Tea is among the world’s oldest and most revered beverages. It is today’s most popular beverage in the world, next to water. Tea drinking is relatively new in Western Countries (only a few hundred years old). The earliest records of tea drinking come from China where it has long been an important aspect of Chinese culture. Other Eastern cultures have their own form of appreciation for tea.
It is believed that Chinese people have enjoyed drinking tea for more than 4,000 years. Legend has it that tea was discovered in 2,737 BCE by Shen Nang, also known as Van Di or Shen Nong Shi, the second of the three Chinese Emperors of the San Huang Period, (3,000 to 2,700 BCE). He was a scholar, the father of agriculture and the inventor of Chinese herbal medicine. His edicts required that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One summer day while visiting a distant region, he and the court stopped to rest, and his servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from the nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. The tree was a wild tea tree, and so tea was created.
For a long time, tea was used as an herbal medicine and religious offering. Tea as a drink and tea shops became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE). A major event of this period was the completion of Tea Classics, the cornerstone of Chinese tea culture, by Lu Yu, Tea Sage of China. This little book details rules concerning various aspects of tea, such as growth areas for tea trees, wares and skills for processing tea, tea tasting, the history of Chinese tea and quotations from other records, comments on tea from various places, and notes on what occasions tea wares should be complete and when some wares could be omitted.
Further refinement occured during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) when tea culture was delicate and sumptuous. New skills created many different ways to enjoy tea. The Ming Dynasty (1396 to 1644) laid the foundation for tea processing, tea types and drinking styles that we have inherited today.
The cultivation and brewing of Chai, the Indian word for tea, has a long history of applications in traditional systems of medicine and for consumption. However, commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the British East India Company, the world's first multinational conglomerate, embarked on a bold operation to "steal" China’s closely guarded tea secrets.
Up until the mid-1800's British East India Company thrived on a commercial enterprised that traded opium grown in India for tea grown in China. Although opium was officially banned in China, smuggling continued for generations. Finally in 1839 the leading Chinese court cracked down and the tea trade was threated.
The “John Company”, as the East India Company was known, hired Robert Fortune, a Scottish gardener, botanist and plant hunter, to acquire tea seedlings and growing know-how from China, so that large tracts of land at the base of the Himalayas owned by the British East India Company could be converted for mass tea production.
Today, India is one of the largest tea producers in the world, though over 70% of the tea is consumed within India itself. A number of renowned teas, such as Darjeeling, also grow exclusively in India. The Indian tea industry has grown to own many global tea brands, and has evolved to one of the most technologically equipped tea industries in the world. Tea production, certification, exportation, and all other facets of the tea trade in India are controlled by the Tea Board of India.
Chai is a very popular beverage commonly enjoyed with cream and sugar.
During the Chinese Tang Dynasty, a Japanese monk brought tea seeds from Zhejiang Province to Japan. Later in the Southern Song Dynasty, Zen masters brought tea procedures and tea wares from China to Japan, promoting the initiation of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The essence of the Japanese tea ceremony is harmony or wa. Japanese powdered green tea, called matcha, is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner by whisking the powder with hot water. It is traditionally served to guests in a tranquil setting.
Ceylon teas, as teas from Sri Lanka are known, are renowned for rich, brisk flavors, a distinctive jewel-like clarity to the liquor, with color that ranges from golden to rosy red in the cup. Ceylon teas are both wonderful self-drinking teas and also an integral component of distinguished English tea blends.
Today, over 50 countries in the world produce tea in varying quantities and for different tea drinking markets. Indonesia, Mainland Southeast Asia, South America and Turkey are some of the largest of these producers.