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The story of tea

Tea goes by many different names: te, tee, teh, cha, chai, caj, cay. Its history is as long and complicated as it is beautiful.

The origin of the legend of tea goes back as far as 2737 B.C. The Emperor of China, Shan Nong, boiled his drinking water. One day, while boiling his water in the garden, a few tea leaves fell into his cup. The water turned a stunning color and released an intoxicating aroma. When drinking the tea-infused water, he found it to be refreshing and energizing. He commanded that his garden be filled with tea trees, and the custom spread quickly.

Until the 5th century A.D., tea was primarily used as a remedy. China’s upper class adopted the fashion of presenting packages of tea as highly esteemed gifts, and of enjoying drinking tea at social events and in private homes. Around the same time during the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese tea ceremony began to develop and the tidings of tea began to spread as it reached Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century. When Charles II of England married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, she took the tea habit to Great Britain in the 17th century.

In 1600, Queen Elizabeth, longing for exotic luxuries, founded the East India Company to procure fine woven cloths, spices, herbs, and other riches from the East. The East India Company held exclusive rights to English-Oriental trade until 1833. At first, the East India Company’s tea shipments were meager and subject to tariffs. Consequently, enterprising merchants often ignored the imposed monopoly and illegally imported tea. These contraband shipments not only increased the supply of tea on mainland England but also stimulated its sale and allure by offering this forbidden tea at a lower price. Thus, tea was no longer reserved for high society England, and by the middle of the 18th century, had replaced ale as England’s national drink.

Tea was first introduced in the 1820s to India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. The British, using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese planting and cultivating techniques, launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export.

Accordingly, as tea drinking blossomed in England, so did it also in the English colonies. By the turn of the 18th century, tea was publicly available in colonial Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the Colonial tea trade was almost exclusively with England. They soon placed increasingly higher tariffs on tea as a way to recoup the expense of the French and Indian War. These tea taxes prompted the colonists to take action. On December 16, 1773, a band of approximately 60 outraged colonists, disguised as Indians, gathered at Griffin’s Wharf, boarded the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, and tossed hundreds of pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. Known as the Boston Tea Party, this event was a catalyst to the colonists fight for independence.

It also contributed to our all-American preference for coffee (and alcohol) over tea, according to cultural historians, but over time, we’ve learned to appreciate the joy of tea in all its varieties. More on that next time, as we explain how tea is harvested and processed, resulting in a range of flavors and properties.

Now that we know how tea made its way around the world, it’s time to learn more about the tea tree and how to brew an excellent cuppa. Many tea drinkers aren’t aware that black, green, white and oolong teas all come from the same plant, since their taste and characteristics are so different. Tune in next time when we explore the different types of tea.

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