History of Tea

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Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese tea plantation

Over thousands of years, tea has spread across multiple cultures. One of the earliest tea drinking traditions can be traced back to China’s Shang dynasty, during which tea was consumed as a medicinal beverage. The tea plant originated in the area between northeast India, north Burma, and southwest China. According to a Chinese medical text written by Hua Tuo in the 3rd century AD, tea drinking dates back as far as the first century AD. The Portuguese began trading with China in early 16th-century China, which introduced the West to the practice. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. Tea production and tea consumption were introduced to India by the British as a means of competing against the Chinese monopoly on tea. 

Records state that the earliest reference to drinking tea comes from China. The legend claims that the Chinese Emperor, Shennong, ordered all Chinese people to boil water before drinking it. It is believed that a few leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water sometime around 2737 BC, altering the taste and color. As the emperor sipped the drink, he was delighted by its flavor and regenerative properties. The story goes that the emperor then tried out various herbs, some of them poisonous, and found that tea was its own antidote. In a similar legend, the god of agriculture chewed the leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover medicinal herbs. As an antidote to poisonous plants, he chewed tea leaves.

Around the middle of the 13th century, Chinese tea became processed in a different way. They first roasted tea leaves and then crushed them rather than steaming them. By the 14th century, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. Tea leaves are steamed and fried to stop the oxidation process that turns them dark. In the 15th century, oolong tea, where partially fermented tea leaves were prepared for frying, was developed. Western taste, however, preferred fully oxidized black tea. A sloppy practice during the Ming period caused the leaves to turn yellow, which rendered a different taste. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea.

As the most widely consumed beverage in the world (next to water), it’s surprising that it was discovered by accident. Tea has a significant cultural role in some countries and a history that has led to its global expansion.