How Lemon Came to Tea

Iced tea with lemon (stock photo)
Iced tea with lemon (stock photo)

Lemon and tea. They go together like, well, like birthday cake and mustard. But that’s just my opinion. Yours may vary and for a lot of people lemon is an essential part of the tea-drinking experience. But how did this come to be? It might be a task for a mightier historian than yours truly but I figured I’d try to sort it out anyway.

As it turns out, finding a definitive answer was not as easy as I anticipated. But one point that came to mind while researching the topic was the term “limey,” formerly (and perhaps still?) used to refer to British sailors. The term is derived from the practice of giving limes to these sailors to help prevent a dreadful malaise known as scurvy. In truth lemon juice would do just as well as lime and was often – perhaps more so than lime – given to sailors and frequently mixed into their grog (watered down rum).

For my money the combination of tea and lemon doesn’t seem like a particularly intuitive one. But given the fact that the British were rather fond of tea by this time, it’s probably not a big leap to speculate that lemon juice managed to make its way into tea as well. In 1794, a British sailor named William Hutchinson even theorized that it was his consumption of tea that help drive away the scourge of scurvy, though he did not mention lemon or other citrus. Which might not be totally farfetched, given that some types of tea are rather high in vitamin C.

But that’s kind of beside the point for the purposes of this article and doesn’t quite sort out how lemon came to tea. Fortunately, a recent book called Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage, by Lisa Boalt Richardson, gives a few more clues. It suggests that the concept of punch – supposedly from the Hindi word paunch – was picked up by British sailors in India. It was composed of water, sugar, lemon, arrack (distilled palm syrup) and tea. Later versions of punch might or might not have contained lemon and tea but in the end it’s likely that lemon might have made its way to tea through one of these paths.

Which ultimately led to what some feel is the greatest combination of tea and lemon. I think you know the one.

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

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