Coffee gets more than its fair share of press nowadays, but it’s important to remember that, according to some experts, tea is actually the second most popular beverage in the world, after water.
The precise origins of tea drinking are unknown, but the ancient Chinese were probably the first to steep leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant in hot water, perhaps as long ago as several hundred thousand years.
According to one popular legend, tea was discovered around 2,700 B.C. by a Chinese emperor who encouraged his subjects to boil their water for health reasons. He was apparently doing so one day when leaves from a tea plant blew into the kettle. The rest was history, or so we’re told, though this yarn might be just a bit too fanciful to hold water.
The Chinese prized tea for its medicinal value as much as for its taste, but the taste was certainly much improved after the Chinese began to process tea leaves before making them into a beverage. From China, tea moved on to Japan, where it remains an integral part of the culture to this day.
Tea drinking apparently came to Europe in 1606 and to London in 1657, where it was a luxury item at first. The British traded for tea with the Chinese, but also started growing it in the Assam region of India. In five decades after its introduction in 1840, tea production in India swelled to 86 million pounds per year. The British also began growing tea in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and in their African colonies, many of which still produce great amounts of tea today.
While the Boston Tea Party might not have put as much of a dent in our tea drinking habits as some would assume, the United States tends to be coffee-centric even this day. But in recent years, an increase of interest in premium specialty teas and an outpouring of reports about tea’s health benefits has resulted in a resurgence of interest in many countries, including this one. In many other countries, however, where interest has never really flagged, tea continues to be the tried and true beverage of choice.
Of course, the history of tea is a sufficiently vast topic that one can’t even begin to grasp in a brief article such as this one. For more on tea you could start with the appropriately title The True History Of Tea.