History of Tea

02.04.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course The science of tea by Lukasz J. Binkowski


Welcome to the second lesson in the course.

Yesterday, we learned what tea is. Let’s now take a short journey in time to see the origins of tea, how the tradition of tea drinking began, and how it has evolved over the centuries.


Tea: The Beginnings

Tea is one of the oldest beverages in the world, going back almost 5,000 years. We know it began in China, but the details of its beginnings are rather unclear. One story involves the Emperor Shen Nung. He is said to have invented the beverage by accident in 2737 BC, when a few leaves of Camellia sinensis fell into some water he was boiling. The emperor was intrigued by the pleasant smell of the infusion, so he decided to taste it. He discovered its delicious taste and felt invigorated after the drink. Shen Nung called the plant cha, a name that probably evolved into various forms such as te and teh, but this remains a moot linguistic point.

There is also a legend in India and Japan, which tells that the man who discovered the refreshing and vitalizing effects of tea was Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who lived in the fifth or sixth century AD. According to this story, he was in the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless meditation and began to feel sleepy, so he chewed a few leaves of a plant growing nearby and once more felt awake and alert. This plant was, as you may well already guessed, a tea plant. The alternative ending of this story, especially popular in Japan, is that when Bodhidharma felt sleepy, he was so angry with his eyelids that he cut them off and threw them on the ground, where two tea plants immediately sprang up. The Chinese legends, however, would seem more realistic.

During the times of Emperor Shen Nung around 2500 BC and until 300 AD, tea was used strictly for medical purposes. Over that time, tea was probably used as medicine in other parts of the world, too, wherever Camellia sinensis grew—i.e., from Sri Lanka to India and China—but it was the Chinese who first used tea as a beverage.

In ancient China, monks developed a method of compressing tea leaves into so-called tea cakes (also, tea bricks). These were blocks of whole or ground tea leaves. They were used in order to transport tea as food or even as a currency. Thanks to this innovation, tea arrived in Japan, and the famous Japanese Matcha-style tea drinking began. The year 1100 is acknowledged as the beginning of tea farming in Japan. Until this point and further into the 16th century, most tea consumed was a green tea. However, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries in Fujian Province in China, black tea came into being.


Tea Conquers the World

Tea’s journey to Europe began at the beginning of the 17th century. It fast became a sought-after beverage across Europe, especially in Great Britain, France, and Holland. A little later (ca. 1650s), tea was also drunk in the colonies off the east coast of North America.

The popularity of tea and demand for it was so great, the tea market became unstable. One of the most famous traders, the East India Company, with the help of the British Parliament, formed a monopoly on trading and selling black tea to all British colonies in 1773 and taxed all trade with American colonies. In response to this, on December 16 that year, a group of some angry Americans threw loads of tea from British ships into the Boston harbor. Similar events took place along the East Coast. This was the beginning of coffee drinking in the USA.

During the 19th century, tea drinking spread through almost all Europe. The famous Afternoon Tea tradition in Great Britain was established, and the huge demand on the market stimulated the setting up of tea plantations in those regions where the climate was favorable for Camellia sinensis (e.g., Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Taiwan). Thanks to that, tea began to be sold globally and has become the most popular beverage in the world.

During the next lesson, we’ll talk about the chemistry of the infusion that is responsible for the healthy effects of tea.

Till tomorrow,



Recommended book

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss,‎ Robert J. Heiss


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