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A Timeline of Tea

A timeline covering all of the major developments in the world of tea would be a sizable piece of work. So, without further ado, here’s one that hits a few of the high points.

Year Zero
Despite the legends that surround the discovery of tea, it’s likely that this discovery actually took place at a undetermined time, possibly in China or southeastern Asia. We’ll never know who first came up with the notion of dipping tea leaves in water and drinking the resulting brew, but we certainly do thank them.

ETS Far East Tea Sampler (ETS image)
ETS Far East Tea Sampler (ETS image)

2737 BC
As for that popular legend of when tea was discovered, it’s most often attributed to a Chinese emperor and is sometimes pinpointed to this particular year and sometimes to others. It’s said that the emperor was boiling water in a kettle when some tea leaves blew in on the wind and the rest was history.

It’s a tall order to determine exactly when tea first made its way to a specific country, but according to one reliable source, it came to Japan in this year, courtesy of a Buddhist monk who brought some back after a stay in China.

Tea comes to Britain (ETS image)
Tea comes to Britain (ETS image)

The UK Tea Council suggests that tea may have first come to Europe, and specifically Holland, by way of Java, in 1606.

According to the aforementioned reliable source, a certain London coffeehouse was known to be serving tea to its patrons as early as 1657, though it’s certainly conceivably that tea came to England prior to this.

One of the oldest tea firms in the world got its start in London in 1706 – just a few decades after tea came to England. It all came to pass when one Thomas Twining opened a tea house there. The company – Twinings of London – survives and thrives to this day.

If you’ve made it past the fourth grade in these fine United States, it’s almost a sure thing that you’re aware of that fateful day in December 1773 when a gang of rebellious colonists dumped a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor. It was called the Boston Tea Party – but you knew that.

English tea consumption got a big jumpstart and tea smugglers found their livelihood threatened in this year, when taxes on tea were cut to about one-tenth of what they had been. It’s a move that’s likely to have spurred the great love for tea that the British are known for to this day.

It was in this year that some of the first shipments of tea began to make their way to England from British plantations in the Assam region of India. In about a half century or so production of tea in India was sufficient that it rivaled the reigning powerhouse of tea – China.

Pinkies out, everyone. Afternoon tea is said to have been introduced by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Historic UK pinpoints the year she did so as 1840.

It was around this time that Thomas Lipton – you’ll surely recognize the name – purchased some land in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and began exporting tea. A tea empire ensued.

The circumstances surrounding the invention of the tea bag are a little murky for my tastes. The common version of the story holds that it happened when a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan took to handing out samples his tea in silk bags, which prospective customers then took to dipping directly in boiling water.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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