Tea’s origin story is infused with a blend of myth and fact and colored by ancient concepts of spirituality and philosophy.
Legend says that an Emperor by the name of Shen Nong was sitting in the shade of a wild tea tree, boiling some drinking water, when a breeze blew a few leaves from the tree into the pot and gave the water a flavor that he found delicious. He experimented further and found it to have medicinal properties, as well as a pleasing flavor. He urged the Chinese people to cultivate the plant for the benefit of the entire nation. Over time, he has become the Legendary Father of Tea.
In the early days of tea consumption, the leaves were picked and boiled in water to produce a rather bitter brew. The leaves were used primarily as a medicine and secondly as a pleasurable drink. It took over 3000 years for tea to become a popular drink throughout the Chinese empire. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), steamed and dried loose tea leaves became popular; however, this style of green tea did not keep or travel well outside of China. In order to protect their crop, Chinese merchants started to roast their leaves in order to prevent them from rotting. The leaves that were left in the air to oxidize produced black tea (or red, as the Chinese call it.) This tea was manufactured mainly for export, and the Chinese, even today, continue to drink the native green tea.
During the 19th century, tea drinking became an essential part of British social life. Tea parties and events were organized for all possible occasions, including family teas, picnic teas, tennis teas and elegant afternoon teas. Over the years, housekeeping manuals and cookbooks gave clear instructions about teatime invitations, etiquette, methods of brewing and serving, dress and tablewares. The tea party was the very symbol of elegance and prosperity.
Although the first tea was discovered in China, several other areas of the world now contribute to the overall tea harvest. The first tea used in England originated in China, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that tea growing spread to Formosa and that indigenous tea was discovered in Assam. In 1839, the first Indian tea was sold in London. Around 1191, Japanese Zen priests brought tea seed back from studying abroad in China and began cultivating them in the southernmost part of Japan. The first tea in Africa was planted in the Cape in 1687, but did not progress until the latter part of the 19th century. The 20th century has seen the spread of tea in Africa, notably in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania.