When the Portuguese and Dutch first imported tea into Europe in 1610, Shakespeare had 6 years to live and Rembrant was 4 years old. England's relationship with tea didn't begin until 1662 when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Britain's new queen had always loved tea and brought with her, as part of her dowry, a chest of Chinese tea. She began serving the tea to her aristocratic friends at Court, and word of the exotic beverage spread quickly.
As an imported luxury, only the wealthy could afford to drink tea. The price of tea was 16-60 shillings a pound, making even the cheapest pound of tea an entire month's wage for the average laborer. As such, tea consumption became highly fashionable and elitist. According to a London magazine in the 1740's, it cost more to maintain a fashionable tea table with tea and accessories than to support 2 children and a nurse. Being able to serve and drink tea with elegance and skill marked social status and indicated good breeding and intellect. Many 18th century English and Dutch paintings commissioned by wealthy families show them having tea.
Up until the mid-17th century, all tea produced in China was green tea. However, as foreign trade increased the profit-conscious Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the leaves by fermenting them in the air and then halting the natural decomposition by baking. This newly-invented "black" tea kept its flavor and aroma longer than traditional, delicate green teas and was better equipped for the long journeys involved in transporting tea into other countries.
In order to keep up with rising demand, the British Royal family chartered the East India Company and granted it a monopoly on all trade throughout Asia, India, Russia, and eastern Africa. With the right to acquire territory, coin money, keep armies and forts, punish lawbreakers, form foreign alliances and declare war, the East India Company became the most powerful monopoly the world has ever known. . . and tea was its primary commodity. The British East India Company changed the world. They claimed Honk Kong, Singapore, and India as British colonies, prompted a global economy and started several wars. All of this for tea!
As tea consumption increased, Britain's exports could not keep up with the demand for tea. . . until they found opium. The West's unquenchable thirst for tea and the unconscionable lengths the British East India Company would go to fulfill this demand resulted in lifetimes of addiction. The illegal opium trade continued until 1839 when a Chinese official drown 20,000 chests of opium in the sea near Canton. A year later, Britain declared war on China and China retaliated by placing a strict embargo on all exports of tea.
Even before the Opium Wars began, China was hesitant about trading with the west. Their sense of privacy was so extreme that the Chinese government even considered their national language a state secret. Merchants caught teaching the "foreign devils" their language were punished by death. The difficulties in continuing trade with China forced Britain to explore other alternatives and they began searching for a way to grow their own tea.
India appeared as a promising location for tea plantations due to the favorable climate and high altitudes. Also, explorers had discovered indigenous tea plants growing in Assam in 1823. However, nobody knew how to produce tea once it was picked. It took years of effort, several failed attempts, and, eventually, sending spies sent to Chinese tea plantations to figure it out.
Many Chinese tea plants were relocated to India during this time, and can still be found today in old Darjeeling tea estates. Tea plants native to India taste completely different (they are typically stronger with a malty and sometimes harsh flavor) than the original Chinese teas. Europeans quickly adjusted to the new taste of tea, and began adding milk and sugar as well as other spices such as nutmeg, ginger, and mint, to temper the strong, often bitter brew.