The History of Tea

On National Tea Day a bit about the History of Tea

the history of tea

Today (21st April) is National Tea Day in the UK (and also the Queen’s birthday, not a coincidence I feel).  I thought the history of tea would make a good read given that no good boat galley would be without a good supply of tea.  It’s a fascinating story with tales of drug dealing and industrial espionage…

Camellia sinensis

history of tea

The leaves that are dried and used for tea making come from the Camellia plant and all the different 3000 varieties that exist today can be traced back to one, Camellia sinensis.  The Camellia is an evergreen plant originating in southeast Asia.  It can grow up to 6 metres tall but is usually cultivated in tea plantations to waist height.  It is pruned so as to have a flat top or “plucking table” that the pickers can easily pick the leaves from.  Once picked the leaves are left to wilt, then rolled and then left to ferment for a few days.  Next, the leaves are fired at a high temperature.  The resulting tea will taste differently depending on the variety of plant and where it was grown.  Many commercially sold teas are a blend of different plant varieties.

2nd Century BC

Tea most likely originated in China around the 2nd Century BC as a medicinal drink.  China has the earliest record of tea consumption but it’s difficult to date because the word ‘tea’ did not appear until the 8th Century AD.  With Chinese philosophers declaring tea as a vital ingredient to the elixir of life, it soon became popular.  The Chinese began to trade tea further afield and to make transportation easier they compressed the leaves into bricks.  These bricks became a valuable commodity to such an extent that if a piece broke off it could be used as currency.

the history of tea

19th Century

Let’s fast forward now in the history of tea to the 1800s.  With the age of sail and global trading with the east in full swing, tea was a must-have commodity in Britain.  Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza had introduced tea into Britain in the mid-1600s and started Britain’s love affair with tea.  By the 1800’s Britain was importing tea from China.  With only opium to trade that was grown in Pakistan (then part of the British Empire), a trade deficit emerged. This was fast becoming a headache and the British East India Company wanted to redress the imbalance and start tea plantations of their own in India.  In 1848 they sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to China with the express purpose of stealing not only tea plants and knowledge but possibly even plantation workers.   Fortune was successful in his mission, the stolen plants were not. Many did not survive in the northwestern area of India that the British East India Company has chosen for their venture.  However, the knowledge Fortune acquired was instrumental in the later success of tea production in Assam and Sri Lanka.

tea plantations

Da-Hong Pao Tea

With the global tea market being worth around $52billion a year, tea plants are now grown in 45 countries around the world including Great Britain.  The most expensive tea you can buy for your store locker is an aged or antique version of Da-Hong Pao.  Costing around $1million per kilogram, this dark, heavily oxidised oolong tea comes from a very old and rare tree.  Failing that the RNLI do sell a rather nice Lifesavers Tea

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