The History of Tea

Posted by M.Ballantyne on 2016 Oct 14th

As legend has it, one day in 2737 B.C. the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling drinking water over an open fire, believing that those who drank boiled water were healthier. Some leaves from a nearby Camellia sinensis plant floated into the pot. The emperor drank the mixture and declared it gave one “vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose.”

Perhaps as testament to the emperor’s assessment, tea–the potion he unwittingly brewed that day–today is second only to water in worldwide consumption. The U.S. population is drinking its fair share of the brew; in 1994, Americans drank 2.25 billion gallons of tea in one form or another–hot, iced, spiced, flavored, with or without sugar, honey, milk, cream, or lemon.

A serving of tea generally contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine (less than half as much caffeine as in coffee), but the actual levels vary depending on the specific blend and the strength of the brew. Decaffeinated tea is also available.

Many tea drinkers find the beverage soothing, and folk medicine has long valued it as a remedy for sore throats and unsettled stomachs. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals in tea called polyphenols may help reduce the risk of far more serious illnesses.

Tea tastes vary, and one aficionado who squirts lemon in his cup may cringe at the sight of another pouring milk or honey. But no matter how the tea may be doctored, in the United States the odds are overwhelming that it starts out black. Nearly 95 percent of all tea consumed here is black, according to the New York City-based Tea Council of the U.S.A.; 4 percent is green, 1 percent oolong, and 1 percent flavored.

That wasn’t always the case, and our proclivity for drinking black tea over green or oolong may have been influenced by events in history. Sixty years ago and more, the amount of black and green tea Americans drank was split fairly evenly–each accounting for about 40 percent of the market–with oolong constituting the rest. During World War II, however, the major sources of green tea–China and Japan–were cut off from the United States, leaving us with tea almost exclusively from British-controlled India, which produces black tea. Americans came out of the war drinking nearly 99 percent black tea.

With the Korean War in the 1950s, uncertainties about tea supplies resurfaced, and the United States began to look for other suppliers.

“Argentina filled the bill,” Dick says, “because tea could grow very fast there. Although the country didn’t produce an outstanding tea, it produced a good average tea.”

Today, most of our tea comes from Argentina, China (which got back into the U.S. market in 1978), and Java. Thirty years ago most of it came from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Argentine black tea is the kind most used for iced tea, and that’s another reason black tea dominates the U.S. /N.America market .

Some Like Tea Cold

America is unique in its tea consumption habits, the Tea Council says, in that approximately 40 billion of the 50 billion cups consumed here each year are over ice.

Iced tea debuted in 1904 at the Louisiana State Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Mo. According to the Tea Council, “The temperature was soaring and the staff in the Far East Tea House couldn’t get any fair-goers to even look their way, let alone sample their tea. So they poured the hot tea over ice cubes and the drink quickly became the exposition’s most popular beverage.”

The tea bag was born the same year as iced tea, and its arrival was equally serendipitous. A Boston tea merchant began sending samples of tea in small silk bags for customers to try. Eventually, the convenient measured sacks came to dominate the tea market. In 1994, according to the Tea Council, approximately 60 percent of tea brewed in the United States was prepared from tea bags; just over 1 percent was brewed from loose tea. Iced tea mixes accounted for another 25 percent of prepared tea, and the rest was made from instant tea.

Mother Nature’s original tea garden was located in the monsoon district of southeastern Asia. Many other plants now grow there, but specimens of the original jungle, or wild, tea plant are still found in the forests of the Shan states of northern Siam, eastern Burma, Yunnan, Upper Indo-China, and British India. … Before any thought was given to dividing this land into separate states, it consisted of one primeval tea garden where the conditions of soil, climate, and rainfall were happily combined to promote the natural propagation of tea.