A Brief History of Tea

Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda by Nat Krause, July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

The history of tea is too long for a single blog post, but here we try to hit the highlights and key milestones in time.  Tea has been consumed by humans for a really long time and has influenced international relations for centuries.  According to legend, tea was discovered in 2737 BCE in China when the leaves of a nearby evergreen fell into the boiling water of the Emperor Shen Nung creating a beverage that reinvigorated him.  The first credible texts referencing tea plantations and the consumption of tea appear around 1000 BCE.  However, it took until the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) for tea to become China’s national beverage.  It was during this dynasty that Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea called Ch’a Ching, The Classic of Tea.

Tea appears to have first travelled beyond China during the late 500’s CE to Japan by way of Japanese Buddhist monks who utilized tea during their meditation rituals to maintain alertness.  Tea was first offered to the Russians in 1618, but the Czar did not like the taste, so tea failed to take hold there until the middle of the 1600’s.  Once the taste did develop in Russia, tea traveled thousands of miles in a caravan and was most likely the same Pu-erh tea that was traded with the Mongolians and Tibetans. Even though European explorers like Marco Polo mention tea in their logs as early as the 13th century, Europeans did not come into contact with tea in any large scale until 1627 CE by way of a Portuguese trading vessel.  As an American, tea is considered to be British, but it was the mainland of Europe that adopted tea first and it wasn’t until Charles II married a Portuguese princess, some forty years later, that tea took hold as fashionable in Britain with the British East India Company placing its first order of tea in 1664 (UK Tea Council, 2014).  Today, Europe still maintains a significant role in the tea trade with parts of the continent exporting more tea than some of the countries that actually grow it commercially.

Painting by Lai Fong of an American Clipper Ship

Portrait of an American Clipper Ship by Lai Fong (Lai Fong of Calcutta, fl. 1870-1910) currently at Childs Gallery, Boston, MA

Tea traveled with the colonists to America and it is the tax on tea that is credited as pushing the colonists to their breaking point with the British monarchy, helping to instigate the American Revolution.  While America was trying to figure out how to be a country, the Chinese emperor decided that foreign trade was to be paid for with silver, putting a very large burden on the British East India Company.  In response, they began to heavily export opium to China at the time to off-set the silver requirement, since the Chinese government did not stop the merchants from accepting opium instead of silver.  Simultaneously, the British began trying to figure out how to cultivate tea in India.

At about the same time that the British had success in growing tea in the Assam region of India, 1839, the First Opium War broke out between the British and Chinese.  At the start, it was estimated that the amount of opium flowing into China had increased to 40,000 chests annually from the pre-silver requirement level of 4,500 chests, prompting the Emperor to have local government officials arrest opium merchants and seize their stocks to be destroyed (Greenberg, 1951).  In response, the British sent troops from India both decimating the Chinese coast and ultimately giving Britain control what is now Hong Kong.

It is the consumption of tea by the British, and later the thirst for ready-to drink and iced tea by Americans, that fueled cultivation of tea not just in India but into Africa and then South America by some of the largest tea producers in world.  While China and Japan may produce more tea, this is mainly for domestic consumption rather than export.

Timeline of Tea

A Brief Timeline of Tea by Dominion Tea

Since tea cannot be commercially grown in every country and it continues to be the second most consumed beverage on the planet, I suspect it will remain a factor in international relations.  I can only hope that it brings more peaceful relationships in the future.  Do you think it can?

Let us know by commenting here, or sharing on Twitter or Facebook.

Hillary

Works Cited

Greenberg, M. (1951). British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42. In M. Greenberg, British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42 (p. 113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UK Tea Council. (2014, January 5). Tea – A Brief History of the Nation’s Favourite Beverage. Retrieved from UK Tea Council Web site: http://www.tea.co.uk/tea-a-brief-history-of-the-nations-favourite-beverage

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Why are there no tea plantations in the US?

You would be forgiven for believing that there are no tea plantations in the United States.  Aside from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya there aren’t any other suitable locations for growing tea right?  If you read our earlier blog about where tea is grown you will note that the US does indeed grow some tea, though at very small quantities.  That got us thinking…  Why is it that American farmers never took up tea?  After all, tea does grow at a wide range of elevations and latitudes.  Much of the continental US from North Carolina and Tennessee southward lies at about the same latitude of Shizuoka prefecture, which leads Japanese tea producing regions.    So why is it that tea isn’t generally produced in the US?  Perhaps the most significant reason dates back to an 1897 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which the author, William Saunders writes “At the lowest estimate, it costs about eight times more to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina than the prices paid for the same service in Asia.” (Saunders, 1897)  This one sentence appears over and over as justification for why tea isn’t produced here in America.  In short, it’s too expensive to compete with the cost of labor in Asia.  A hundred years later this thought process is strikingly familiar, with Asia continuing to produce all kinds of things with dramatically lower labor costs.  But is the lower labor rate really the reason or, as the report also suggests, might it have been the shortage of skilled growers and manufacturers was the real stumbling block to getting tea off the ground in the U.S.

Historical Events from the Civil War to 1900.

US History Timeline Surrounding the Tea Farm Experiment

At the time of the USDA study there was significant upheaval in the United States where the Civil War was still very much on the minds of the population. The American South, which arguably had the better climate for Tea, was struggling to rebuild, had suffered substantial loss of capital, and struggled to adapt to an economy not based on slavery.  Indeed, a report from the Debow’s Review, a widely circulated magazine of the time, published in October 1867, made it quite apparent that landowners felt the freed slaves “have ruined many Southern planters who had but little capital and endeavored to work their plantations on shares.” (Debow, 1867)  With the US Agricultural scene adapting to producing crops without slave labor, the idea of introducing a new agricultural product that required manual picking of leaves and a manufacturing process that was still foreign to the US would be laughable.

The current focus by many US consumers on locally grown or raised produce, wine, and cattle might give tea yet another chance in the US economy.  There are a number of tea growers in Hawaii producing specialty teas including Black, White, Green, and Oolong varieties.  Back on the mainland, there is one commercial operation in South Carolina where tea has been grown and abandoned multiple times since the 1800’s.  More recently the US League of Tea Growers has been formed in an attempt to bring together growers from across the country to share knowledge, develop best practices, identify or create cultivars suitable to the U.S., and to promote the U.S. tea industry.

Aged Photo of TeaAs we close out this blog it’s important to take away that there is tea being grown and produced here in the United States.  Over the coming years there may be greater availability of specialty tea products from across the country.  Perhaps tea does have a place in the American agricultural economy and perhaps, all those years ago, folks should have more fully read the fateful report for the USDA considering “Dr. Shepard stated that if he were twenty years younger he would plant 500 acres as rapidly as he could procure the plants. This indicated his faith in tea raising as a profitable industry.” (Saunders, 1897)

What do you think?  Is there a place for American produced teas?  If they were more expensive, yet locally produced from a farm you could visit, would you seek them out?

Want to know when the next blog comes out?  Follow us on Twitter @DominionTea, @DavidSColey, or @HillaryColey or follow Dominion Tea on Facebook.

Works Cited

Debow, J. D. (1867, October). Agricultural, commercial, industrial progres and resources. Debow’s Review.

Saunders, W. (1897). An Experiment in Tea Culture, A Report on the Gardens of Dr. Charles U. Shephard, Pinehurst, S.C. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Gardens and Grounds.
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