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History of Tea

China – the cradle of civilization of tea

The word “tea” was derived from the Chinese word “cha”, as represented here by the symbol

Tea was first consumed as a therapeutic beverage in China sometime around the Xi Han dynasty (206 BC - 8 AD). Not until the Dong Han dynasty (25 - 220 AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 265 AD), did tea became a common drink.

During the second half of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the art of tea came into being and took its place side by side with painting, calligraphy, poetic and music composition, and other scholarly pastimes. The first tea specific manuscript - The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing), was published during this period. It was commissioned by tea merchants and written by the poet Lu Yu. In the ancient time tea was commonly compressed into roasted cakes and began to travel as a commodity. Tea was bartered beyond the confines of the Great Wall in exchange for horses, weapons, or peace by the nomadic barbarians. The first Tea Roads lead Northern China to Mongolia or bridged Southwest China to Tibet. The latter covered 1500 kilometers of distance and was frequently traveled by convoys of camels or yaks making their way through some fifty mountain passes at altitudes often exceeding 5,000 meters.

The discovery of tea in Japan

Tea made its way to Japan late in the sixth century, along with another famous Chinese export - Buddhism. Japanese monk Saicho (767-822) brought back from China a few tea shrubs to plant in Sakamoto, at the base of the sacred Mt. Hiei, but a true acceptance did not come about until the end of the 12th century. The popularity of tea peaked in the 16th century, thanks to Sen-no-Rikyu, who raised the tea ceremony (Chanoyu) to an art form by means of a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism.


The Europeans encountered the tea

A few missionaries mentioned “suavem gustu, nomine chia” (with wild taste, named “chia”) as early as the 16th century, but no Europeans had a hand in tea as a trade item until the Dutch began an active and lucrative trade near 1610 which brought back the first case of tea. This Dutch vessel returning from Java, where the Dutch had established a storage place to house goods from the Orient, must have obtained the first case from the Chinese, who in return got a crate of sage. The Dutch were convinced the sage would conquer Asia, but instead it was the tea that had conquered Europe.


The English took control

The English discovered tea a few decades later than their counterparts on the European continent. In fact, it took time for the Brits to replace their favorite drink – café, with tea!

Believing that Western influence through trade was corrupting their culture, Japan closed its ports to the West in 1639 following an incident involving Portuguese missionaries, making China the only possible supplier of tea. The all mighty East India Company, established in the early 16th century buy Queen Elisabeth, began political maneuvers to eliminate all competitors (the French, Dutch, etc.) in order to monopolize the trade with China. It was able to achieve this objective from 1715 to 1834.

The Boston Tea Party

To protest the excessive taxes and duties on goods imposed on the Colonist, on the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of men calling themselves the "Sons of Liberty" went to the Boston Harbor. The men were dressed as Indians. They boarded three British ships: the Beaver, the Eleanor and the Dartmouth, and dumped 342 cases of tea into the Boston Harbor. The event came to known as the Boston Tea Party sparked the American Revolution.


The tea clippers

Until the mid 1800's, cargo ships including those carrying tea, usually took between twelve and fifteen months to make passage from ports in the East to those in London. East India Company ships, given exclusive control of the tea trade by Act of Parliament in 1832, raced to be the first ships to land tea in Britain. The Americans were the first to design a new type of clipper. Recognizing that the old ships had to carry too much weight, they designed a more streamlined vessel, based on the old Baltimore clippers. These were capable of carrying greater cargo, providing it was loaded correctly, at a greater speed. The new, faster clipper was born - so called because they were designed to "clip"; or get the last ounce of speed from the wind.


These clippers sped along at nearly 18 knots by contemporary accounts - nearly as fast as a modern ocean liner. So great was the race for speed that an annual competition was begun for clippers to race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus.


1866 saw the most thrilling tea race of them all. Five ships left the Chinese port of Foochow between 29th and 31st May. On 6th September, the Taeping and the Ariel docked in London within half an hour of each other; the Serica followed two hours later


The creators of new tea plantations

“Why painstakingly importing tea from China when one can plant them in the Colonies?” was the question asked by the English in the early part of the 19th century, hence a great effort was put into seeking an alternative source for tea supplies. Three individuals - Maniram Dutta Barua, an Assamese noblemen and two intrepid British adventurers, Robert Bruce and his brother Charles Alexander Bruce - were instrumental in enlightening the British administration during this time about wild tea bushes growing in Assam, and thereby pointing the way to a possible alternative. The first tea company in the world, The Assam Company, spent almost two decades before effectively demonstrating that tea-growing in Assam was a commercially viable prospect. Its success induced in the 1860s hordes of European speculators to make a bee line for Assam, buy or lease vast tracts of virgin land, and hack out tea-plantations from dense jungles.


In 1848, the botanist Robert Fortune went to China for the East India Company to obtain the finest tea plants to establish plantations in India. The expedition was not merely to collect specimens but was one of the early instances of industrial espionage. He disguised himself as Chinese 'from a distant province', hired an interpreter, and headed into the tea growing regions of the country. His efforts resulted in the shipment of well over 20,000 plants and seedlings. Thus was established the tea industry in India.


Ceylon – the tea that replaced coffee

The plantation industry in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, began in 1825 with the widespread planting of coffee. However, this booming industry came to a dramatic halt in 1865 when a leaf disease spread rapidly throughout the countryside, reaching every coffee district within the span of five years. During the next twenty years, in a frantic effort to avoid financial ruin, planters in Ceylon converted their decimated acreage to tea; it was a remarkable effort that involved the wide-scale uprooting and burning of millions of infected coffee bushes. Perhaps the rapid cultivation of tea in Sri Lanka was aided most by the knowledge and experience of their fellow Indian tea planters and the fruitful initiative of James Taylor.


Back in 1851, near Mincing Lane, which was later renowned as the tea centre of the world, James Taylor had signed on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation in Ceylon. He was seventeen years old. Five years after he took up his post, his employers, Harrison and Leake, impressed by the quality of his work, put Taylor in charge of the Loolecondera estate and instructed him to experiment with tea plants. The Peradeniya nursery supplied him with his first seeds around 1860.


Taylor then set up the first tea "factory" on the island. It was in fact a rather rudimentary setup. The factory soon became famous throughout the island. In 1872, Taylor invented a machine for rolling leaves, and one year later sent twenty-three pounds of tea to Mincing Lane. Taylor trained a number of assistants, and from that point on Ceylon tea arrived regularly in London and Melbourne.


Although many influential and successful planters were responsible for transforming Ceylon from ruined a coffee-producing region to one famous worldwide for its tea, nearly all of their names have been forgotten except for one - Thomas Lipton. In 1890, already a millionaire, Lipton wanted to go on vacation and booked a passage to Australia. On the way, he broke his journey in Ceylon. He had an interest in tea as a product to sell in his shops. Lipton bought four former coffee plantations and could now fully control his company’s tea’s quality and price. Lipton’s genius was not in the area of growing tea but rather in the marketing and distribution of the final product, and his tireless capacity to invent and popularize clever slogans and effective advertising campaigns are legendary.


With the steady rise in production from all the new plantations, by the year 1887, the amount of tea imported from the Colonies had surpassed those from China.

Tea…on the heels of the wind..

Since 1887, encouraged by previous success of the “new” plantations, tea plants have expanded into many corners of the world. Tea is cultivated in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru), in Africa (Kenya, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, Mozambique, Ethiopia), in Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. There were even a few concrete attempts to plant them in Brittany, Paris, and Corsica.

Please note that with the exception of a few countries such as China, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, and Japan, all the other countries are fairly young producers with commercial plantations established only in this or the last century.