Tea is enjoyed all around the world. It is globally one of the most popular and lowest cost beverages, next to water. Tea is consumed by a wide range of age groups in all levels of society. Some three billion cups of tea are drunk daily worldwide. The variety of tea is fascinating and tempting all at once. Tea comes in so many different forms; it can be refreshing, soothing or seductive. Drinking tea appeals to all senses and for many people, sipping on a cup of tea is a good way to unwind after a long day.
Tea is considered to be a huge part of the beverage market and is rather seen as a ‘commodity’. It is one of the most important non-alcoholic beverage drinks worldwide and has been gaining popularity as an important ‘health drink’ in view of its purported medicinal value. It is served as morning drink for nearly two third of the world population daily. It has a huge economic and social significance, supporting the lives and wellbeing of millions of people. The active ingredients of tea are of interest to functional foods markets.
The original home or ‘the primary center of origin’ of tea was South-East Asia i.e. at the point of intersection between the 29% N (latitude) and 98% E (longitude) near the source of the Irrawaddy river at the confluence of North-East India, North Burma, South-West China and Tibet provinces. Tea is often thought of as an essence of British drink, and we have been drinking it for over 350 years. Tea is first mentioned in Chinese documents some 4,700 years ago. The Chinese were the first to use tea as medicinal drink, later as beverage and have been doing so for the past 3000 years.
Origins of human use of tea is unknown as to where tea was first created as a drink. But a great deal of legend and myth surrounds the story of the origin of tea that is highlighted by ancient concepts of spirituality, and philosophy. Perhaps the most famous is the story of the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong who was also a renowned herbalist, accidentally discovered tea in 2737 BC. According to legend, while Shen Nung was boiling drinking water beneath a tree, a light breeze caused some leaves to fall into the cauldron. The Emperor enjoyed drinking the infused water with its unusual and delicious flavor. He felt rejuvenated and refreshed. As a renowned herbalist, this unexpected event compelled him to further research the plant whereby he found tea to have medicinal properties. And so, the first cup of tea, generated by the mighty leaf, was created by accident. It is impossible to know whether there is any truth in this story. But we know that tea drinking was established in China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west.
By the third century AD, a new character, ch’a, was developed to refer tea. The word ch’a is now sometimes used in English to refer to China tea. Tea was certainly known as a beverage in the time of Confucius and grew in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). By the time of the Tang Dynasty, tea was the national drink of China, spreading from court circles to be popular throughout Chinese society. At this time, it was manufactured in brick form where the tea leaves were pounded and pressed into a brick-shaped mold, then dried. Later, powdered tea was developed from green tea leaves. This gained popularity during the Sung Dynasty. Boiled water was poured onto the powder and left to brew, and the resulting liquid was whisked into a foamy tea. It was during this time that the practice developed of sending finest teas to the emperor’s court as a tribute to him. It became so popular that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic.
It was shortly after this that tea was probably first introduced to Japan, in the eighth century by Japanese Buddhist monks. In 1191 a Zen Buddhist monk named Eisai arrived from studying in China bringing new seeds, and introduced the tea ceremony and for some years the practice of tea drinking remained the preserve of Buddhist priests. The ceremony was based on the tea-drinking rituals of Zen Buddhist monks in China, who believed tea’s properties acted as a stimulant and an aid to meditation. This started a revival in tea drinking, and Eisai went on to write the first Japanese book on tea, the Kitcha-Yojoki, or Book of Tea Sanitation. Gradually tea drinking became popular outside religious circles, and the Tea Ceremony came to be regarded as the exemplary expression of social sophistication and elegance. Today, tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony, which may be rooted in the rituals described in the Ch’a Ching. The preparation and drinking of tea to an art form still flourishes today.
While the story of tea is rooted back to Ancient China, tea has travelled an incredible journey through the centuries. The British Empire was instrumental in spreading tea from China to India; British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent. Tea, which was an upper-class drink in Europe, became the infusion of every class in Great Britain in the course of the 18th century and has remained so. From China to North America, new variations, flavours, uses, production methods, equipment and tea rituals have developed and taken their place in local cultures.
Tea has played a prominent role in history and is even said to have led to the American War of Independence. Because of the popularity of tea in Britain and the East India Trading Company’s monopoly on the tea trade, and because of the search for tea, British influence and power increased. As a direct result from the lucrative profit off of the tea trade, Britain became the dominant power in the world. Also, China, as a direct result of the huge demand for tea, became a battleground for colonial powers that completely brought around the downfall of Chinese society and the exploitation of their national resources. Also, the British desire for profits off of tea led the government to impose the Tea Act which was the breaking point for American Revolutionaries.
Today, more than three billion cups of tea are consumed every day, in all types of varieties – from Black tea, White tea, Green tea, Yellow tea, Oolong, Pu-erh tea, Iced Tea and Assam, to Lapsang, and now the ‘ready-to-drink’ tea. It also has an ancient heritage, dating back 5,000 years, revealing a rich cultural history. In Japan and China, the use of tea for parties became a custom that brought people together around tea. In China, it hosts drink tea to honour guests or celebrate significant life events. In Japan, the tea ceremony or Chado is revered for its connection with Zen Buddhism. The preparation and serving of matcha tea, for example, is elevated to performance art with an emphasis on aesthetics and harmony. Similarly the introduction of tea in British society began a tradition of tea parties based around the traditions in China and Japan that had enormous popularity and the greater extravagance of the party was a factor in social status. In England, taking ‘afternoon’ or ‘high’ tea is still a celebrated occasion. In Russia, it is about drinking strong, black tea from a Samovar. In Morocco, drinking mint tea is a national pastime. Tea continues to be an adventure in taste and culture and continues to be enjoyed in many different places.