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All About Tea, History of an Ancient Drink

Updated on January 31, 2017
Chinese Emperor Liu Bei Tang
Chinese Emperor Liu Bei Tang | Source
Buddhist Monks
Buddhist Monks | Source

History of Tea, the Legends

Tea is possibly the oldest and certainly the most popular beverage in the world, next to water. The tea plant is probably indigenous to India but the beverage was first discovered in China and there it has developed into an integral part of Chinese culture. The Chinese say that there are seven basic necessities for daily life, they are fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.

There are two legends that address the beginnings of tea; the reader will have to choose what to believe as the truth is buried in the sands of time.

The first legend has it that the founder of Zen Buddhism in India, Bodhidharma, was on a mission to China; he decided to spend nine years in a sanctuary contemplating a wall. After a while he couldn’t keep his eyes open and he fell asleep. When he awoke he cut off his own eyelids as a penance and threw them on the ground. A bush sprang up in the place where he threw his flesh. Bodhidharma tasted the leaves of that bush and found that his weariness had passed so he was able to continue his contemplations without falling back into slumber.

The second Chinese legend has it that tea was invented accidentally by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 B.C. Emperor Shen believed that drinking boiled water contributed to good health. By his decree, his subjects and servants had to boil their water before drinking it as a hygiene precaution. The emperor was almost 5 thousand years before his time and, since much of the water supply in China was already polluted the emperor contributed to the health of his subjects.

One day while the emperor was visiting the provinces his servants began to boil water for the ruler and his subjects to drink. Dried leaves from a nearby camellia bush fell into the boiling water. The emperor was intrigued by the pleasant aroma in this new brew, so he tasted the infusion and discovered the joy of tea. At first tea was considered as a medicinal beverage, it wasn’t until around 300 A.D. when, tea became a daily drink. Many tea drinkers started adding things like spices, ginger, onions or orange peel to their tea.

Tea Ceremony

Geisha Tea Ceremony Kyoto
Geisha Tea Ceremony Kyoto | Source

China and Japan

Gradually tea worked its way throughout Chinese culture and traditions, During the Tang Dynasty (780 A.D.), a scholar named Lu Yu published the first definitive book, Cha Ching or The Tea Classic after spending twenty years studying the subject. At that time Lu’s tea was in the form of cakes that were boiled but the method evolved over time into powdered tea leaves which were whipped into hot water much like we prepare hot chocolate today. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) that tea began to be brewed by immersing leaves of tea in hot water. This was the same time period when tea became known in the West. The culture of China was infused with tea rituals which, while not quite as reverent as the Tea Ceremony of Japan, were sophisticated and elegant. During a Chinese marriage ceremony the bride would present tea in red lacquer cups (Cinnabar) to her relatives, in-laws and friends in order of precedence. Generally tea was prepared in a lidded cup and the pot was only used for hot water. The lid of the cup was opened only slightly by the drinker so the lid held back the tea leaves.

Sometime around 729 AD tea was brought into Japan by Buddhist monk Eichū (永忠), Eichū presented tea to the Emperor Shomū, who became the first Japanese emperor to taste tea. The emperor approved and soon tea was being grown on Mount Hiei. At first tea was very costly there and only used by the high priests and nobility. Tea in Japan has come to be more than just a beverage. In Japan tea has been treated with a degree of reverence that borders on religion resulting in the Tea Ceremony. The ceremony itself consists of many rituals that have to be learned by heart. Almost each hand movement is prescribed. Put simply, the tea is first prepared by the host, observing several steps and then drunk by the guests. The tea for the ceremony is always matcha, a green tea made of powdered tea leaves. The tea ceremony is observed as a way to cultivate oneself.

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
Tea plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
Moroccan tea ritual
Moroccan tea ritual
Camelia Sinensis
Camelia Sinensis | Source
Tea sorting
Tea sorting

Tea Comes to the West

Venetian spice traders were the first to bring samples of tea to Europe from China but it wasn’t until the 1600s that tea was introduced to Europe’s masses. As trade routes were developed with the East tea became a profitable commodity. In England tea was introduced in the coffeehouses of London. One of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. King Charles II played his part in trying to shut down the coffeehouses but coffeehouses were so popular that Charles’ edict was withdrawn, however he did succeed in taxing tea. The tax on tea was continually increased to the point that by the mid 1700s the tax was 119%! Taxes started by Charles II were at the root of the Boston Tea Party and those taxes were a major source of revenue for the Crown. With a ridiculous level of taxation like that tea smuggling became a high profit venture and our own John Hancock became one of the wealthiest Colonists by smuggling Dutch tea while the Colonists boycotted tea from the British East India Company. What is little known is that even with the taxes British tea was cheaper than Dutch smuggled tea. It appears that Hancock was protecting his profits by supporting the Revolution. In 1700 England imported 20,000 pounds of tea; by 1800 they brought in 20 million pounds.

The Chinese and Japanese knew they had a good thing and were able to keep production methods a secret all the way up until the 19th century but eventually the Dutch were planting in Indonesian colonies and the English brought it to their colonies in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Tea plants produce the best tea when grown under the same environment that produces good coffee, high altitude and grown in the shade of larger trees. Tea thrives on steep slopes in poor acidic soils that are otherwise incapable of growing crops.

The Plant

Much has been made elsewhere about the health benefits so just to touch on the subject here “Tea contains catechins, a type of antioxidant. In a freshly picked tea leaf, catechins can compose up to 30% of the dry weight. Catechins are highest in concentration in white and green teas, while black tea has substantially fewer due to its oxidative preparation” (Wiki) Excellent article about the health benefits of tea here

All of our teas come from some cultivar or sub-variety of the same plant: Camelia Sinensis. The factors that give us the many different types of tea we see on the shelf are: where the tea was grown, how it was harvested, if or how it was fermented and if it has been flavored. The tea industry uses the term fermented to describe the process of oxidization that the leaves go through after harvest; it does not necessarily indicate that yeast was involved in the fermentation as with alcoholic drinks. Bacteria, yeast and the enzymes which are already present in the tea may be part of the process of fermentation. There is an art involved in the processing of tea in that someone must manage the stages properly to yield a good tea; tea has to be heated to stop the fermentation process and simultaneously begin the drying process.

Blooming Tea

Gunpowder Tea

Gunpowder Tea
Gunpowder Tea
Tea Pot
Tea Pot
Blooming Tea
Blooming Tea | Source

Teas and Brews

These are the six types or classifications of tea:

* White tea: Wilted and unfermented, dried very soon after picking, delicate flavor. Grown in the Fujian province and in Taiwan, India, Northern Thailand and Eastern Nepal.

* Green tea: Unwilted and unfermented, leaves are still greenish, dried very soon after picking.

* Yellow tea: Unwilted and barely fermented, delicate flavor and still rare in the US. Yellow tea was developed to avoid the “grassy” taste associated with green tea. Has the same antioxidants as green tea. Yellow tea is fermented, or oxidized, for longer than green tea is, but not completely oxidized like black or oolong tea. The drying phase is slower, and the damp tea leaves are left to take on a natural, light yellow color.

* Oolong: Wilted, bruised, and partially fermented

* Black tea: Wilted, and fully fermented

* Post-fermented tea: Green tea that has been allowed to ferment

Within these six classifications exists more varieties, brands and subtle differences of taste than we have even of wine. Tea readily absorbs flavors from its surroundings so protect your tea in a dark place in an airtight container, unless of course you want to try adding flavors to your tea, in that case experiment by storing tea with your favorite spices, herbs, dried orange peel etc. Freezing is not needed and may even be detrimental if it causes changes in humidity. Protecting tea from the light and air is essential so if you buy in bulk take only a moderate amount out at one time so you don't keep opening the larger container.

There are far too many teas to make any kind of comprehensive list but to name a few of the more important ones:

The best and most flavorful leaves to harvest are the terminal bud with the two adjacent leaves. When these leaves are rolled into tiny pellets they resemble gunpowder. Gunpowder tea can come from a number of places and varieties with varying quality. The best Gunpowder tea is still hand rolled into small, shiny pellets. When buying, look for smaller pellets which are shiny, the shininess indicates that the tea is fresh, larger pellets are an indication of lower quality.

Blooming tea or Flowering tea is a package of whole tea leaves wrapped around a flower or cluster of flowers. When steeped, the bundle unfurls in a process that emulates a blooming flower surrounded by leaves. Typically, they are produced in the Yunnan province of China. Flowers commonly used in flowering teas include globe amaranth, chrysanthemum, jasmine, lily, hibiscus, and osmanthus. The tealeaves are usually either green tea or white tea although there are blooming black teas available.

Indian teas are mostly black, the two major ones are Assam and Darjeeling, Assam is full bodied while Darjeeling is delicate. India does produce some green teas now.

Formosa produces some of the best Oolong teas, frequently scented with Jasmine, Rose Petals or Gardenia.

Earl Grey Is a black tea flavored with the oil of Bergamot, named after Charles Earl Grey, who time served as Prime Minister (1830 - 1834) under King William IV. Bergamot is a pear shaped citrus fruit that grows around the Mediterranean.

Lapsang Souchong Black tea from the Fujian province of China. Lapsang Souchong tea has a smoky aroma and flavor. The finished tea is dried drying over smoking pine wood, A good Lapsang Souchong should have a sweet, clean smoky flavor. If your Lapsang Souchong is too smoky or brashly flavored you may need a better brand.

Pu-erh tea, also spelled as Pu'er tea is a variety of post-fermented green tea produced in Yunnan province, China. It is a form of specially fermented tea made from a sun-dried green tea called "saiqing mao cha." Pu-erh is a geographically indicated product. To be authentic it can only be produced and fermented in Southern Yunnan with sun-dried green tea from select tea cultivars found in Yunnan, Laos, Burma and some areas of Thailand and Vietnam. In China this is known as a black tea however also in China, what we call black tea they call red tea. Pu-erh tea has a reputation for medicinal qualities and is sometimes called diet tea. Flavor is earthy and deeper than most other teas. Pu-erh tea can be aged like a fine wine without losing its quality the way less unique teas would.

Keemun Keemun tea is a variant of the name 'Qimen' A county in China. About a century ago the local farmers switched from the manufacture of green tea to black tea, the results were a much tea than what they had been producing. Keemun teas come in a wide range of quality, the best will have an earthy, malty and slightly smoky flavor. Keemun is the main part of English Breakfast tea.

Chai Tea Is a blended tea, Chai spice is generally a combination of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and vanilla, among other spices. Herbalistsclaim that chai improves digestion, enhances the immune system, fights inflammation and has antioxidant properties. It has also been suggested that chai has antibacterial and anti-cancer effects

Jasmine Teas are blended teas flavored with Jasmine blossoms, Jasmine may be green or black tea and the quality will vary by brand. The best will be smooth and floral.

Bubble tea or foam tea, is a sweetly flavored tea beverage invented in Taiwan. Drink recipes may vary, but most bubble teas contain a tea base mixed with fruit (or fruit syrup) and/or milk. Bubble teas usually contain small tapioca balls or pearls called "boba". Pearls made of jelly are also available in many places. These teas are shaken to mix the ingredients, creating a foam on the top of some varieties, hence the name.

Constant Comment Tea Is a brand of blended tea produced by Bigelow, may be black or green, blended with orange peel and spices

Brewing Tea,
First start with the best water! Tap water may be good or bad but if you don’t drink your tap water you won’t like it in your tea. Use a good spring water or filtered water, never use distilled water because it lacks the minerals needed to brew a good cup.
2) Choose the best tea, some groceries are beginning to carry better teas but as a rule the major brands are lower quality teas. Check the links for on-line sources of teas
3) Use from 1 to 2 teaspoons per 8 ounces of water and if you want more flavor add more the next time until you find the balance you prefer. Do not steep it longer to get more flavor, you’ll get more tannins and make the tea harsh. Any method is alright, tea ball, tea infuser, loose leaves, basket strainer or tea press are all okay with a slight preference for loose leaves or a tea press.
4) Water temperature is critical to prepare the perfect cup of tea. Bring water to a boil (212 degrees Fahrenheit) then allow the water to cool before brewing your tea. Test with an instant read thermometer at first to discover what you like, these are only suggestions: 180 degrees for green tea, 190 degrees for Oolong tea, 200 degrees for black tea.
5) Time the steep for 90 seconds to 3 minutes and adjust from there up or down. Do not stir the pot if you’re using loose tea, stirring will release more tannins from the leaves.
6) Remove the leaves and enjoy, remember many people swear that tea leaves brewed a second time yield a better pot of tea than the first.

Caffeine Levels

floz = U.S. fluid ounces.

Black tea, brewed (USA) - 2.5 to 11 mg/floz (85 to 370 mg per liter)

Black tea, brewed (other) - 3 to 14 mg/floz (100 to 470 mg/liter)

Black tea, canned iced - 2 to 3 mg/floz (70 to 100 mg/liter)

Black tea, instant - 3.5 mg/floz (120 mg/liter)

Oolong, 3.75 mg/floz (120 mg per liter) (12 to 55 mg per tea bag, i.e. one serving)

Green tea, 2.5 mg/floz (85 mg/liter) (8 to 30 mg per tea bag, i.e. one serving)

White tea, 2.0 mg/floz (68 mg/liter) (6 to 25 mg per tea bag, i.e. one serving)

Decaf, 0.5 mg/oz (17 mg/liter) (1 to 4 mg per tea bag, i.e. one serving)

Tisanes are herbal teas and the amount of caffeine depends on the plant, consult the package but as a generality, tisanes are considered caffeine free.


Coffee, brewed (drip) - 4 to 20 mg/floz (130 to 680 mg/liter) (40 to 170 mg/5 floz)

Coffee, decaffeinated - 0.4 to 0.6 mg/floz (13 to 20 mg/liter)

Coffee, instant - 4 to 12 mg/floz (130 to 400 mg/liter)

Espresso Arabica - ~40 mg/floz (1360 mg/liter)

Espresso Robusta - ~100 mg/floz (3400 mg/liter)


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    • Radhika881 profile image


      2 years ago from kanpur

      Thank you so much!great blog

    • chefsref profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee Raynor 

      8 years ago from Citra Florida

      Thanx for reading WMSEO

      I like green tea also but find it a little too subtle so I mix in a little black to boost the flavor

    • wmseo profile image


      8 years ago from Canada

      I always drink green and oolong teas. They help me to be in good form and mood :)

    • Jillian Barclay profile image

      Donna Lichtenfels 

      8 years ago from California, USA

      Dear Chef,

      I love tea! Black tea is my favorite! When I use my old china pot to steep it in, it is so good! Thank you for the tips to make it even better!


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