American Tea History

Tea traveled to America with the colonists who arrived from all European countries, with some colonies like New Amsterdam (modern day New York) being heavier tea drinkers than all of England at the time (Smith & Kraig, 2013).  The British implemented a mercantile system, as with its other colonies, which focused on trade to increase its wealth.  With this system London based businesses were protected through the use of trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies but it also required the British government to fight smuggling and illegal trading with other countries, especially by American merchants.

Early American Tea Experience

American Tea consumption is tied tightly to the early ship building in the colonies.  Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were both major ship building colonies, where craftsman took advantage of the abundance of local resources, craftsman, and cheap labor to build more and faster clipper ships than the British.  Many of these clipper ships were put into use by the American merchants to trade directly with other countries, bypassing the British government.  Smuggling was extremely common in the American colonies and tea was high on the list of illegal goods.

American Tea drinkers are less familiar with asian teapots and accessories.

Small Yixing Teapot

The colonists adopted many of the British customs like tea drinking both at home and in public coffeehouses (Yes, coffeehouses did exist 300 years before Starbucks).  It should be noted that much of the tea consumed in the colonies and Britain was green tea (Smith & Kraig, 2013).  The social demand for tea, and the additional taxes levied on tea from the British East India Company made smuggled tea a very common commodity in the colonies, most coming from the Dutch East India Company.    The loss of revenue by the British East India Company did not go unnoticed and in 1767 the tea tax was levied.  This tax became one of many levied on the colonists in the ten years leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution.  As Joseph M. Walsh noted in 1892, “The birth of the greatest nation of all time due to a three-penny tax on tea!”    (Walsh, 1892)

After the revolution, American merchants used their clipper ships to go direct to China for trade, bringing tea and other goods legally into the United States without British involvement.  These merchants became the first of the American millionaires, with tea being a dominant contributor to their wealth.  This wealth was later used to give loans to the fledgling American government to purchase arms for the War of 1812 other ventures necessary to stabilize and expand the country.

American Industry and Tea

Tea consumption thrived in the United States through the 1800’s with farmers experimenting with growing tea plants in the country.  The US Department of Agriculture even published a study about using tea as a commercial crop in 1897.  There is still a commercial tea plantation in South Carolina, new tea farms in Hawaii, and the US League of Tea Growers working to increase the growth of tea in America.

It was in the early 1900’s that America made perhaps its largest contribution to modern tea culture, first through the large scale introduction of iced tea and then through the invention of the tea bag.  While iced tea has been documented in American cookbooks dating back to 1870’s, it was at the World’s Fair in 1904 that iced tea was introduced in a big way to the public.  With the warmer US climates, iced tea still remains the most consumed tea in the US.  The second was the accidental invention of the tea bag by an American, Thomas Sullivan, who sent small samples of his tea in silk bags to his clients in 1908.  Those clients went on to ask Thomas to send their tea in bags going forward and since silk was expensive he created his bags out of paper.

American Tea drinkers love beautiful European inspired teapots.

Antique Teapot

American Tea Consumption and World Wars

American tea consumption saw significant declines around World War I (1914-1919) and then again around World War II (1939-1945) because of significant disruption in trade with China and Japan..  Trade with China did not resume after WWII until 1971.  As green tea was produced predominantly in China and Japan, this left black tea from India to satisfy the US market.  Current tea consumption in the United States is 85% iced tea and still overwhelmingly black.

As loose leaf tea becomes easier for the US consumer to get and consumer awareness of options increases, the growth in the specialty loose leaf market will mirror that of coffee and wine bringing a large variety of tea to market.  I am looking forward to having more options in the high quality tea market, are you?

Hillary

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Works Cited

Smith, A., & Kraig, B. (2013). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, J. M. (1892). Tea – Its History and Mystery. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co.

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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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