The Origin of Tea as a Beverage: A History Steeped in Intrigue, Flavored with Espionage
The Early History of Tea and World Intrigue
Believe it or not, the origin and history of tea reads like a modern day spy novel, crisscrossing the globe with intrigue, failed trade negotiations, smuggling, purloined secret formulas and seedlings. Even drugs and drug wars were a part of tea's checkered past. Of course, like most things, all the intrigue was ultimately about the thirst for power and wealth and that sparked the espionage and the danger about this beverage steeped in espionage.
The history of tea has it all. Who could imagine such an innocent looking group of leaves could evoke the exotic adventure and daring of explorers who ventured into strange new worlds and brought this unusual "brew" from China to Europe?
Drinking tea was introduced to England by the Dutch in 1658. Its popularity was enhanced when the Portugeuse Princess, Catherine of Braganza, married Charles II in 1662 and brought an expansive (and expensive) dowry of tea with her to England. King Charles fell in love with the tea and so did his court. After all, think of the aroma and the flavor those trunks filled to the brim with tea leaves brought to the court. Imagine the men and women of the court whispering about this amazing new beverage! It was quickly declared only fit for royalty.
In 1773, English tea taxation in America gave rise to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, killing tea consumption in America and bolstering the beginning of America's love affair with coffee.
Over time, the excessive costs and taxes attached to the import of tea from China played a part in the Opium Wars between England and China 1839 - 1842. The taxes and desperation for obtaining tea also led to the "theft" of tea seedlings in order to introduce the industry into the agriculture of other countries, particularly Ceylon where coffee production had been prolific and was all but destroyed by disease. The coffee growers needed to replace their coffee income with another product. Tea was the logical choice; China the obvious source.
England obtained ownership of Hong Kong and free trading rights in China's ports as a result of their victory in the Opium Wars. Without the tremendous taxation, tea consumption increased in England. Tea gardens began to replace the coffee houses that were starting to decline. Some fell into the category of "places of ill repute." Everyone could now afford to drink the golden beverage and it became the favored brew.
The tea tree and bush is indigenous to China. It is unknown how long people had been drinking tea, but legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. discovered the flavor of the steeped leaves when some of them drifted into the water he was boiling for purification. He liked the flavor and tea consumption spread from there. Over the centuries tea went from beverage to medicine and then back to beverage again. As a medicine, before the Tang Dynasty (618-902 A.D. ) tea was said to have restorative powers and was given to soldiers to help energize and fortify them during battle. The Tang Dynasty is sometimes referred to as the "golden age" of tea because it became more popular as a beverage.
During the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 A.D.) the compressed cakes that had been used for brewing the beverage were pulverized into powder allowing for the abliity to add subtle flavorings such as jasmine, lotus and chrysanthemum.
Maybe it is because they are a culture of ceremonies, or maybe it is because tea is such a special drink, but whatever the reason, drinking tea evolved into a cultural experience for the countries that consumed it heavily. This is especially true for China and Japan, the oldest tea drinking countries. Drinking tea became a social experience, with special and complicated ceremonies combined with particular methods of brewing. It is difficult to imagine a global drink such as Coca-Cola giving rise to special ceremonies and special occasions for drinking it.
Standard accoutrements for drinking tea include a teapot (or two), teacups (with or without handles), saucers (or not), spoons and strainer. Entire industries developed and thrived around the special utensils for tea. For example, in England pottery companies flourished by providing beautiful and functional utensils for tea. One of the most famous companies, Wedgewood, still offers designs and patterns beautifully and tastefully done, often inspired and selected by queens and members of the nobility. These designs resulted in exquisite pieces perfect for the Queen's Afternoon Tea.
During the early Chinese Dynasties, tea was the beverage initially enjoyed by the aristocracy and upper classes, later, eventually, by the masses. It was the aristocracy and the wealthy who encouraged the development of beautiful and pleasing utensils. In fact, various dynasities of China had patterns specifically commissioned for that period.
Often, the preferred method of preparation played a major role in the type and shape of the utensils used. It's easy to see how today's avid tea drinkers become the avid collectors of authentic and reproduction pieces. The tea patterns were, and still are, as much a visual delight as the teas were a taster's delight.
The type of brewing played a role in the development of the design of teapots over the centuries. Teapots with today's handles didn't make an appearance on the early tea scene until the end days of the Song Dynasty, about 1200 A. D. The newly designed teapot better accommodated tea brewed from the pulverized compressed tea cakes. Up to that point the tea cakes were brewed intact.
Some Tea Ceremonies Are Ancient Customs
History of the Tea Ceremony
Camellia sinensis or tea, is intricately woven into the customs and practices around the world and throughout the history of tea. The art of drinking tea has produced special utensils and vessels especially designed for use during consumption. Drinking tea can be a solitary experience, one that is enjoyed by a cozy, warm fire or it can be an elaborate social event lasting for as much as four hours as in Tea Ceremonies.
In China tea masters teach the art of the gong fu Tea Ceremony, an elaborate form of tea service involving specific steps and etiquette behind serving guests. The ceremony involves washing the service pieces at the table, infusing the tea repeatedly, educationg the guest, enjoying the first fragrance of the tea and, lastly, enjoying the delicate taste of the oolong tea. It is an involved process requiring patience and skill.
The Japanese culture is similar to the Chinese in the development of its reverence for tea over the centuries. The origins of Japanese tea drinking goes back as far as the eighth century or the Nara Period, dating from 710-794 A.D. according Mary Lous Heiss and Robert J. Heiss in The Story of Tea. Because of the expense of importing it from China, as usually happens, tea began as the drink of the few - the religious monks, the imperial family and the nobility.
By the 1600's, the custom of drinking tea had spread throughout Japan and, as in China, distinct and often complicated ceremonies became attached to tea drinking. The monks of Japan developed ceremonies that were very austere and in keeping with Zen practices. In fact, the important Chanoyu (The Way of Tea) drinking ceremony was created within Zen Buddahism. It represented "spiritual refreshment and harmony with the Universe." The nobility had ceremonies that were much more robust and the makeup of the ceremonies was much closer to parties or celebrations rather than formal ceremonies.
Like the Chinese, the Japanese developed designs and styles of tea vessels and drinking cups. Like those of the Chinese, these styles can be traced back the the various periods of Japanese history, making them sought after by collectors.
The Sencha Tea Ceremony developed in Japan during the 1600's. This simplified tea ceremony and style of brewing became increasingly popular until it is widely practiced throughout Japan today. In the book The Tea Companion, Jane Pettigrew beautifully summed up the Tea Ceremony saying "[It] captures all the essential elements of Japanese philosophy and artistic beauty, and interweaves four principles - harmony (with people), purity (of the heart and mind), and tranquility."
The English developed their own ritual in the form of Afternoon Tea and the practice has its place in the history of tea. The Afternoon Tea is said to have been introduced to English Society because of hunger pangs. During the early 1800's, the dinner hour was as late as 8 or 9 o'clock at night. Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford felt it was a long time from lunch to dinner and asked her kitchen to provide a small morsel to tide her over until dinner. The kitchen did as she asked, preparing tea along with small sweet meats and dainty sandwiches. It soon became a custom for the Duchess to invite her friends to share this afternoon ritual with her. They so enjoyed the novelty that they then began to share it with their friends.
Not surprisingly, the enjoyable habit spread among her friends and eventually became commonplace throughout England. Soon the Afternoon Tea became so important in English society that "Victorian ladies were judged by the quality of their Afternoon Tea." As you can imagine, etiquette, proper menu, tea services and linens soon emerged as an industry supporting the Afternoon Tea. Beautifully designed tea sets and silver were coveted by every lady of the house with "means" and social standing.
Afternoon Tea flourished until after World War II when life became more hectic. Today's busy pace and long days makes eating any meal difficult, let alone trying to find time for Afternoon Tea. Yet, many do find the time for this tradition of drinking tea, even if only for special occasions. Most hotels in England still provide the Afternoon Tea. There are some hotels, such as the Ritz Carlton, that prepare a wonderful Afternoon Tea which is available in America and across the globe. More individuals are finding it to be a great way to refresh for the remainder of the demands of the day. It is even becoming popular for the occasional business meeting.
Wonderful Assortment of Teas
Decorative teapots add enjoyment of drinking tea
Start Your Own Tea Drinking Customs
Sogaku of the Hyami School said "Drinking tea bespeaks a quest that one offers to his friends for the beauty of gestures, of objects and the heart."
Afternoon Tea lends itself beautifully to special occasions, particularly bridal showers and gathering of old friends. The warmth and aroma of the tea, the beauty and elegance of the tea service, create an ambiance that solidifies friendships and creates memories. If you are the hostess for this special event, afternoon tea, why not send out invitations, dress your best, bring out your best linen, table setting and China. Display the tea caddy and choose a tea you think will complement your delicacies. Create an affair to remember in your home.
When indulging in drinking tea sans company, experiment with a variety of teas. All tea is from one plant source, the camillia sinensis. However, tea is now grown in 45 different countries - Vet Nam, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Iran, Turkey, New Zealand, China, Japan, India and South Carolina in the U. S. are a few- and the varieties and grades seem endless.
While the varieties are many, they are derived from the basic green tea, oolong tea, Black tea, Pur-erh and scented teas including Jasmine and Earl Grey. (It should be noted that herbal teas are not included because they are not true teas.)
All tea is not created equal however. Like wine, it's in the preparation and the region it is grown in that determines a really good tea versus mediocre or a really bad tea. There are master tasters who grade the tea. As you are experimenting with the taste of different teas, don't be afraid to ask for assistance. Consult someone who is familiar with grading teas. To find top quality tea, look for teas that have the number one added after the grading letters.
Aside from its refreshing quality, tea has health benefits. Some are well documented, while other benefits are anecdotal or have no hard evidence attesting to veracity of the claims. What is known is that tea is full of antioxidants that can reduce free radicals. There are almost no calories if no milk or sugar is added. Tea naturally contains fluoride which makes it excellent for the teeth. Current studies suggest that green and black tea may have an impact on the reduction of lung, colon and skin cancers. The caffeine in tea is known to increase concentration, alertness, accuracy, and enhance the sense of taste and smell. Tea also stimulates digestion and the metabolism while helping to eliminate toxins from the liver and the kidneys. In short, tea was introduced as a drink with medicinal properties and voila! Many of those early claims are being scientifically proven.
The history of tea is long one, consuming and filled with danger, intrigue and espionage. However, because of the health benefits, the refreshment, and the comaraderie it invites, it's easy to see how its popularity grew to become second in consumption only to water. So, relax! Have a cup or two.
Copyright Cynthia Turner: 2012
View a Beautiful Chinese Tea Ceremony
Tea and Coffee are both popular.
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Tea is grown in the hills of Sri Lanka.
© 2011 Cynthia B. Turner
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