Today, tea is the second most widely-consumed beverage in the world. While the most common are black tea, oolong tea, green tea and white tea, herbal tea is beginning to see more widespread popularity due to its health benefits and exquisite taste.
It all began in China 5,000 years ago, perhaps accidentally. According to legend, leaves from a nearby tree fell into boiling water that servants were sanitizing for the emperor, Shen Nung. Luckily, he liked the serendipitous concoction and an idea was born. Tea seaped into all aspects of Chinese society as a remedy, a status symbol and a standard beverage.
Tea was introduced to Japan by a Buddhist priest returning from China in the sixth century. A famous Zen priest wrote that “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.” The tea ceremony became such a celebrated event in Japanese culture that it was revered as an art form and played an integral part in feudal negotiations.
A Portuguese missionary in China was the first European to come across tea. In the 16th century, the Portuguese began to ship tea to Lisbon and the Dutch imported tea to Amsterdam, which was then distributed across Europe. By the mid 17th century, tea was in vogue among the wealthy Dutch and many upper-class homes boasted an exclusive tearoom. It was here where milk was first added to tea. As supply increased, the price of tea fell and its popularity became more widespread across classes.
Around 1648, tea became very popular in France, particularly in Paris. Dutch traders also brought tea to New Amsterdam in the Americas (later re-named New York by the British), leading the colonists here to become dedicated tea drinkers.
In the 1660’s, the King of England, Charles II, married a tea-drinking Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. Tea, imported from India and China by Britain’s East India Company, became such a popular beverage in England that alcohol consumption decreased. As an enormous division of Britain’s international trade, tea was integral in the country’s worldwide dominance.
In 1773, American colonists protested the British government by destroying a large shipment of tea brought across the Atlantic to Boston Harbor by the East India Company. Later known as the Boston Tea Party, this event helped to start the American Revolution.
The great cultures of India have been drinking tea for its medicinal benefits for thousands of years. Sri Lanka, Africa and South America have seen increasing tea production in recent decades. Along with vodka, tea is the national drink of the Russians. In the U.S., the specialty tea market quadrupled from 1993 to 2008.
The history of tea continues to be written each year, with modern tea houses opening all the time across the globe, new varieties to taste and time-honored health benefits re-discovered. At Herbal Philosophy, we look forward to making our own mark in the world of tea.