As the most popular drink in the world after water, tea has had an enormous impact on our collective history, culture, and economics.
Tea was popular before the Egyptians built the great pyramids and was traded among Asian countries even before Europe left the dark ages. In fact, the story of tea is interwoven with royalty in all parts of the world, has influenced several major wars and is responsible for the fortunes of the first 3 American millionaires. Not bad for a few leaves!
According to Chinese legend, the Emperor Shennong discovered tea in the year 2737 B.C. when leaves from a wild tea tree blew into his pot of boiling water. He found the aroma inviting, tried a sip. . . and quickly drank the whole pot.
Tea was initially used in China as a medicine to treat a variety of ailments and to increase concentration and alertness. However, due to its refreshing and restorative properties, tea quickly became part of everyday life. In fact, tea became so important that the cultivation of the crop was tightly controlled-specifying that only young women were to handle the tealeaves and that these women must not eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odor on their fingertips might contaminate the precious leaves.
Considered the birthplace of tea, China produces more tea today than any other country worldwide.
During the 8th century, tea began to spread outside of China. Tea's popularity in Tibet and the surrounding kingdoms led to its use as a form of currency. Pressed bricks or even coins made from dried and powdered tea could be used to buy anything and workmen and servants were routinely paid in this method.
At the beginning of the 9th century, Buddhist monks introduced tea to Japan. For centuries following, tea was an integral part of Japanese monastery life and monks used tea to help them stay alert during long hours of meditation. By the early 1300's tea gained popularity throughout Japanese society. Its early religious importance permanently colored the meaning and value the Japanese associate with tea and directly influenced the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Based on the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese Tea Ceremony evolved in the late 15th century. The ceremony places supreme importance on respecting the act of making and drinking tea. It captures the essential elements of Japanese philosophy and interweaves four principals: harmony (with nature and people), purity (of heart and mind), respect (for others) and tranquility. In essence, the tea ceremony is a quest for spiritual fulfillment through devotion and meditation of the making and serving tea and, by extension, to the humble routine of daily life. The tea ceremony was considered such an important part of Japanese society that special tea rooms were built in backyard gardens and women were required to master the art of the tea ceremony before allowing to marry.
In 1618, the Chinese presented a gift of tea to Tsar Alexis of Russia. Everyone was curious about the new beverage and tea quickly gained popularity. A camel caravan trade route (covering 11,000 miles of difficult terrain) emerged to transport tea into the country. To keep up with the demand, nearly 6,000 camels (carrying 600 lbs of tea each) entered Russia each year. That's over 3.5 million pounds of tea! The camel caravan ended with the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903--cutting the journeys length from 1 ½ years to just a few weeks.
Today, Russian Caravan (a black tea blend named after this historic route) is made from tealeaves that have been dried over smokey pine fires. The leaves absorb the flavor and aroma of smoke, similar to the way the tea absorbed the scent of camels and campfires over 100 years ago.
The Portuguese were the first to bring tea into Europe, followed by the Dutch and French. Great Britain was the last of the great seafaring nations to establish a foothold in the Chinese and East Indian trade routes.