Tea – A History of the Leaf

Amidst fallen leaves, a Chinese doctor who regularly told his patients that the best way to prevent an ailment was to heat the water before you drink it, was himself seated under a tree, drinking. Legend has it that leaves from a wild Camellia Sinensis had fallen into his drink. Immediately the doctor took a liking to the flavored drink. The leaves had infused in the water and the effects had produced a calming sensation throughout his body.

Tea has held on to its mysterious reputation and through the years, it has been met with prudent curiosity. How could a drink have two different qualities? Tea is known to invigorate and revitalize the body as well as have incredible calming effects. It has become a drink of myths and legends. It is also one of the oldest drinks known to man, and is now the second most popular beverage consumed in the world, with water being the first.

China is a land sometimes known as one of introspection and tea possesses equal characteristics. Tea is unique in one sense because it contains caffeine, an essential oil that awakens and increases alertness, and it also contains tannin, the ingredient that produces a relaxing and calming effect. During the brewing process, caffeine is initially released into the water as the leaves infuse. This process continues for the first two minutes. It is at the end of the brewing process that the tannin is released.

Not until the sixth century was tea beginning to be recognized by a growing number of people. Porcelain was invented in the year 589, and tea became more accessible and easier to drink. Ceramic ware was a popular material for tea cups as well. Manufacturers soon began experimenting with a variety of glazing techniques for the tea cup. Blue glaze was recognized as a favorite by the Tang dynasty, because of its ability to enhance the color of the infusion.

Japan first discovered the mysterious drink when Dengyo Daishi returned to his monastery in Japan with tea leaves from China. This may have to do with the idea that Japanese green tea and Zen Buddhism are so closely linked. The green tea known to relax the body and increase alertness and awareness was well received at the monastery.

In the seventeenth century, black tea was invented in China. This was the first major breakthrough in tea production. Black tea differs from green tea in that it is fermented. There is no fermentation process with green tea so the leaves stay green throughout the production process. This is a notable achievement in tea production as it helped create a way to export tea so that the quality was preserved for longer periods of time. In green tea production, leaves are harvested, withered and then baked. The baking process stops all decomposition in the leaves. Black tea is consistently able to keep longer than green tea due to the fermentation process. Without the luxury of Next Day Air in the seventeenth century, fermentation was essential for delivering a fresh product.

During the mid seventeenth century, tea began making its way to Europe and England. By 1650, tea was gaining in popularity and began showing up on the menus of English coffeehouses. When news spread of this exciting and mysterious new drink, a man named Thomas Garway introduced a medicinal drink that could make the body ‘active and lusty’. It soon became a favorite amongst his patrons, and the traditional coffee drinkers took a liking to tea. At the same time, coffeehouses were gaining in popularity and tea took a progressive leap in the amount of consumption. With increased popularity came increased taxation. The British government soon began imposing taxes on shipments of tea to Britian. The primary concern was that the increasing consumption of tea meant decreasing sales on liquor, which was primarily controlled by the British government. The British began taxing tea to astronomical levels due to the lost revenue. When taxes become too high for a product, a market is virtually created to smuggle the product into a country for profit. Smugglers of tea were able to offer England and Europe quality tea at a lesser cost. Holland became an originating port for the smuggled tea and brought tea to Britain, via underground railroads

In 1662 tea gained increasing popularity in the wealthier classes due to royalty. Charles II and Catherine of Braganza began taking tea at court and the courtiers followed her lead. Tea was expensive and somewhat reserved for royalty, but also very popular among all social classes. Smugglers became the primary providers of tea for the middle class. By 1680, tea was being consumed by all levels of society. Tea gardens were springing up in England, and they became an attractive alternative to the coffeehouse. After a suggestion by Marie de-Rabutin-Chantal, milk was added to the tea and favored among many drinkers. The traditional ale drink that was consumed morning, afternoon and evening was now being replaced with morning tea. People began hosting and attending afternoon tea parties throughout England. Restaurants maintained a healthy selection of tea on their menus.

By the early eighteenth century, The John Company had built a factory in China and was starting to incorporate tea as a primary source of trade revenue. The East India Company was also becoming a dominant player in the world of tea trade partly due to a decision by Parliament to grant a monopoly for the company. Tea trade had become regulated and was profitable to both companies. The mysterious medicinal drink was being enjoyed by an increasing number of people around the world.

Smugglers were also dipping into the profitable trade, but they soon ran up against the raised eyebrows of the John Company in 1773. The demand for smuggler’s tea was reaching levels that drove both the John Company and the East India Company to the verge of bankruptcy. After a plea to Britain for rights to the tea trade, the Tea Act of 1773 was signed. The Tea Act gave East India Company and John Company an opportunity to merge, thus creating a monopoly in the industry. The Act was signed with the intent to balance tea trade and eliminate smugglers. This balancing act failed and pots began to boil.

In December of 1773 the trade crisis known as the Boston Tea Party occurred. Colonists in Boston and neighboring areas reached a no tolerance point for supply restrictions. Hundreds of chests of tea were thrown over a ship owned by the East India Company. America soon began the process of relying less on Britain and more on itself for trading. America built a bigger boat. One of the most famous ships of that day was the Cutty Sark, now on display in Greenwich, England. Ships that were built by America were much faster and more reliable than the British ships. By the end of the American Revolution in 1789, America had dominated the tea trade. England was ranked second, mainly because the English owned and built slower ships than America. For the John Company, purchases of tea from China were now paid for with opium that the company had grown on recently purchased plantations. America was receiving payment for their products in the form of gold.

America entered the Industrial Revolution with the desire to make products better. This desire resulted in two new ideas born from the tea plant. Teabags began popping up in 1908 in New York City. Thomas Sullivan began sending samples of his tea to restaurants in the area, packaged in a silk bag. The restaurants served the tea while it was still in the bag. Thomas soon discovered that the tea took on a neat appeal in the bag. The tea bag became a hit. Before the tea bag ever found its way into a cup, iced tea was served on a hot afternoon at the 1904 St. Louis Fair. Loose tea was brewed for all the attendees, but when the weather became too hot for drinking the tea, ice cubes were poured into the pot and it became a cool and refreshing drink.

The mysterious leaf has found its way to our palate in many forms. The recent desire in America for a diet low in carbohydrates and a healthier lifestyle has helped introduce tea to us all over again.

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