A Brief History of Tea

Tea has a long history filled with legend, myth, and above all... deceit. This brief blog post will bring you through the origins of tea - and one of the largest instances of corporate espionage the world has ever seen.

Tea has a long history filled with legend, myth, and above all... deceit. This brief blog post will bring you through the origins of tea - and one of the largest instances of corporate espionage the world has ever seen.

Early Beginnings

The practice of consuming tea began off the Himalayan mountains; though originally the leaves were chewed rather than brewed. Eventually, the process of brewing tea took hold later, sometime around sometime later with the first recorded instance of consuming tea being in the 2nd century BCE [1]. 

Putting aside physical evidence and turning instead of legend, there are two primary origin stories of tea, one being of Confucius origins, and the other being from Buddhist.

The Confucian Origin of Tea

Shennong is a Chinese deity that is said to have taught men the agriculture and herbal medicine. One day, he sat under the Camellia Sinensis, or Tea Tree, to rest and drink hot water. As he sat, a leaf drifted down into his cup and brewed - turning the water green. He sipped the brew and noted his feeling of invigoration.

This origin story underlies not just the origin of tea, but the Confucian value of honoring one's ancestor - and their impression on the present.

The Buddhist Origin of Tea

Meanwhile, the Buddhists have their own origin story depicting the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. After a long walk, he sat down to rest and promptly - and unintentionally - fell asleep. Once he awoke he stirred with anger at his own lack of discipline. He tore his eyelashes and tossed them into the wind, which settled upon the ground and sprouted the first tea trees.

And just like the Confucian story, this underlies Buddhist principals; namely that of tossing the material possession into the world, and staying stimulated and awake.

Tea in the West

The majority of the history of tea takes place in the East, as tea did not start reaching the Western world until the early 17th century when Dutch traders brought it to port. England was relatively late to the Tea party, as tea didn't gain major popularity in the island until about 1660. 

It's important to note that tea exclusive came from China - it was a powerful monopoly that China enjoyed; quickly bleeding the empire dry while keeping their palates thirsty for tea. Reaching the 19th century, this problem was only exacerbated by the practice of afternoon tea becoming the standard in 1841.

During this time, the Chinese were notoriously difficult to trade with, as the Emperor could restrict trade as he pleased and tighten the trade regulations. This, with their withering bank accounts, meant that England needed to tip the scales back in their favor. The answer was found in a small flower...

Opium and Chinese Tea

The poppy flower, containing alkaloids such as morphine, can be easily processed and smoked resulting in a warming high, and a lessening of pain. For poor farmers, struggling with the harsh realities of day to day life, Opium could offer respite.

By 1800 Opium, already illegal to smoke within or sell within China, was legally imported in Canton, at about 200 tonnes. Far from the law of Beijing, the drug entered China and continued to build a local market. The irony of the Chinese ban was that the empire could not produce their own product, but relied on importation only, as law dictated.

This was good news for England, whose pockets of silver were already thinning. Tea could now be acquired and traded for a cheap product from Began. The East India Company single handled reversed the trade imbalance. By 1839, the Opium import had increased to 2,553 tonnes. The Chinese had had enough.

The Opium Wars

Rather than legalize the production and use in Opium, a largely requested alteration, the empire decreed that importation of all Opium would be illegal. The Chinese symbolized this by taking 2,800,000 lbs of Opium in a show of force.

England responded with a naval force that humiliated the Chinese Empire. Not once, but twice - as terms of the first treaty were not met by the Chinese and the second Opium war took place.

The Opium wars had far-reaching consequences - through the empire - and through the reaches of time. These wars destabilized the already weakening empire, leading to the eventual communist take over and cultural revolution. The wars opened more Chinese ports to the West and gave England Hong Kong. 

The Empire lost considerable ground, and the Opium trade was secured from England. But China had an ace up their sleeve that could effectively end the economic trade England depended on -- the legalization of Opium.

The Looming Threat

In 1846, approximately 10% of all taxes in England came from Chinese tea. The East Indian Company was struggling to compete with newer, faster boats and companies - along with foreign countries as the monopoly over Indian and Chinese trade was dissolved by the crown. All the while, the Chinese threat to legalize Opium loomed...

If Opium was legalized, the trade would end. China would have full control over the tea trade, and it would spell disaster for England and for the East India Company alike. This threat should not be considered lightly - the economic consequences of Opium legalization would be felt for centuries.

The East India company had already begun to find alternatives to Chinese tea as far back as 1824, with the annexation of Assam and then the purchase of Darjeeling in 1835. These regions were capable of growing Tea, or at least, the Indian variety Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica. 

Unfortunately, this tea was not of Chinese tea quality, as the English did not know the secret Chinese tea processing methods, growing and plucking methods... nor did they know that Green tea and Black tea were from the same plant!

The English market considered this product workable, or at least of "reasonable quality," when it hit the market in 1839. Though, it hardly lived up to the Good Stuff. If the East India Company couldn't find a solution - and fast - the company would be doomed.

Getting the Good Stuff

In 1848, the East India company drafted up a wild plan, unlike something the world has ever seen. They would send an occidental botanist, disguised as an oriental, deep into the uncharted and hostile reaches of China to (quite literally) smuggle out thousands of live Tea bushes and seeds.

This incredibly rich and detailed story is deserving of its own longer post, but for now, we'll focus on the highlights.

Robert Fortune made two trips within China. The first was to the green tea regions of Zhejiang and Anhui provinces. The second to the black tea & Oolong Wuyi mountains in Fujian. The first trip was largely a failure, but by the second Fortune had perfected his method of transporting the tea bushes using Wardian Cases (glass and wood terrariums.)

Yes, this seems a bit outrageous today - but the Chinese empire was massive, spoke different dialects, and for the most part have never had contact with a Westerner. It helped that Fortune had workable Chinese, and employed bodyguards and translators.

The Resolution

Following these trips, the East Indian Company now had plants, seeds, Indian farming grounds - and even Chinese tea masters that were lured out of China impart their production knowledge.

Fortune also discovered on his trip to the green tea regions of China that the majority of green tea exported from China was laced with carcinogenic dyes (Prussian blue & yellow gypsum) to give it a larger-than-life green appearance that sold well on the market. 

In other words, the Chinese stuff didn't sound so great anymore, and the Indian stuff was improving in quality. Even better, the price was dropping -- and fast.

The end of Chinese Tea

As the demand for Indian tea increase, Chinese Tea became far less important. Before long, the Chinese became more isolated, and Chinese tea exportation effectively was ceased through the 1900's due to China's self-insolation.

To fill this gap in the market, Indian teas continue to expand, and herbs and flower entered the market marketed as "Herbal Teas" started to appear. 

The famous Longjing's, astringent but intoxicating Bi Luo Chun's, wild mountain Wuyi Cliff Teas and bitter yet sweet Puers were far from being discovered again by the Western palate. The end of Chinese tea had come.

It wasn't until the early 1990's that trade slowly resumed. The west began discovering the richness of Chinese tea that had long since been forgotten. These high grades, rare, single-origin teas had been replaced by lower-grade Indian blends, stale tea dust sold in proportioned bags, and herbal mixes that are not tea.

And that brings us to today

With the popularity of Chinese tea increasing in the west - especially in the Terroir minded France and the ever adventurer United States, more and more people are turning to authentic Chinese tea. 

The rich history of tea has drafted the borders of countries, has implicated the spread of communism in China, and has directly assisted the global domination of Imperial England. We can now experience the rich history, and taste, of tea from at our desk. It's a turbulent history, but as juicy and rich has the brews it speaks of.

All of the Tea we carry are those terroir, single-sourced Chinese teas which are just being rediscovered. Many of them come from the mountains that Robert Fortune snuck on to nearly 200 years ago. We welcome you to give them a try yourself and see what all the fuss has been about for the last 2,000 years.

101Marc FalzonChina, History