The History and Lore of Tea

Tea is only second to water as the most consumed drink in the world. It is also believed that some day (2025 is one given by some drink experts) that tea will be drunk more in America than coffee. Many would laugh at this suggestion but the younger geneartion is moving from coffee to water and tea. More on this in a future blog.

So how did the leaf gain such significance?

There are many tales of how tea first came to be a drink. One difficult to believe is when a Chinese monk vowed to spend years in meditation. In his frustration at falling asleep he pulled out his eyebrows and threw them to the ground. A tea plant sprang up from where they landed and he made a drink from the leaves.

My favorite and perhaps the most plausible dates back to 2700 B. C. and the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. He is credited with developing the agricultural plow and herbal medicine. He was very fastidious about his drinking water and one day he fell asleep while boiling water and a tea leaf from a nearby plant fell into his pot. The resulting drink was flavorful and stimulating, and soon became a very important part of the emperor’s herbal medicine.

The Dutch, not the British, were the first to bring tea to Europe in 1610, during the reign of the House of Orange, and cleverly called it Orange Pekoe, inferring a Royal warrant. This is where it is commonly believed that the orange comes from in Orange Pekoe (OP), nothing to do with oranges or orange flavor.

It was not available for sale in Britain until 1658, the year that Oliver Cromwell died, and was given a big boost when Charles 11 married a Portuguese princess, who was a big tea drinker, and her dowry included a chest of tea from China.

The British soon caught onto this marvelous drink and began importing great quantities of tea from China in exchange for cotton, which the Chinese did not really need or want. This was initially solved by trading in opium, grown in British controlled India, regardless of the fact that opium was banned by the Chinese Government. This resulted in the Opium War of 1839 and was one of the reasons that stolen Chinese tea plants and know-how were taken to India, but unfortunately did not grow well in the different climatic conditions. A Scotsman, Robert Bruce, had explored Assam, a district of India, and found that the natives drank tea from indigenous plants. After his death, Bruce’s brother continued developing tea in this region, and it is now one of the world’s famous black teas, used as a strong breakfast tea.

The East India Company took 12 to 15 months to sail to London (just proves that tea is a little fresher now), and in 1845 the first American clipper ship did the journey to New York  in 8 months, with the resulting Clipper races before the steam ships in 1871. We can’t move on without briefly mentioning the importance of tea in American History, and the dreadful waste of good tea that was brewed incorrectly at the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The resulting embargoes and boycotts gave coffee an unfair advantage!

In the 1830’s Anna Maria, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with the tradition of afternoon tea with food because she could not curb hunger pains between lunch and the late dinner. High tea, or low tea as it is sometimes called, consists of delicate finger sandwiches, scones with cream, decadent desserts and plenty of tea. This tradition is continued at English Tealeaves. One of the questions I am frequently asked at tea parties is should the cream (milk) go in the cup first or last? My normal answer is not at all, as although I am English, I never use milk or sugar. It is best to put the milk in last as you can gauge the amount of milk by the color of the liquor. Tradition is the opposite, as the milk was always put in first so that delicate porcelain cups would not break due to the heat.

Reading Jane Pettigrew’s “A Social History of Tea” gave me a new perspective on the importance of tea in Britain for the working class and during the two world wars. At the end of the 19th Century the farm workers & laborers drank beer with meals and to quench their thirst during hard work on hot days (not too many in Britain?). Bland Garland, a landowner, decided to stop supplying them beer and give them unlimited supplies of good tea. He found that his men worked much better and at the end of the day were less stupid and sullen and much more alert the next morning. All around the country the change to tea was followed and the tradition of tea breaks was adopted, with the famous mid morning “elevenses”. I can remember as an apprentice engineer with Dunlop in Coventry, the tea cart coming round with the milk and sugar already in the tea. That’s probably why I don’t use milk and sugar now and dissuade as many as possible to try the tea without milk first!

In World War 11 Winston Churchill acknowledged the importance of tea to the British people, and claimed that it was more important than ammunition. The historian A.A.Thompson wrote, “They talk about Hitler’s secret weapon, but what about England’s secret weapon, tea. That’s what keeps us going and that’s what going to carry us through.” Check out this “Tea making Tips” from 1941 on You Tube with the link below. Interesting, amusing, some have said the instructor would be good in a horror movie BUT you will learn some good points on brewing tea.

Tea Making tips from a 1941 video

So where did those teabags come from? As with many inventions it was a mistake, as in 1908 in New York a tea salesman began to send samples to his customers in small silk bags. They thought that the tea should be brewed in the bags and put them straight into their teapots, hence teabags. Now from recent numbers from the tea council, 65% of tea consumed in the USA is from teabags, and 85% in the UK. Iced tea was also a great opportunist story. John Blechyden was trying to promote hot Indian tea to visitors at the World Trade Fair in St Louis on a very hot and humid day in 1904. Blechyden was trying to convince Americans to buy Indian tea rather than teas from China. In desperation he brilliantly poured the hot tea over ice and invented iced tea. I think it is ironic that it was a Brit that is credited with the invention and yet customers always complain to me about difficulty in getting iced tea in England, but not the case at English Tealeaves, where we offer a choice of over 125 iced teas.

So where are we today – the tea industry (Camellia Sinensis tea) is a $5 billion industry in the USA, with the specialty tea side growing at rates of 10 to 15% per year, and tea bags declining. It’s difficult to get exact figures as it is for who drinks the most per capita. The Irish and British compete for the number one spot, followed some years by Kuwait. My thinking, however, is that the Chinese and Indians should be in the top two, but statistics are difficult to come by? America is nowhere near the top at the moment, but the popularity of tea is increasing dramatically, not just for health benefits but for the pure enjoyment of all the flavors that are offered. America will have some high quality tea plantations in the south in a few years. Rob

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