Believe it or not, tea has a ton of history to it. The history of tea dates back to ancient China, almost 5,000 years ago. According to legend, in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. He was immediately interested in the pleasant scent of the resulting brew and drank some. Legend says the Emperor described a warm feeling as he drank the intriguing brew as if the liquid was investigating every part of his body.
Shen Nung named the brew "ch'a", the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. In 200 B.C. a Han Dynasty Emperor ruled that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used illustrating wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two. This written character also pronounced "ch'a" symbolized the way tea brought humankind into balance with nature for the Chinese culture.
The popularity of tea in China continued to grow rapidly from the 4th through the 8th century. No longer merely used for its medicinal properties, tea became valued for everyday pleasure and refreshment. Tea plantations spread throughout China, tea merchants became rich and expensive, elegant tea wares became the banner for the wealth and status of their owners.
The Chinese empire tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of the crop. It was even specified that only young women, presumably because of their purity, were to handle the tea leaves. These young female handlers were not to eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odor on their fingertips might contaminate the precious tea leaves.
The Invention of Black Tea
Up to the mid-17th century, all Chinese tea was Green tea. As foreign trade increased, though, the Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the tea leaves with a special fermentation process. The resulting Black tea kept its flavor and aroma longer than the more delicate Green teas and was better equipped for the export journeys to other countries.
Tea in Modern Day China
Tea has remained an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years; it was popular before the Egyptians built the great pyramids and were traded with Asian countries even before Europe left the dark ages. The importance and popularity of tea in China continues in the modern day and has become a symbol of the country's history, religion, and culture.
Today, students compete to attend the very selective and exceptional Shanghai Tea Institute. The highest level students are required to play the traditional Guzheng stringed instrument, perform a flawless tea-serving ceremony, speak a foreign language to entertain overseas guests and distinguish between about 1,000 different types of Chinese tea...to date fewer than 75 students have been awarded a Tea Art certificate. There is also an entire amusement park called the Tenfu Tea Museum - China's equivalent of Disneyland - that honors the Chinese tea-drinking traditions.
North America's Tea History
It is no surprise that early North America, colonized by Europe, was a tea-drinking continent. Europe's same traditions and rules of etiquette crossed the Atlantic; Teahouses and elegant silver and porcelain tea accessories were popular in the new cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The American Revolution
By the second half of the 18th century, tea constituted the single largest and most valuable commodity exported by Britain. The British government ordered a specific "tea tax" to capitalize off its popularity in America. Greed prevailed and the tax rate gradually reached 119%, more than doubling the initial cost of tea as it entered the American wholesale market.
In defiance, the American ports refused to allow any dutiable goods ashore. This resulted in the infamous Boston Tea Party, the British government's closure of Boston harbor, and the arrival of British troops on American soil. This series of events marked the beginning of the American War of Independence...and America's preference for coffee. Boycotting tea became an act of patriotism.
American Advancements in Tea Drinking
The United States is still responsible for a few major changes in the tea industry. At the St. Louis World Trade Fair of 1904, a group of tea producers organized a special tea pavilion and offered cups of hot tea to all attendees. The unusually hot summer temperatures prompted the man supervising the deserted booth to pour tea into glasses packed with ice cubes. Customers lined up to try the new invention - iced tea. Today, the U.S. guzzles almost 50-billion glasses of iced tea in a single year, which accounts for more than 80% of all tea consumed stateside.
Tea bags were also developed in the United States, albeit by accident. In 1908, a New York tea merchant sent samples of his product sealed in silk bags to restaurants and cafes throughout the city. After some time, he discovered that the restaurants were brewing his tea directly in the silk bags to save time. This method of brewing immediately caught on.
Tea in Modern America
Even though tea is the most popular drink in the world (besides water), it has only recently been on the rise in the United States. Today, thousands of Americans are adding tea into their healthy diets or substituting tea for coffee and soft drinks.