The History of Tea - Where does tea come from?

Nowadays when you look around you can see numerous tea varieties; white, black, red (rooibos), Pu-Erh, Purple, Darjeeling, herbal, and flavored or unflavored varieties. In addition, these teas can come from numerous locations within the world; The United States does produce some tea, as does England and a few other western nations, but the majority of tea comes from Japan, China, Kenya, India, Singapore, and many other nations.

The question that is often asked is “Where did this all come from?” It is a fair question; after all, tea has become a worldwide phenomenon, so why wouldn’t we want to know where its roots lie?

The Start of Tea

Many people wonder which nation is to thank for tea. Historical research indicates that the nation responsible is China.

The Emperor Shennong (or Shen Nun), circa 2700 B.C., had ordered that all water be boiled to be fit for drinking to stop the spread of disease. Being an emperor for the people, he took his own advice, and ordered some water to be boiled to drink while travelling. Fortunately for the world, the shade tree he happened to rest under was a Camellia sinensis tree, and some whipping wind brought about a fortunate accident that began to change the world. Unbeknownst to Shennong, some of these leaves dropped into his boiling water and began to infuse the water with the flavor of tea. After drinking the oddly colored water, he was shocked at the sudden “charge” that the drink offered (likely due to the caffeine) as well as its smooth taste. Thus, was born green tea. However, thought to be a divine beverage, this was originally so expensive that it was reserved for royalty and the wealthy in China, meaning that it was still not consumed by the general population. Sometime during this era, to ensure supply, tea farms were created, which later would result in differing flavored teas coming from different regions and altitudes.

If not for the increased use of tea and a shortage of supply around the time of the Song Dynasty (960-c. 1200 A.D.) this likely would have remained the case. However, new needs arose, and these needs created another change and the advent of white tea.

White Tea: The Next Step

The impatience to continue to have tea resulted in the tea farmers circa 960 A.D. needing to figure out a new manner to produce tea faster. White tea is cultivated when the leaves and buds are still white and have not yet ripened into green. Plucking the buds and powdering them, this “new variety” of tea was presented to the Emperor as a tribute, and this tribute was adored to the point that white tea became the desire of the wealthy and royalty, and green tea became available to the general population in China.

Pu-Erh History: A specific Need Filled

There was one Emperor, Hui Zong that was searching for the “perfect” white tea with such intensity that he plunged his empire into debt, and the majority of China was damaged economically. With this being the case, China realized that it had something that rest of the world had never seen; tea. It was ready to begin to part with the green variety of tea in exchange for economic stability after the advent of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.). This dynasty saw the fall of powdered teas and the rise of loose leaf tea, as this was easier to transport internationally due to its ability to be pressed and dried into cakes, a practice used since the Han Dynasty (25 A.D. – 220 A.D.). This tea was known as Pu-Erh.

Pu-Erh was developed to provide a solid and easily transportable and exchangeable tea; to this day Pu-Erh is still dried and pressed into cakes. The reason that this was done was to ensure the tea would last and maintain its flavor during travel. As time went on, it was discovered that this offered a unique taste, and by the time the Ming Dynasty came around (1368 – 1644 A.D.) many people in China were enjoying this variety of tea. The popularity of this tea would fall into obscurity for quite some time after the ease of rapid transport increased; without the need for hard-pressing to preserve teas for the long term, Pu-Erh became primarily something that was seen only in Asian nations from the 1800s until the late 1900s when specific connoisseurs decided to share Pu-Erh with the world, which has boosted its popularity in recent years.

Black Tea: A New Method of Preparation

Black tea is like both green and white tea from one key historical aspect; it was basically discovered by accident. Around the time that global trade began to become common in the 1600’s, England was a wealthy nation, and as such took great steps to corner the market on exports in every capacity. As such, England ensured it offered a high enough priced to China for tea that other nations would be unable to acquire tea without purchasing it from England, which resulted in English tea trade.

During one trade venture, the tea that was to be sold had oxidized further during transit, causing the leaves to shrink and the tea to darken past the green that people had come to expect. Some brilliant marketing and salesmanship by the merchant resulted in this tea being sold in India as a new variation of this favored beverage, and thus began the black tea craze, which still very much has a hold in England and most of the United States. This means that, while black tea is immensely popular in the west, it did not even come into existence until around 350 years ago. The result is plantations in the western world that are dedicated to black tea, which resulted in Ceylon, Assam, and Darjeeling style teas. In fact, plantations back in both China and Japan adopted the black tea practice, turning black tea into a worldwide sensation.

Purple Tea: The Newest of New

With so many new tea farms popping up around the world the market started to become saturated, and some countries started to feel the pressure in recent years. Kenya, which is the worlds largest black tea exporter, realized a few decades ago that their tea economy would start to flounder on the current path. This prompted the Tea Research Institute of Kenya to develop and produce Purple Tea. The strain was bred to increase the amount of anthocyanin in the leaves, which gives it the nice purple color. This tea was only commercially introduced in the last few years, and has yet to gain the popularity of its more traditional cousins.

Rooibos and Herbal Teas: New Spins on old Favorites

There are no records in Africa that indicate how far back the origins or rooibos tea use goes. This tea is not technically a tea, as it does not come from the Camellia sinensis plant, yet has been prepared in much the same way over the years. While the origins of this tea are not known, what is known is that Swedish explorers discovered rooibos tea in the late 1700s and began to bring it back to the west. This tea has since become very popular as a caffeine free alternative to true tea, and has grown in popularity since the early 1990s in the United States.

Herbal tea is not truly tea, and can be derived from a number of sources. The use of herbal tea as flavorful drinks and medicines are similar to rooibos; there is a timeline that cannot be firmly established. While this is true, it is known that many different cultures and nations, including China, Egypt, and Native American cultures all used herbal tea. Since the 1980s and the movement of natural medicine, these drinks have become very present in the public eye, and have generated numerous new mixtures for various purposes and needs.

Tea Today

The tea industry continues to grow and change due to international influences and the development of new products. New plantations are constantly made, and old types of tea are renamed by new suppliers to appeal to different audiences and draw in more drinkers. In the end, all manners of tea, whether they are black, white, green, purple, herbal, rooibos, or a specialty tea are now being consumed worldwide. With such a diverse history, it makes sense that the consumption of tea would be amongst diverse populations.