For the love of tea…Tea is one of the most loved drinks in the world today. It can help ease ailments, provide a cold drink on a hot day, and is revered and almost worshiped in certain parts of the world. There is no doubt that tea will continue to be a popular drink for the foreseeable future all over the world. But did you ever wonder how it became this way? Let’s examine in detail the history of tea.
Origins of the Tea Plant
Tea is native to the eastern parts of Asia due to the climate and soil conditions there. It is thought that it most likely originated somewhere between China and what used to be called Burma (Myanmar). There are many variations of the tea we drink, but all tea comes from one main species of plant called Camellia Sinensis. Humans have cultivated and modified tea plants, combining different ones to make a new plant. Camellia Taliensis is one such plant that has been hybridized using the Sinensis plant.
It is widely agreed that tea as we know it originated around 22,000 years ago in China and since then it has had an interesting and explosive growth all over the world. As ancient people learned of the medicinal value of the tea plant, early scientists began to experiment with the leaves learning more and more about the value of tea leaves for the human body. As this experimentation became more well-known and published, the practice of experimentation spread around the world.
While the medicinal value of tea was becoming more accepted, the drinking of tea in hot water began to become commonplace. It was easy to soak the leaves in hot water and get the benefits of the leaves without having to chew or eat the leaves, though people were eating tea leaves in many parts of the world at this point.
The Beginning of Drinking Tea
Drinking hot tea in water was said to have probably begun in the beautiful Yunnan region of China, where early use of tea was still mainly medicinal. It eased digestion, helped with mental clarity, and helped with a host of other health issues. Early on, tea was not yet a casual drink, instead, it was considered more of medicine.
There are ancient legends in China of the origin of tea, which you can read more about here. The short version of the story is that an ancient Monk was trying to meditate for years but he kept falling asleep, but when he ate some tea leaves, he was able to complete his years-long meditation. There are a few popular legends with conflicting information about the first use of tea, but they all agree it happened in China in ancient times.
As Chinese people began to drink tea for medicine, it was mostly nobles and wealthy people as tea was still rare and expensive and considered a luxury. This changed over time and word began to spread in China about this amazing plant that could heal ailments and be drunk in hot water. Because of the physical proximity of China to Japan and other Asian countries, it is no surprise that the earliest recorded record of widespread tea drinking and tea culture seems to originate in Asia.
Tea in Early Asia
China was the first country to popularize tea where there was widespread drinking and using the leaves for medicinal purposes, but it was not the only country.
China was where tea came from in the early days, it was not always known to grow, or recognized in all the other Asian countries, like Japan, though it most likely was growing in small spots here and there. From China, tea was showing up in Japan and all around Asia in the early days. It started in Asia and became almost commonplace there, but the destiny of tea to take over the world was just beginning
Rise of Popularity in the World
Tea began to be imported by many countries all over the world. It was well known that it had great medicinal value and was starting to be blended with spices and fruits and becoming an expensive luxury import to other places where it did not grow natively.
Spice trading was big business during this time, and tea became one of the hot commodities leaving China and showing up thousands of miles away all over the world. It was loaded onto ships and sailed across the oceans to other countries in the west and Europe, and worldwide. This was making China start to emerge as a major world economy due to its sought-after tea and exotic spices.
Tea in China
From the earliest ancient times, China’s relationship with tea has been special. Unlike many other nations that regard tea as a commodity like rugs or spices, the Chinese have always regarded it as a spiritual property. The healing power of tea is thought of as divine, and it is almost worshipped in China.
The Chinese have a very intense tea culture involving detailed ceremonies for how to properly brew, share, smell, savor, and drink tea. There is a special tea ceremony just for weddings, and another for greeting a family member. These ceremonies often require a special set of teaware and some are even performed in special rooms constructed just for such occasions. While many countries respect and love tea, no nation and no culture have a more well documented and widely practiced tea culture than China does.
Tea culture and the spiritual connection to tea seems to be waning in other Asian countries, such as Japan, but in China still today, these rituals are practiced all over the country and tea culture is thriving even as modernization is weakening its grip on the younger generation.
China is synonymous with tea culture for good reason. Tea originated there, and it is more respected and widely used in China today than it is in any other nation. In fact, China has more than double the tea production and exporting of its closest competitor, Japan.
Japan has a long history of using tea for medicine and recreation as well. In Japan, it is said that some monks on a trek to china returned with some seeds. After experiencing tea while in China, they were impressed and excited to bring the plant home and share it with their people.
Buddhist monks who returned from a study trip to China came back to Japan and started 2 schools of Buddhism. In these schools, there is a written record of the monks using tea for the first known tea ceremony in Japan. You can read more about this story here.
Tea drinking in early Japan was popularized by the Monks, and then became widely used later by Japan’s warrior class. This was mostly done in rituals and was mainly used for medicine and became known as a hangover cure in the warrior class circles.
As time went on, word spread in Japan about this new medicine, and it was not long before it was being harvested in Monasteries in the mountains of Japan. New tea farms eventually began to spring up all over Japan as importing tea from China was a more expensive option, and tea seemed to grow well in the Japanese mountains and certain provinces.
Although tea is still a big deal in Japan, it is nowhere near as popular today as it was several decades ago. Japan is one of the most progressive nations in Asia, and it is becoming more westernized every year, as young people continue to adopt western culture and western drinks.
There are Starbucks everywhere in Japan and the Japanese kids are more interested in fancy coffee drinks these days than they are in tea. There is some hope, however as the tea producers in Japan are finding creative ways to make tea relevant again in the youth culture of today. You can read more about this trend and the history of tea in Japan here.
Korea is not as often mentioned when it comes to tea and tea culture as China or Japan are, but Korea also has a rich history of tea and tea culture. Like Japan, it was Buddhist monks who brought tea into Korea, educating people about its medicinal qualities and teaching them how to brew it to make a strong drink that will aid in digestion and help with mental focus and clarity.
It is thought that tea drinking must have begun sometime around 57 BC when monks brought tea to Korea. It is thought that soon after the Chinese tea was replaced with a native species called Paeksan-cha which was grown on Mount Paektusan. This is said to be a very old plant and native to this mountainous region of Korea. The tea was used by local monks at first and was regarded for its medicinal value and calming effect on the body.
Chong Yak-Yong is credited with bringing tea to more people in Korea around the 1800s. There was a tea lover society created and the widespread drinking of tea was set in motion. The tea that he planted to harvest for the monks continues to grow in the area to this day.
Another notable tea ambassador to Korea was another monk Cho Ui. He wrote books about tea and how to grow and harvest it and his book is still one of the most highly regarded books about tea in Korea today. There were many notable early tea masters in Korea, most of which were men, but there were also some female tea masters making a name for themselves.
Chae Won-Hwa was a student of Hyo Dang and is regarded as his rightful successor. She was a big influence in spreading the word about tea to the everyday people in Korea, and a big reason tea is so popular in the country today.
There is an accepted way of preparing and drinking tea in Korea, much like the Chinese way, but different in some aspects of brewing and teaware. There are many additions to the brewed tea that are enjoyed in Korea, like liquor.
Korea does have its own unique tea culture and its own world-renowned brews and styles of tea, but it is nowhere near the giant in the world of tea as its neighbor, China.
Turkey is not one of the early adopters of tea drinking, in fact, it is a comparatively recent addition to the list of countries well known for tea and tea culture. There are some that claim tea was used and traded in Turkey as early as 400 BC but the only written factual record shows tea becoming popular and commonplace in the early 1900s.
Tea cultivation was attempted in Turkey in Bursa in the late 1800s. This region of Turkey does not have the necessary soil or climate to produce tea, and the effort to grow tea there failed.
Eventually, tea was successfully grown in Turkey, but the finished product is not the same as the Asian teas you have become familiar with.
Turkish Tea Preparation
Turkish tea tends to be black tea or darker red tea. The Turkish have a different way of brewing tea that is unique to Turkey. The tea is prepared using two pots which are designed specifically for brewing tea. The first pot is used to boil the water, and this pot is much larger. The boiling water is then added to the second, smaller pot along with loose leaf tea directly into the water. This makes a strong fragrant spicy tea that Turkey has become known for.
Turkish tea glasses are small glass containers often shaped like the flowers of a tulip. This helps the tea to stay hot because the cup is so small and serves a second function of showing off the tea’s deep red color which is desirable in Turkish tea culture.
Tea culture is thriving in Turkey today. Drinking tea has become an important part of daily life. It is usually drunk at a certain time which is usually between 2-3 pm. This is not the only time tea gets drank, but it is the accepted time in the culture for normal afternoon tea.
After World War 1 coffee became scarce in Turkey due to supply chain issues, and that is when tea became an alternative to the increasingly expensive and hard to get coffee. The affection for tea in Turkey is as strong today as it was after the war.
Tea became one of the most exported agricultural crops in Turkey and found itself becoming a large part of the overall economy. This increased the respect for tea and more and more people began drinking tea instead of coffee.
Today, tea is a big part of life in Turkey. Much like in England where afternoon tea is a national habit, Turkey has tea embedded deep in its culture, although the history of tea in Turkey is much shorter than in many of the other countries in this list.
Tea in India
Tea has a long history in India. The first documented use of tea was in 1662 by Mendelslo, noting that they used it to calm the stomach and for other generally medicinal uses. It is also recorded that tea drank with lemons and sometimes sugar around the same time. It was said to have helped relieve headaches.
In the early 1800s, a large company began to produce tea in a large-scale production house. In the 1820s The British East India Tea Company took over a large region from the Ahom kings through a famous treaty called the Yandaboo treaty. This was the beginning of large-scale tea production in India.
Chinese tea was also being grown in India in addition to the Indian tea plants. Robert Fortune is spent a couple of years in China getting seeds and plants to bring back to India. It is written that he introduced over 20,000 new tea plants to India in the Darjeeling area. He also introduced more plants to the mountainous region of the Himalayas.
Indian tea became known for its strength, having a much stronger taste and effect than the more docile Chinese varieties. It became extremely popular in Britain and India began selling a lot of tea to the British Isles. Tea started to become a big part of the Indian economy around this time. The tea industry was a large money maker, but it was still being done in the old way, when the industrial revolution started, tea production in India began to ramp up.
In modern times, India is one of the largest producers of tea in the world, with China sitting at the top spot. The tea industry continues to be a big part of the economy and has helped India become a more powerful nation.
Tea Culture in India
Tea is popular in India as you may imagine. The Indian people love to drink tea at all hours of the day. In fact, tea is considered the official drink in Assam. India is not the largest producer of tea in the world, but it is the largest consumer of tea.
Herbal teas are highly popular in India, and the country is known to produce many excellent varieties of herbal tea. Tea is mixed with beneficial herbs to form a new drink with a unique taste and unique health benefits.
Ayurveda which is the practice of healing the body with nature has become popular not only in India but all over the world. Since this practice involves healing from nature, natural herbal teas are a large part of it. The popularity of Ayurveda has helped Indian herbal tea to become even more sought after in India, and the world.
The most famous Indian tea is Darjeeling tea. It is only made in the high elevation regions of India and produces a unique blend and flavor that has become world-famous. It is unique because it can be processed to make oolong, green, white, or black tea. It has about 50mg of caffeine per cup, but this can change based on the strength of the blend used. It comes from the Chinese plant Camellia sinensis and in its natural form, it is a light tea with a flowery smell and taste.
This Indian tea is extremely high in antioxidants which provide numerous health benefits. It is also known to be an excellent stress reducer which makes it popular in the western world where fast-paced lifestyles can get people stressed out.
India has a firm foothold in the world of tea, with its two most famous exports being herbal teas, and Darjeeling tea. It is not going to take over China as the largest producer, but the world of tea would not be the same without India.
History of Tea in Russia
It is believed that Russians first discovered tea in the 1500s after Cossack Atamans paid a visit to China. This is not confirmed with any documentation and is more of a legend, but many people believe it to be true. The legend was made popular in the book Tales of the Russian People written by Ivan Sakharov. Experts believe this to be pure fiction, however.
Tea in Russia really began to pick up speed in the 1600s when a Mongolian noble gave a bunch of tea to a Russian Tsar. This is how tea was truly introduced to the Russian people, despite the legend claiming otherwise.
Once tea was established to be a good drink, the Chinese began to bring large amounts of tea into the country, trading their tea leaves for animal furs. There was a supply chain problem early on sending the price of tea sky high, and it became difficult to get tea in Russia.
This problem was solved eventually with a treaty, and regular importation of tea from China could resume. This brought the price down by a considerable amount, and tea became widely available to average Russian people. The availability and price made the popularity of tea spread fast, and soon almost every Russian knew what tea was and was regularly drinking it. Because of the cold temperatures in Russia, the hot beverage became something of a national drink, and it remains so today.
Types of Tea Popular in Russia
Black tea is by far the most popular variety in the country but as time goes on green tea is picking up in popularity. The traditional tea most Russians drink is called Russian Caravan tea and it was the variety originally brought into the country by Chinese traders back before the shortage. This tea has a unique flavor that some describe as smoky which comes from the campfires of the caravan used to import the leaves. In today’s world, however, the original smoky flavor is produced by using some creative production tricks, since it is no longer imported by trade route on the backs of camels.
Russian Tea Culture
In Russia, tea is usually adorned with additional flavors and toppings, as opposed to drank by itself like they do in China. It is often paired with syrup or jelly or cookies and the like. It is usually part of a more complex drink in which sweet things are added to make the flavor more interesting. In the Soviet era, drinking tea was something that working-class people did nearly every day.
Today, the most popular way to drink tea there is with a sugar cube held between the teeth. This tradition started in the early 1900s and really seemed to stick.
Tea History in England and the UK
In the 17th century, tea was brought into Britain by East Indian traders. Initially, tea was expensive due to the rarity and difficulty to get it to the Island. It was consumed by wealthy people and was carefully guarded to not get stolen.
The tea-drinking ritual that Britain is known for today is said to have been started by Catherine of Braganza who was the famous wife of Charles the 2nd. She drank tea in the royal court and this ritual became a symbol of the British Aristocrats. It was considered something wealthy society types would do in the afternoon. At this time, it was not popular with normal people mainly because they could not afford it.
Eventually, the price of tea leveled out and it became extremely popular with British ladies who loved to emulate Catherine. Small tea shops began to open around London and other cities in England. As the British Empire ruled over India the national availability and love of tea skyrocketed, making tea available to all the commoners. This is the point when the British national obsession with tea really began to take hold.
Tea was mainly drunk plain, with no added substances in the early days. However, in the 1800s when tea drinking was all the rage in the UK, people began to add milk and sugar to their teas to make it sweeter and add a bit of uniqueness to the drink.
Tea started out as mostly a drink for rich people, but in the early 1900s the prices for tea started to fall and the availability became more widespread. The working-class people began to have access to tea, and it became the most popular drink in the country. Nearly all British people were having afternoon tea by the 1920s, and the fancy way it was drank became a curiosity to the rest of the world, mainly other western countries.
Today, tea is still a popular drink in Britain, but the popularity has fallen since the midcentury. This is most likely due to the evils of sugar and caffeine being popularized in the modern media. More people are drinking healthy beverages and herbal teas than the strong brews with sugar and milk in them. There are still many Britons who enjoy a strong cup of tea with milk and sugar, but not nearly as many as there once was a few decades ago.
For years to come people in Britain will continue to drink tea, only it is sure to morph into a healthier creation with herbal and fruity varieties becoming more popular due to the health risks of sugar and caffeine.
Tea in the United States
The United States first became aware of tea in the mid-1600s. The Dutch introduced it via the Dutch East India Company which was a major player in the early tea industry. In the early days, tea was considered a drink for the wealthier people due to the high cost of importing it from thousands of miles away.
Rich early Americans began collecting expensive teapots and cups and showing off their collections of exotic teas from around the world. It was an upper-class cultural drink that was not often seen outside the major cities and population centers where rich people lived at the time.
The Influence of Peter Stuyvesant
At the end of the 1600s Peter Stuyvesant, who was one of the higher-ups in the Dutch East India company became mayor of New Amsterdam. Of course, it made financial sense for him to spread the word about tea and he is widely credited with starting the tea craze in early New York high society circles.
Fun Fact: The British took control of New Amsterdam in 1644 and renamed it New York, reflecting the British name.
In early New York, the aristocrats that were drinking tea quickly adopted the posh mannerisms of the British when it came to drinking tea. This was seen as a sign of status and was looked upon as the proper way to act, especially for women.
This was all happening before America was a nation. The tea culture was exploding in New York and some other early colonies where wealthy people were congregating and building homes. Of course, everyone knows that tea has a critical role in the history of America.
King George the 3rd decided to start taxing tea heavily to the American colonies in 1773, causing the already expensive prices to rise even more. This led to an uprising and eventually the war for independence known as the American Revolution.
After the Revolutionary War
After the war, when America became its own country, the prices for tea began to fall, and more common people could afford it. America began to trade with China without the impedance of the British, which allowed them the leverage and bargaining power to command a fairer price on the tea it was importing.
At this time Americans were used to drinking Chinese tea known as Hyson which was a green tea, and some black tea varieties from the Fujian region. China was the main supplier for tea to America, but this was about to change.
As American trade began to open even more with the Chinese, the US forced Japan to begin exporting tea to the country. Tea became even more affordable as the supply was now coming from 2 different countries, forcing them to compete on price.
The ritual of afternoon tea began to spread. What used to be reserved for aristocrats in New York was becoming commonplace all over the country. Housewives began to have afternoon tea, inviting their friends to come over where they would show off their teaware and varieties of tea. This mimicked the British ritual but became a very American thing to do by the 1950s. It was around this time that tea had become popular in almost every major country on earth.
Tea in the USA Today
Tea is extremely popular In the USA in modern times. Because of the well-known health benefits and the wide variety of flavors and brews, tea has become second to coffee for hot beverages. Americans drink about 84 billion servings of tea a year which translates to roughly 4 billion gallons. Most Americans tend to drink black tea while there is a fairly large percentage (15%) that regularly consume green tea. Green tea is rising in popularity, however, and may overtake black tea in the coming years as the health benefits of the non-oxidized green variety become more well known to the general population of regular Americans.
The Future of Tea in America
The United States is currently the third-largest importer of tea around the world, trailing behind Russia and Pakistan. American is growing as far as being a tea producer as well as a major tea consumer. The future of tea is bright in the USA. The young people are drinking a lot of tea, with 4 out of 5 millennials saying they drink tea regularly. This means that as this generation ages, they will continue to drink tea, strengthening the demand for tea and spreading the popularity to their children of the next generation. Surprisingly, Americans tend to prefer drinking iced tea as opposed to the traditional hot tea, with about 75% saying they prefer the iced version.
Tea industry professionals project more growth in the American tea market, saying that the growth of tea year over year is expected to be between 1 and 3%. This does not sound like much but considering that so many people are already drinking it regularly, it could be that in a short amount of time nearly every American will drink tea at least a few times a week.
The Future of Tea in the World
Tea has been around in some form for an extremely long time as you have seen in this article. Each country has its own unique relationship with tea, with some of them starting to drink it less, while others are beginning to drink it more often. In some Asian countries like Japan tea consumption is on the decline, while in some western countries like America, it is on a steady increase in popularity.
The Economic Opportunity
Because tea can be grown in many of the world’s mountainous regions and even lowlands, there is a tremendous economic opportunity for small and emerging economies to jump on board and get involved in the world’s tea economy.
This opportunity is becoming more well known as some smaller countries are beginning to exploit the giant need for tea around the world. As major tea producers like Japan, China, India, and the USA continue to refine the production process, smaller nations will take note, and producing large amounts of tea on a large scale will become easier and more cost-effective. This will make the probability of new tea producers jumping into the game even higher.
The Medicinal Tea Opportunity
As more and more strains of tea and flavors become available in more and more countries, tea overall will no doubt continue to experience worldwide growth. The leaves of the tea plant are so useful in other ways besides being used for drinks; I would expect the medicinal benefits of tea leaves to catch on as well.
It has been widely documented that drinking tea can help open the circulatory system, help with an upset stomach, and even help to heal wounds among a long list of other health benefits. There are already many supplements using tea leaves in capsule form so that people that do not like drinking it can still enjoy the many benefits that tea provides.
Tea Culture is the Key
I believe that tea will become more popular than coffee in the United States at some point in the future. I am sure there are many that will disagree with me. I understand this argument because coffee is so deeply rooted in our culture in this country. I believe one of the main reasons coffee has caught on so well and remained the top hot drink is because of the culture surrounding it. It is a normal activity to go to the coffee shop and sit down and read the paper or get on your laptop and do some work while having a cup.
If the same kind of culture would start to catch on with tea (it already seems to be with the younger generation) then I think tea could overtake coffee. Personally, I love tea and would never switch to coffee! There is just something satisfying about a hot cup of Earl Gray first thing in the morning and another hot cup of green tea in the afternoon to keep my focus. Tea is the best drink in the world, here is to it staying that way for another thousand years!
If tea is your thing, you should really take a look at our big guide of the best Asian tea sets!