Legend of Tea : How It Came To Be

WHICH BEVERAGE IS THE ONE MOST CONSUMED BY HUMANS?

(AFTER WATER!)

TEA!

I knew you'd get this one!

 If you guessed tea, you’d win!

With this fact in mind, it follows that tea is one of the oldest beverages known to man! Its beginnings date to prehistory, a time shrouded in legend and myth. 

Lion's Den
courtesy Alex Koch

ORIGINS OF TEA

Tea’s origins began in China, specifically the Yunnan region (see my professionally drawn blue arrow on the map)  Click on the map to enlarge!)

This area is long considered the source of indigenous tea bushes. Along Yunnan’s southern edge, its borders with Myanmar and Laos meet easily on paper, however it’s a rugged mountainous area of forested jungles that— in reality—is difficult to separate.

Anthropologists now know that tea trees existed (and still exist today) in enormous swaths of remote forested land that straddled the border areas of those countries. Back then, there were no country borders. Hence the debate you may see about tea’s origins!

They also speculate that prehistoric humans (homo erectus) discovered indigenous tea trees. 

Tea plantation

Along with the skills of fire-building, they may have burned the wood of the many tea trees they found. 

They most likely experimented with adding tea leaves and forest barks to boiling water. One taste of caffeine, and I suspect they were hooked!

Fire pit
courtesy Ian Koch

I doubt homo erectus had cell phones or flip flops or cans of beer.  They may have had adorable puppies, however…

Early Beliefs About Tea

Ancient Chinese healers believed the Great Mother Goddess imbibed plants and minerals w healing properties. That’s why jade is so revered; it is thought to be a stone that stores up ‘soul substance.’ Tea leaves are a brilliant shade of evergreen. It may be why in China, tea came to be known as ‘froth of the liquid jade.’

At first, tea was consumed for its medicinal properties. For any given ailment, tea leaves were boiled with other plants, seeds, barks, and leaves. This laid the groundwork for China’s famous herbal-healing traditions.

From Religion to Culture

China’s three great philosophy religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, sprouted during the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BC) All three embraced tea for its healthful virtues and powers of rejuvenation.

I suspect the monks and priests found that tea helped them stay awake during long mediations!

The emperor responsible for unifying China began construction of the Great Wall.

Cultural unification also occurred under his reign. Word spread about the beneficial tonic called tea.

Different dynasties rose and fell, and with them, attitudes about tea changed. Tea became associated with high art, luxury and culture.

Great Wall of Cnina
The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, wanted to protect his newly founded Qin dynasty (221-206 BC)

Eventually, barbarians in the west learned of tea. Trade became robust.

Tea urn Paul Revere
Tea Urn that belonged to barbarian Paul Revere

Exchanging One Addiction for Another

I could write a book about tea’s spread from east to west. Let’s fast forward instead, to Great Britain in the 18th century and the East India Company. Westerners were obsessed with tea, but China held the reins. And China wanted cash for tea. (At that time, cash meant silver) British traders were at their wits’ end. What did they do? They traded one addiction for another. 

Sneaky. Clever. Evil.

Papaver somniferum (opium from the poppy plant) for Camellia sinensis (tea leaves) 

What a deal.

Evil face
pink Opium poppy papaver somniferum
Poppy flowers
Tea Flowers -camellia sinensis
Tea Flowers
Opium poppy papaver somniferum
Poppy flowers

In 1729, because of concerns about the spread of addiction, China had issued an edict against smoking opium.  But that did not include importation. (loophole much?)

 

Thus started one of the most sinister chapters in Western imperialist history. 

Opium Wars

Chinese opium smokers

Two armed conflicts, called the Opium Wars, followed China’s attempts to suppress opium use within its borders, and British efforts to keep opium trafficking routes open so they could sell tea. In each case, the Chinese lost, and European powers gained commercial privileges and land concessions from China. (Bye bye Hong Kong!)

Speaking of Drugs....

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea, but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee."

Tea leaves have several beneficial drugs. (NOTEthis post does not condone the recreational use of opiates in any form…Alex suggested I add this)

Yes, tea has caffeine. (more on caffeine here!

Caffeine can be found in the seeds, leaves, and fruit of more than sixty plants. 

The amount of caffeine in tea leaves varies from 2-5%. It’s not necessarily true that black tea has the most caffeine, white the least, with oolong and green in between.

It is true that young tea leaves have less caffeine than older ones, and since white teas are made up of more young leaves, a cup of white tea has less caffeine.

Interestingly, a pound of tea leaves has more caffeine than a pound of coffee beans! (more about coffee here!

The difference is that on a weight basis, more bean is needed to brew coffee than tea leaf to brew tea! 

 

L-theanine is an amino acid. It is not an essential amino acid (meaning necessary for growth and development and not produced by the body, so essential amino acids must be ingested.) 

L-theanine is hypothesized to:

  1.  Affect neurotransmitters in the brain by boosting cognitive function
  2. Reduce anxiety 
  3. Increase weight loss
  4. Boost the immune system
  5. Help with relaxation

Epigallocatehin 3-gallate or EGCG is a catechin, meaning an anti-oxidant. (read more here!) In short, anti-oxidants:

  1. Lower triglycerides
  2. Inhibit accumulation of fatty acids
  3. Repair cell damage by removing free radicals

 

I’m with President Lincoln. I’m in it for the caffeine. And the anti-oxidants.  An extra amino acid can’t hurt.

Chocolate has caffeine too!

In a traditional Chinese tea house today, tea may be served with small snacks such as hard-boiled quail eggs. I like eggs, but with a hot cup of tea, I think chocolate is the way to go.

Four Types of Tea

Strange as it seems, all real tea is derived from the same plant! Camellia sinensis

Legend of Tea and How It Came To Be
Tea Plantation

Tea grown in different parts of the world –with different climates and soil types– imparts different flavors. It is the process of how the leaves picked and when, how they’re dried, or withered, allowed to oxidize or not, compressed or hand worked which determine the classes of tea.

(oxidation :  the loss of electrons during a reaction)

Adding scents and the flavors of fruits and flowers comes later.

 

It gets pretty complicated!

WHITE TEA
Considered ‘The Tea of Royals.’ It is the most delicate and least processed.
GREEN TEA
Known for its rejuvenating and healthy energy.
OOLONG TEA
Known as the ‘Champagne of Teas.’ Oolong tea undergoes a brief oxidation process, giving it a complex flavor and aroma.
BLACK TEA
Oxidized the longest of the four. This gives black tea a hearty, deep rich flavor. It is known in China as red tea.
Previous
Next

Earl Grey, one of my favorites, is scented with bergamot. (an ugly citrus fruit) 

Would you pay $50 for a cup of tea?

This tea was illegal to export from China until 1995!

Pu-Erh Tea

The rarest and most expensive tea in the world is Pu-Erh from China. It is an aged black tea prized for medicinal properties. The black Pu-Erh is oxidized, like wine and cheese, pressed into a block and aged for up to 50 years.It can cost up to $1000/ounce.

I’ve never tried it but I’m curious.

What is Herbal Tea?

Maybe you’re wondering about herbal tea. The packages at the store tout its positive properties and the fact that it’s caffeine free. How can that be, when Camellia sinensis leaves have caffeine?

Because herbal tea is not technically tea! It isn’t derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal tea is known as a tisane. They are made of other leaves, fruits, bark, roots, or flowers belonging to almost any edible, non-tea plant. 

This doesn’t make them bad! They have benefits and can be found in a myriad of delicious flavors. Tisanes date back to ancient times too, when they were used for health and spiritual benefits, just like tea. But herbal tea isn’t tea.

Camellia sinensis flower
Camellia Sinensis Wikipedia Commons

Proper Way to Steep Tea

Any post about tea has to include proper preparation!

TEA
Constant Comment is a black tea infused with oranges and I don't know what else. I recommend it.
Tea cupcakes
Tea Cupcakes made with tea courtesy food network

Whether you drink tea like President Lincoln did to stay awake, for its its anti-oxidants, because it calms you, is steeped with tradition and feels magical, or just because it tastes great, tea is here to stay! 

What’s your favorite tea? I’d love to know in comments below!

White Tea in glass teapot

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84 thoughts on “Legend of Tea : How It Came To Be”

  1. I love earl grey, so I laughed when I saw what bergamot looks like! Its scent is much prettier then its appearance. As a tea lover, it was interesting to get a look at what goes (or what went) into my cup every day. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Wow. What a thorough history of tea. Great research. I had no idea it was the most popular drink in the world.

    Reply
  3. I don’t think my last comment was posted. This is a well-written and researched article about the history of tea and everything you need to know about tea.

    Reply
  4. Another great post and now I know more about tea! My favorite is green tea and chamomile. Also at a Chinese restaurant I usually start with their house tea and until the entire meal. In the middle east, it is usually red tea with mill and they call it “tsai/chai”.

    Reply
    • I’ve never been a fan of green tea but after all that research, I’m going to hunt down some leaves and use that instead of teabags. Tsa/chai sounds nothing like the chai tea in the US. I’d love to try it!

      Reply
  5. I love posts like this that explore the history of such everyday items like tea. I knew it had quite a rich history but this post is so detailed and informative! Great read x

    Sophie

    Reply
  6. Oooh! So cool to learn about the history behind tea. I agree with the healing properties behind the plants. Kind of why China has a ton of medicine utilizing natural ingredients – from the earth. Thanks for sharing all of these fun facts!

    Nancy ♥ exquisitely.me

    Reply
  7. This was such an interesting blog to read! Being English it’s a given that I love tea haha so to learn the history behind it has been really enjoyable! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  8. This is such a cool and informative post! I did not know that tea was the oldest beverage known to man. That’s so awesome. I am more of a coffee lover, but I do enjoy a cup of tea every now and then too!

    Reply
  9. WOW! I absolutely love how your blog is put together, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the hard work you must have put into it! I love all the information you have given too! I didn’t know most of these things! I wanted to get into drinking tea and I think you may be my go to person!

    Reply
  10. I used to love drinking tea, but then I developed an allergy to caffeine. So glad there is herbal tea so I can still have a warm cupful.

    Reply
  11. Very interesting read, I’ve never for once bothered about knowing the history behind tea, so glad to learn from your blog. I’m now going to make tea for myself. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  12. Wow! As usual – what a fabulous post. Learned tons and will never look at my ‘froth of the liquid jade’ the same way. Thanks!

    Reply
  13. I do love a good cup of tea! Best cup of tea ever was afternoon tea in london. Nothing will ever beat the taste of the fresh tea leaves. I’m not a fan of herbal due to my sweet tooth, I find them a little bitter but this is an awesome post!

    Reply
  14. Being British, I absoutely love a good cup of tea! I didn’t realise the full story and history on tea, but knew that it originated in Chine. This was such an interesting read! Somehow I didn’t realise that herbal tea wasn’t made the same way (tea leaves etc), I have defintely learnt something new today!

    Thank for sharing!

    Aimsy xoxo
    Aimsy’s Antics

    Reply
    • If I had to choose, I’d pick coffee! (I’ve got a post about coffee here) Tea has a rich and intriguing history, though. And you can’t beat iced tea in the summer. I hope your sister enjoys my post! Thanks for sharing it with her.

      Reply

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Susan Berk Koch
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