawaii was started by University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In 2003 Hawaii had an estimated 5 acres of land producing tea but by 2005 that number jumped to roughly 80 acres.  Tea production in Hawaii is expected to grow in the future.  In 2004, the Hawaii Tea Society was formed from about 40 members, many of who had started backyard tea farms, to promote tea grown in Hawaii.  The state of Washington as of 2010 has a commercial tea farm approximately 5 acres in size.


Ancient Tea Forrest:

It is said that in the rain forest on the hills of the Sichan and Yunnan providences of China is the home to wild tea trees; some of which are over 2700 years old.  These trees are still living and growing older every day.  So no one knows how long they will live if left to grow wildly.  These wild tea trees are protected by the Chinese government, although no one is suppose to climb these trees to harvest their leaves, tea poachers still try to climb them and cut branches from the top of these trees.

Although tea will grow into trees, cultivated tea fields are kept as bushes to allow the tea to be harvested since only the tops of the tea plant are used for producing tea.  It takes tea plants 5 years to mature to the point that they will produce tea.  Once a field starts producing it will continue to produce a crop of tea every 14 to 21 days as long as conditions are right.  These planted tea fields will last hundreds of years.  Currently there are cultivated Tea fields that date back over 600 years which are still producing tea to the same high quality as a new field that was planted only 5 years ago.  This is possible because the tea plant is a naturally long living plant that produces a natural insect repellent and is resistant to fungii.   This makes tea one of the most earth friendly crops in the world since the field does not need to be sprayed for bugs or fungus and as a by product it produces oxygen.


Tea Parties and Ceremonies

During the Sung Dynasty 960 AD to 1289 AD elegant teahouses and teacups carefully crafted from porcelain and pottery start to appear.   Drinking powdered and frothed tea or tea scented with flowers is widespread in China while earlier flavorings fall by the wayside.  From the temples of the Zen Buddhism of China come tea-drinking temple rituals which spread to Japan.  During the reign of Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung (1101 -1125); he becomes tea obsessed and writes about the best tea-whisking methods and holds tea-tasting tournaments in the court. This leads to teahouses in garden settings popping up around China.  Around 1211 Japanese Buddhist abbot Eisai writes the first Japanese tea book Kitcha-Yojoki (Book of Tea Sanitation).  Through out the 1400s until the late1500’s Japanese tea ceremony emerges. The first Japanese tea ceremony is credited to a Zen priest named Murata Shuko, this ceremony is called Cha-no-yu, meaning "hot water tea" and celebrates the mundane aspects of everyday life.  Tea ceremonies develop into an art form and almost a religion.  In the late 1500’s Japanese tea master Sen-no Rikyu opens the first independent teahouse and evolves the tea ceremony into its simple and aesthetic ritual. During this ceremony, one takes a garden path into a portico, enters upon hearing the host’s gong, washes in a special room, and then enters a small tearoom that holds a painting or flower arrangement to gaze upon. The tea master uses special utensils to whisk the intense powdered tea. Tea drinkers enjoy the art or flowers and then smell and slurp from a shared tea bowl.  

Europeans start having tea parties in the early 1600’s.  Wealthy Dutch merchant’s wives start serving tea at parties. In the 1630’s tea catches on in the Dutch court. By the 1650’s tea parties become quite trendy among women across the social classes.  As these parties popularity grow the Dutch introduce several teas and tea traditions to New Amsterdam, which later becomes New York.

While the Dutch are enjoying tea the Russian Czar Alexis in 1618 refuses a gift of many chests of tea from the Chinese ambassadors calling them useless. By the mid 1730’s Russian tea-drinking customs emerge, which entail using tea concentrate, adding hot water, topping it with a lemon, and drinking it through a lump of sugar held between the teeth.

England does not embrace tea until 1662 when Charles II marries Catherine Braganza of Portugal, who is in love with tea.  It is said that she makes tea popular that alcohol consumption declines. By 1664 the English East India Company brings the gift of tea to the British king and queen.

By the early 1800’s tea was showing up at parties as punches, cold green tea punches, that were heavily spiked with liquor, were popularized. These tea punches also went by names such as Regent's Punch, named after George IV, the English prince regent between 1811 until 1820.   In mid 1800’s around 1840, Anna the Duchess of Bedford introduces afternoon tea, which becomes a lasting English ritual.

Other Fun Facts about Tea
In 1666 tea prices in Holland drop to $80-$100 per pound.

 In 1669 the English East India Company monopolizes British tea imports after convincing British government to ban Dutch imports of tea.

 The Massachusetts colony is known to drink black tea as early as 1670. But tea is not sold publicly until the 1690’s. By 1760 tea easily ranks as the most popular beverage in the American colonies.

Although Most historians give credit to Richard Blechynden, India Tea Commissioner and Director of the East Indian Pavilion, as being the creator of ice tea at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Cold tea recipes and punches can be found almost a hundred years earlier.  It was served at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, also called the Columbian Exposition, had a concessionaire that grossed over $2,000 selling iced tea and lemonade.

In 1908 Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea importer is accredited with inadvertently inventing tea bags when he sends tea to clients in small silk bags, and they mistakenly steep the bags whole and because there was no mess to clean up after the tea was steeped, the tea bag caught on quickly.

Taxes and Tea

First known taxes on tea are published in 780 AD when the Chinese government imposes a tax on tea.

In 1767 the Townshend Revenue Act passes British Parliament, imposing duty on tea and other goods imported into the British American colonies. A town meeting is held in Boston to protest the Townshend Revenue Act, which leads to an American boycott of British imports and a smuggling in of Dutch teas as well as fruit and herbal teas being developed in America.   In 1770 Parliament finally rescinds the Townshend Revenue Act, eliminating all import taxes except those on teas.  In 1773 colonists living in and around Boston stage the Boston Tea Party as a protest to the tea tax, colonists disguised as Native Americans board East India Company ships and unload hundreds of chests of tea into the harbor.  These “tea parties” are repeated in Philadelphia, New York, Maine, North Carolina, and Maryland through 1774 although they do not poor the tea into the bay.  Instead they seized the tea and resell it to help fund the American Revolution.  As result of the Boston Tea Party a furious British Parliament passes the Coercive Acts in response to the American “tea party” rebellions.  King George III agrees to the Boston Port Bill, which closes the Boston Harbor until the East India Company is reimbursed for its tea.  These bills continue as several British attempts to end the taxation protests which results in the American Revolution. By 1784 the English Parliament further reduces the British import taxes on tea in an effort to end the smuggling that accounts for the majority of the nation's tea imports.

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