The History of Tea
The drink that changed the world
The first stirringsLegend has it that tea was invented – or discovered – by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC when some leaves blew into a pot of boiling water that his servant was preparing. What is certain is that containers for tea have been discovered in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) it was so popular that a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book devoted to tea, the Ch’a Ching (“Tea Classic”). A little time later, Japanese Buddhist monks who had visited China to study took the beverage back to their home country where it soon became an important part of their culture.
Infusing the rest of the world
Portuguese traders and missionaries were probably the first Europeans to try tea and to bring back samples. But it was the Dutch who were the first to ship it to Europe in quantity. Having established a trading post on Java, they shipped the first consignment from China to Holland via Java in 1606. Tea soon became the fashionable drink in Holland – and in other countries of continental western Europe – but its high price meant it remained a preserve of the rich.
Britain wakes up to tea
There were mentions of tea’s presence in Britain around this time, but it was the marriage of King Charles II to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza that turned the trickle into a flood. Catherine was something of a tea addict and her love of the beverage soon established it as the height of fashion at court and thence in the wider circles of the nobility and wealthy.
Tea became a popular drink in the coffee houses of Britain, but remained a luxury, partly due to the high taxes imposed upon its import. Such taxation had the natural consequence of encouraging smuggling and the adulteration of the product. Smuggling at its height accounted for perhaps seven million pounds of tea annually – against a legally imported five million. The methods of adulteration included mixing leaves that had already been brewed with the fresh product, and the addition of anything from sheep’s dung to poisonous compounds to preserve the correct tea colour. Such corruption only ended when Pitt the Younger slashed the tax rate from 119% to 12.5%.
For all the tea in India
Before 1834, the vast majority of the tea shipped to Britain was from China. In that year, the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China came to an end, a change that encouraged the company to consider growing tea in India – historically the centre of its operations. The move was successful, and by 1888 imports to Britain from India overtook those from China. The end of the East India Company's monopoly also turned the tea trade into a virtual free-for-all, which saw the famous tea clippers racing from the Canton River in China to the River Thames in London. Again, progress overtook the romance of the race when the Suez Canal made the routes to China viable for steamships
Kitchener in the kitchen: your country needs tea
The importance of tea to the British way of life was officially recognised during the First World War when the government took over its importation to ensure that its vital, morale-boosting qualities remained available to everyone at a reasonable price. And there it has remained – an important part of modern culture in many countries of the world – its only twentieth century innovation being the advent of the tea bag.
Tea and empathy
At Ahmad Tea, we are proud to take our place in the long line of tea producers, blenders and tasters, and we are delighted to be able to continue the traditions – of excellence of product and respect for our producing and consuming communities – that have guided our forefathers.