With over 3,000 varieties of tea in existence, it may surprise you to learn that all true tea comes from the very same plant — the camellia sinensis.
The flavor, health benefits, color, and fragrance of teas, however, can be incredibly disparate. A tea’s characteristics are affected greatly by the terroir of it’s mother plant’s origins, the variety of the plant itself, the processing and flavoring of the tea leaves, and, of course, the tea masters, who practice the art of bringing us this millennia-old beverage that is second only to water in world consumption.
Brimming with antioxidants, tea has been shown to help fight heart disease, aid weight loss, protect your bones, prevent cavities, boost the immune system, and even fight cancer. But how much do you really know about this leafy elixir?
A brief history of tea in the East
According to Chinese legend, the first hot steaming cup of tea was enjoyed in 2737 BC by the emperor Sheng Nung, when leaves from the nearby Camellia sinensis tree happened to blow into the drinking water his servant had set out to boil. Valued not only for its medicinal properties, but also for the pleasure it brought, tea, or “ch’a” fever swept the nation, making wealthy the merchants and plantation owners dealing in it.
The Chinese kept a tight lid on their beloved elixir for a while, but mention of the beverage appears in Japanese literature from 815 AD, when Buddhist monks delivered tea leaves and seeds to the Bonshakuji temple. Tea, specifically the ground, “matcha” variety of green tea, became a vital part of Japanese culture and ritual, with elaborate tea ceremonies influenced by zen buddhist philosophies becoming part of the revered Samurai class, and later influencing the rest of the country. It was not at all uncommon for families to build tea ceremony structures in their backyards, and women were required to learn the intricacies of performing the tea ceremony, or “chanoyu”, before they could marry.
A brief history of tea in the West
Tea was introduced to Europe in the 1600s. A luxury enjoyed by the elite, a home that properly served tea was considered to be the height of class, and portraits often depicted well-heeled families enjoying the beverage. The tea trade was the realm of the Dutch until the British Royal Family got in on the action with the advent of the East India Company, whose primary trade was tea. Thought to be the most powerful monopoly the world has ever seen, the East India Company acted as its own government — forming their own armies, minting their own money, and acquiring territories like Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. Their heyday declined in 1833, when British parliament declared the trade routes open to competition. The trade of tea was fraught with illicit practices like smuggling, bribery, and the dealing of opium. Tensions with China, Britain’s source of tea, led to the opium wars, causing the British to explore cultivating tea in one of their new acquisitions — India.
Tea was also all the rage in another of Britain’s strongholds, North America. Knowing of their subjects’ love of the precious imported elixir, Britain raised the tax on tea to such a degree that at one point it more than doubled in price. The ensuing Boston Tea Party prompted not only the American Revolutionary War, but also Americans love of coffee, as drinking tea soon came to be seen as highly unpatriotic. Americans didn’t entirely give up on tea, however, and are credited with the invention of iced tea, as well as tea bags.