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A Brief History of Tea

What do war, dethroned kings, clipper ships, taxes, and sheep dung have in common? 


They all play a role in the fascinating history of tea, of course. 


Today, tea is the most commonly consumed beverage in the world aside from water. There are bazillions of styles out there to try (but you can start with Big Heart Tea Company’s collections). 

But the road from humble tea leaf to liquid legend has been long, winding, and pretty darned dramatic. Care to hear some of the highlights? Let’s go:

tea leafs on pink background. in a circle.

It All Started With Some Tea Leaves

You already know that tea is old. But we’re not talking “ye olde”-old. We’re talking 2700 BC old.


There are dozens of stories out there about the moment of tea discovery — most revolve around Chinese emperor Shen Nung.


As an aside, Shen Nung was no ordinary ruler — he was a real pre-renaissance man. Among other things, he’s credited with inventing the plow and bringing farming to China. But for the purposes of this story, know that he was quite the herbalist. 


As the story goes, Shen Nung was enjoying a nice cup of hot water under a tree in his garden. (The Chinese figured out pretty early on that fewer people died if they boiled the water before they drank it.) He nodded off, and when he awoke, he saw that some leaves from the tree — which just so happened to be a camellia sinensis or tea tree — had fallen into the water. He gave it a try and was probably delighted to find that the infusion put a little pep in his step. Voila — tea was born! 


True? Who knows. But the important thing we do know is that all evidence points to China as the place of origin and the discovery of tea. 


In its earliest days, tea was viewed as a tonic and mostly cultivated in monastery gardens. It was probably a lot more bitter than today. 


But as cultivation techniques developed, tea started to catch on. By the Tang dynasty of 618-906 AD, tea was officially a thing. It was so popular, in fact, that the first known book about tea, “Ch’a Ching” (“The Classic of Tea”), was written at this time.

Tea Spreads its Wings 

It was only a matter of time before the people outside of China started to discover tea. 

Japanese monks brought the custom back home; tea would go on to become a pretty big deal in Japan. In the 12th century, Japanese Zen monk Myoan Eisai wrote a book entitled “Kissa Yojoki” (“How to Stay Healthy Drinking Tea”). Japanese Tea Ceremonies are recorded as early as the 1300s — it’s still a very big part of the nation’s culture. 

But it wasn’t a global sensation … Not yet. 

That began to change in the 16th century, when tea caught the interest of traders. The Dutch established a trading post on Java, and reports show that the first big shipment of tea headed to Holland (many say it was from China; others say it was from Japan) was made in 1606. 

It didn’t take long for tea to catch on in Dutch society; soon, its popularity spread to Western European countries. It was pretty expensive though, so it was primarily considered a drink for the wealthy.


Believe it or not, England — the nation that would become almost synonymous with tea — was one of the later tea adopters. While it’s probable that tea had been brought into the country prior, it wasn’t until 1658 or so that tea was marketed in British publications.

But it was a royal wedding that really helped cement tea’s place in British society. 

In 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who happened to be a major tea addict and brought the custom to court. You know how people are about the royals — in short order, tea became a popular drink among the fashionable and wealthy set. 

Much Ado About Tea + Taxes

Happily, tea had more staying power than the short-lived fascinator fad of 2011. It became a staple in coffee shops, which were considered community hubs of commerce and deal-making. 

But tea still remained a middle-and-upper-class beverage. Part of this was because The British East India Company, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, was at the center of the tea trade and controlled the price of tea. But there was also the topic of taxes. 

Initial taxes on tea leaves were very steep (pun intended) — about 25%. Nobody likes paying taxes, so people were really willing to go to some creative lengths to avoid them. 

All sorts of methods were introduced by enterprising smugglers and fraudsters, ranging from cutting tea with leaves from other plants, or drying out used tea leaves and adding them to the mix, sometimes with sheep’s dung added to make the color look more authentic.

While it’s hard to prove, many believe that in those early days of highly-taxed tea, illegal imports most probably exceeded legal imports.

The Boston Tea Party

As a taxes-and-tea aside, you may remember the Boston Tea Party from history class. If not, here’s a little refresher.

In May of 1773, Parliament passed The Tea Act, which gave the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. 

The taxes were prohibitive, and just a few months later, there was a reactionary protest — the Boston Tea Party. American colonists were so incensed by Britain’s “taxation without representation” that they dumped 342 chests of tea from the British East India Company into Boston Harbor. 

Though the Boston Harbor never tasted better, it was a big act of defiance — and it rallied patriots across the colonies to come together and fight for independence. 

Anyhow, taxes and tea. It was a thing. 

By the late 1700s, the government realized that the taxation of tea was causing more problems than it was worth. When Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, cut the tax to an affordable rate, most smuggling was put to rest. 

Sea Change for Tea Production

For quite some time, China was the epicenter of tea production. But in the 1800s, that began to change. There were a number of different catalysts, some of which had some overlap. Here are a few of the biggies: 

  • Tea production in India. Funny story: The British East India Company attempted to plant seedlings from China in the Assam region of India in the early 1820s, but they had mixed results. However, just a few years later, tea leaves were discovered growing in the same region. Production for export began soon after.
  • More tea production in India. This time, it was the work of a spy! Working on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society, a gentleman named Robert Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese merchant and went to China to steal tea plants and cultivation secrets. His mission was accomplished: he was able to introduce as many as 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to the Darjeeling area of India. The plants, technology, and knowledge he brought back were pivotal in kick-starting tea production in the Darjeeling region. 
  • The Opium War. Tea was one of the primary reasons for this ugly fight between England and China. It also drove tea production in other countries including India and Sri Lanka.  

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, The British East India Company lost its monopoly on the tea trade. After that, importing tea became a free-for-all, with enterprising importers racing to get tea back to Europe ASAP. So began the era of tea clippers.

Clipper ships are neat-looking boats with tall masts and big sails that let them travel at, well, a pretty good clip. If you were around in the 1860s, you might be able to catch sight of them somewhere along the long route from China, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and over to the Atlantic. But once the Suez Canal was opened and steamship travel became a thing, the clipper ship era came to a close. 

All of these developments led tea to more mouths and into more lives…

Tea Becomes Part of Everyday Life

By the early 1900s, thanks to increased global brand awareness, expanded tea production, better availability, and a bunch of other things, tea was a big part of life for a lot of people. 

It was also cheaper and more readily available, thanks to said increased production. 

But there have still been some fun developments along the way. Here are a few: 

Prohibition and Tea 

Turns out, prohibition was a good time for tea. A 1921 newsletter focused on the coffee and tea industry noted that since the onset of Prohibition, “Tea has been drunk in places not heretofore thought of. In clubs and hotels the consumption of tea is rapidly increasing, having taken the place, to a large extent, of stronger beverages. Of course, we now know that plenty of those spots were secretly serving booze in teacups

The Tea Bag 

Here’s a feather in the U.S.A’s cap: we invented the tea bag. 

One of the first patents that approached what we now know as tea bags was filed in 1901, when Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin filed for a patent for a 'Tea Leaf Holder' in 1901. In their application, they touted a “ novel tea-holding pocket” constructed of open-mesh woven fabric that kept tea leaves in place. 

Other versions came and went — but by the 1930s, filtered paper became the norm. 

But why be normal when you can be exceptional? Big Heart Tea’s tea bags are extra-large, featuring more flavor enjoyment for you. Plus, our tea sachets are made from 100% compostable, non-toxic PLA. That means no harmful chemicals leaching into your tea.

Iced Tea 

Did you know that iced tea was popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair, right in St. Louis? Apparently the timing was right: the weather was hot, and people flocked to the iced tea like moths to a flame. The refreshed fairgoers brought the custom back home with them and now it’s a standard item on menus everywhere. 

Thanks For Taking Tea History 101 

Tea has a very long and very fascinating history — this is just a small slice of it. If you’re really keen to learn more, here are a few recommendations: 

Hey, did all that reading make you thirsty? Check out Big Heart Tea Co.’s collections now!

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