The Agony of the Leaves:
The History of Tea
EMG Tea Show Notes
Without his morning cup of tea -- and a number more throughout the day -- our host, Simon Majumdar, simply wouldn’t be able to function. And, he is not alone as, with the exception of water, tea is the most popular drink on earth.
Tea has certainly had a fascinating history and Simon will follow it from its origins as a Chinese medicine, through its time as key element in Japanese ritual, through the opium Wars and to the greatest culinary espionage story of all time.
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EAT MY GLOBE
THE AGONY OF THE LEAVES: THE HISTORY OF TEA
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi Everybody and welcome to the latest episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
And, in this week’s episode, we are going to talk about a subject that, as an Englishman, is very near and dear to my heart: Tea.
In February 2008, I found myself staying at a famous tea plantation in the hills of Darjeeling, India. The Goomtee Estate is well known for the quality of its teas. And at this early point in the year, I was there at exactly the right moment to walk through the fields as the sun rose and watch diminutive women expertly plucking two leaves and a bud that would be needed to make the first flush release, a drink so fine that it is often referred to as “the champagne of teas.”
Back at our guesthouse, I was able to try a pot of tea made with the leaves that had been picked the same fields the morning before. Even ten years later, I can still recall the bright, fresh taste and slightly floral aroma of that cup of tea. Easily the best I had tried until then or, if I’m honest, the best I have ever tasted since. And trust me, I have tasted a lot of tea.
Visiting Darjeeling was such a special experience, as it not only confirmed to me just how great a simple cup of tea can be, but also sparked in me a fascination with the history of this drink and how it has become so popular around the world.
So, I thought it would be fun to share with you on this podcast the history of tea.
With the exception of water, tea is the most popular drink on earth and is consumed in vast quantities across the globe, including countries such as Turkey -- where folks drink nearly 7 pounds of the stuff a year, Ireland -- where they consume nearly 5 pounds, and, of course Great Britain -- where over 4 pounds is consumed per person, per year. In fact, it should probably not surprise you that I am drinking a large cup of tea during the short breaks while we’re recording this podcast. Very few days pass when I don’t drink at least one large mug of tea -- usually in the morning -- and I even pack a supply of my own tea bags when I travel at home or abroad, because I hate to be without my own particular favorite blend of English Breakfast tea.
Even in the United States, which one might consign to the lowly ranks of “those who drink coffee,” tea will still be found in 80% of households and will be sampled by 159 million Americans every single day. Although, to be fair, most of that comes in the form of iced tea and we should uh… we should probably pass over that as quickly as possible.
But, particularly these days, when any hot liquid in a cup seems to be given the name “tea,” I think it would be worth defining what tea actually is before we go and delve into its deep and fascinating history.
The English Oxford Living Dictionaries define tea as, and I quote:
“A hot drink made by infusing the dried crushed leaves of the tea plant in boiling water.” End quote.
While Merriam Webster calls it, and I quote:
“The leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the tea plant prepared for use in beverages usually by immediate curing by heat or by such curing following a period of fermentation.” End quote.
The plant in question carries the Latin name Camellia Sinensis and although there are many different sub varieties of the plant, it would be fair to say that all of the tea we drink today comes in one form or another from this plant, which is now grown in over 52 countries around the world.
There are six different types of tea produced from Camellia Sinensis; Green, Yellow, White, Oolong, Black and post-fermented or Pu-er. The differences between them primarily come from how leaves are treated once harvested, how long they are “withered” -- a controlled way of reducing the moisture content by exposure to the sun or in a specialized withering room, whether they are crushed or rolled, and how long they are allowed to ferment to develop deeper and more complex flavors. Add to these potential variants in the processing technique to the terroir in the region where the tea plant is grown -- a term that I am sure will be familiar to any wine lover, but really refers to the relationship between a plant and the location in which it is grown -- and the skill and experience of the tea maker, and you can begin to see why, like wine, tea can be almost infinitely varied in how it’s offered.
And what about the name “tea”? Where does that come from? Well, that’s going to take us to the first point on our tea story, China. There are in fact two different derivations for the name of tea around the globe, depending on which part of China it was initially encountered by outsiders. Some claim that how the two names spread is a really interesting look at how “globalization” worked in a period before the name for such a concept was even thought of.
The words “the” or “te” and “cha” both denote what we now call tea. The “te” description comes from the Amoy coastal district of Fujian and was taken from there by Dutch traders, who were among the great movers and shakers in the early part of trading tea to the West. Their method of trading was primarily by sea and through Dutch traders, tea came to England as “Tea,” to France as “Thé” and to Germany as “Tee.”
The use of the “Cha” description for tea comes from many regions of China and is still the word used in Mandarin today. And, it’s believed that whereas the “te” sound primarily found its way to the West by sea, the “Cha” sound primarily travelled by land, at first to Korea, a little bit across the water to Japan, and then on to Persia, and India along what’s now described as “The Silk Road.” The path of this trading route can be seen in the fact that derivations of this “Cha” word can now be found to describe tea in Indian languages – is Chai, in Arabic -- Shay, Russian – it’s Chay, and even as far as sub-Saharan Africa where the word for tea in Swahili is also Chai. For the sake of clarity in this podcast though, I shall continue to refer to it as tea.
Recent excavations in the “Han Yangling Mausoleum” in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province of China shows that tea drinking was definitely part of Chinese culture around 82 B.C.E. However, there is a belief in China that it had been in existence long before that. As is so often the case, when trying to find a big bang event to pin point the origin of something, it’s impossible, but the beginning of tea has taken on its own mythical beginnings.
The Chinese point to one of their three mythical emperors, in this case Shen Nong, whose name literally translates to the “Divine Farmer” and he was also known as the “Emperor of the Five Grains” and patron deity of “Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Shen Nong was allegedly born over 4,500 years ago and was believed to be a great herbalist, classifying over 365 species of herbs and medicinal plants, a classification that was used for centuries in Chinese medicine. One of the herbs he was believed to have used is what we now call tea. The story being, in 2737 B.C.E., he requested some water be boiled -- which he considered a healthy way to purify it, and while that water was simmering, leaves from the Camellia Sinensis fell into the water and infused it to make a brew. The very first cup of tea.
It’s impossible to know if Shen Nong actually existed. In any case, it’s unlikely that such an event took place. Rather, that it was a cultural ideal to explain the age and significance of tea to later generations. By the 2nd Century B.C.E., however, we begin to see references to tea in Chinese writings. During the Han Dynasty -- 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. -- we see references to the leaf being boiled with green onions, ginger and tangerine, and served more as a medicinal soup than just a drink. It was extremely valuable and something only the wealthy could afford.
During the Tang Dynasty -- 618 C.E. to 906 C.E. -- tea became even more entrenched in Chinese culture, moving from being something enjoyed merely in the south of the country to something that was enjoyed everywhere, if again only by the wealthy. This was primarily because of its promotion by the author Lu Yu -- and again, forgive my pronunciation -- one of the first scholars of tea and the creator of the first monograph on the subject of tea, the Cha Jing or the “Classic of tea.” This was a ten-part treatise that covered all aspects of making and serving tea, including the harvesting of the leaves. It took from the author’s own Buddhist beliefs to imbue the serving and drinking of tea as something that was intrinsically spiritual, by the creation of a specialized ceremony.
The tea of this time looked very different to what we might imagine now. It came in two main forms. The first was in the form of a tea brick, made of tea leaves that had been dried, powdered and them compressed into a brick form using a frame, that was then allowed to dry and cure. These bricks were often stamped with a cross and is believed to reflect, and I quote from the book, “how the tea was broken for sale or for use.” End quote. These bricks were highly portable and could stand up to the rigors of travel as tea began to be traded outside of China. They were also used as a form of currency. To make tea, a portion of the brick was broken off and either put directly into boiling water or roasted over a fire to add extra flavor and to remove the impurities of travel.
The second form of tea was particularly used for green tea, which was ground into a fine powder. This powder was then added to boiling water and whisked until it was incorporated and had developed a slight foam on top. It was this type of tea that saw tea really begin to move outside of China to Japan, where the preparation of tea became even more intricate and spiritual.
Although there are records of tea being served in Japan beforehand, it is believed that the first tea to be brought to Japan for cultivation, was brought by a returning monk named Saicho -- posthumously given the name Dengyo Daishi -- who had spent two years studying in China between 803 C.E. and 805 C.E. He brought back with him tea plant seeds.
However, it wasn’t until a later visit to China by another monk called Eisai -- who returned in 1191 C.E. -- that tea really became part of Japanese culture. As well as returning from his visit with an understanding of Rinzai Zen Buddhism that he began to promulgate in his home nation, Eisai also brought back seeds from the tea plant and the technique of making powdered green tea.
Shortly before he died in 1215, Eisai wrote a book – and again, forgive my pronunciation – called the Kissa Yojoki or “Drinking Tea and Nourishing Life.” In it, he talked about the medicinal benefits of drinking tea calling it, and I quote, “tea is a marvelous elixir of health that has the capacity to prolong human life.” End quote. And at one point, he even gifted a copy of his book to a hungover Shogun called, Minamoto, and it obviously did the trick as tea from that point became an essential part of Japanese culture. And, the tea ceremony or Chanoyu, which by this point had died out in China, began to take on increasing significance in Japan.
Now, we could talk about the spread of tea culture throughout the Far East and along the Silk Road for the rest of this podcast. However, we only have a limited time, so we are going to leave that for another episode, and we’re going to find out how my favorite brew made its way to Europe. And I’m going to make another cup of tea.
[Simon talks about his newsletter]
[Sound of drinking tea]
Oooh bless tea. I couldn’t live without it.
There is some debate about which of the great Western trading nations first brought tea back to Europe. In the mid-1500s, the Portuguese had developed an eastern trading base in their leased colony of Macau. And by 1602, the Dutch had formed the Dutch East India Company and had created a base in Batavia -- which is now Jakarta -- on Java.
Both of these nations had already established trading links with the Far East, and along with silks and spices -- more of this to come in another podcast -- they had already begun to import teas from both China and Japan.
However, the first mention of tea that we know about in Europe comes not from these two nations, but from the writings of a Venetian magistrate called Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who translated several accounts of travels in his three-volume work, “Delle Navigationi e Viaggi” or “Voyages and Travels, 1550-1589.” In this work, he recounts a conversation with a Persian merchantman with the rather wonderful name of Chaggi Memhet, who came to Venice with a cargo of Rhubarb, of all things -- which was valuable in Europe for its medicinal properties – but he was really disappointed not to have actually returned with the leaves of a plant called the Chia Catai or China Tea, that grew in a region of the country known as Cacianfu which is now known as Sichuan. According to the merchant, tea was considered much more valuable than rhubarb in China and was a cure for just about every ailment, including gout.
Although he was the first to write about tea, Ramusio was not the first to try it. In fact, I’m not sure if we know if he ever did try it. The first record we have of a European drinking tea actually comes from a Catholic missionary in 1560 from the letters home of a Father Jasper De Cruz. But, for me, despite all the debate, it’s the Dutch who should get the credit for being the first to bring tea to Europe in 1610.
Once in Europe, tea became very popular across the continent. In France, after its arrival there in the 17th Century, there are records of Cardinal Mazarin -- a Cardinal and a First Minister of France who lived from 1602 to 1661 -- drinking tea to aid his gout, the playwright Racine is said to have drunk tea by the gallon, and Madame de Sévigné, in her famously scurrilous letters from the court of Louis XIV tells her daughter in one, and I quote,
“It is true, madame de Sabliere took tea with her milk; she told me so the other day; but it was from choice of taste . . . .” End quote.
This reference to milk being added to tea quickly became very, very fashionable. An act, to which as an Englishman, I can heartily approve. However, tea’s popularity in France soon began to wane because tea was seen very much as a drink of the aristocracy. Eventually, its use declined in the first half of the 20th Century.
There is one European nation, however, that is associated with tea more than any other, and that of course, is my home country of Great Britain. Tea has become something close to a religion in Britain. There are few situations that cannot be made better in an Englishman’s eyes by “putting the kettle on” and I have even heard tea referred to -- usually by me -- as English Penicillin, capable of curing everything that ails you.
But, how did this British love affair with tea first begin?
The first recorded mention of tea in Great Britain comes from a 1658 advertisement in the “Mercurius Politicus,” a London periodical that lasted from 1650 to 1660. In it, there is an advertisement for tea, which states, and I quote:
“That excellent, and by all physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chineans, Teha, by other nations, Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head, a cophee house in Sweetings Rent, by the Royal exchange, London.” End quote.
The advert was placed by the owner of the coffee house, Thomas Garway, who later went further and created his own broadsheet advertisement to promote his new beverage, and I quote:
“An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf TEA, by Thomas Garway in Exchange Alley, near the Royal Exchange in London, Tobacconist, and Seller and Retailer of TEA and COFFEE.” End quote.
Garway talks not only about the origins for the tea he has on sale, but also gives you a list of the ailments for which it is a cure, which include, and these are all quotes:“Obstructions of the spleen”, “Lipitude Distillations”, “a hot Liver” and “purgeth safely the Gall.” There you go.
And, on September the 25th 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of sending for, and I quote, “a cup of tee (a china drink) of which I never drank before.” End quote.
However, although these show that tea was already on sale in England, it took the royal family to make it really popular -- some things never change, do they? In 1662, Charles II, the recently restored monarch, married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. On arrival after a stormy ship journey, she requested a cup of tea to settle herself. There was none and she was offered ale instead. However, she had brought with her a chest of China tea as part of her dowry and such was her passion for it that it became a fad amongst the nobility at court. So associated was she with tea that on her birthday in 1663, poet, Edmund Waller, wrote a poem about her love for the drink, and I quote:
“Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of Queens, the best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse's friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Regress those vapours which the head invade,
And keep the palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen.”
Another part of Catherine’s dowry in marriage to Charles II were the ports of Mumbai, India. And with this, the British East India Company, who were granted a monopoly on the tea trade, began to import tea in much larger quantities into Great Britain until it became a hugely popular drink across the nation. However, even though there was a demand for it across all strata of society, tea still remained a drink primarily for the wealthy until the late 18th century, when it became more accessible to everyone.
The main reason for tea being primarily drank by the wealthy was a high taxation imposed by Charles II. The increase in the popularity of tea might have been good for the nation’s health --primarily because it involved the boiling of water -- but it also meant a decline in the sale of ales and spirits. This decline in revenue presented a problem, of course, for the government. So at first they tried to limit the amount of tea that was being drunk by taxing tea and requiring the nearly 500 coffee houses that sold tea to purchase a license. While the requirement to purchase a license had little or no effect, the taxation certainly did, but perhaps not the one that the government was expecting. Such was the demand for tea, that a huge black market developed and with it a smuggling industry that rivaled that for gin and brandy. At times, smuggled tea brought in as much as was actually sold legally via imports by The East India Company.
This smuggling also meant that the East India Company had excess tea, as theirs was so much more expensive than the cargos brought in through smuggling. Part of their way of dealing with this was to dump stocks of their tea on the colonies in America. An act that we will see, had very drastic consequences.
And, there was one other great problem with the large industry in smuggled tea, and that was the lack of quality control. Teas being sold across Britain were often adulterated with dyes and colorings to make them look like the real thing, and there was a genuine fear amongst people that the tea they drank would poison them. There are even reports of tea being adulterated with lamb dung, lead and copper to achieve the correct color. Green tea was easier to adulterate than black tea and while sales for both green and black teas had been equal before that, the move towards primarily drinking black tea occurred then, a trend that remains true in Great Britain today. So that’s why we drink so much black tea.
By the end of the 1700s, the situation had become so bad that the government was forced into action, and this came in the form of the Commutation Act in 1784 introduced by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, which reduced the taxation on tea from 119% to 12.5%. It was a reduction that made tea smuggling disappear almost immediately, and although the adulteration of tea was harder to control it was at least now coming all through allocated channels.
The reduction of the tax made sales of tea soar, to the point that even at this much reduced rate of tax, the government’s income from tea was higher than it had ever been during taxation. It did, however, put a huge strain on imports of tea from China that were becoming increasingly costly. In 1791, the amount of tea imported to Britain was over 15 million tons, all of which needed to be transported from China after the two pickings a year in April and June.
Now, this cost was aided by improvements in the ships that were used to bring exports from China. At first, the ships had been rather slow and cumbersome, but by the middle of the 19th Century, they were drastically improved, particularly by the American design of tea clippers which although lighter and able to carry less cargo, were far more speedy and able to bring the important exports back to London much more quickly.
So determined were the designers of these ships to increase their speeds that in the 1860s, there was launched a series of “tea races” to test whose ships were the fastest. The most famous one of these was the race in 1866, where the winning time between the two top ships, after travelling all the way from China, was a difference of seven thousandths of one percent. Probably the nautical equivalent of today’s photo finish.
Much of the cost of tea purchased from China was paid for in the reverse trade in opium. The Portuguese were the first to begin trading opium with the Chinese, but the British soon followed suit in the late 1700s, and by the mid 19th Century were importing over 10,000 cases into China every year despite there being a ban by China. The East India Company worked their way around this ban using third party growers in India who would then smuggle the opium across the border into China.
The Qing Dynasty’s attempts to curtail the imports of opium led to two wars in which they were defeated both times. The loss of the first Opium War – 1839 to 1842 -- not only led to the cessation of Chinese attempts to prevent opium imports, but also to the leasing of Hong Kong to the British. The second Opium War – 1856 to 60 -- forced the Chinese to actually legalize the sale of opium.
While this did help balance the trade books with China, the British realized that they needed to find alternative places to grow tea for themselves. And, for this they looked to their colonies in India.
Now there are some scientific reports that claim India has had native versions of the Camellia Sinensis plant growing there for thousands of years. However, there was no commercial attempt to grow tea until the arrival of the British. In 1838, a small amount of tea made from the Assamese sub variety of the tea plant was sent to London and sold at auction and, in turn, led to the foundation of the Bengal Tea Association.
However, this was too small scale to have any impact on the imports from China, and the East India Company decided that something serious had to be done about it. And what follows is, in my not so humble opinion, the single most fantastic story of food espionage of all time.
Quite why no one has made a movie about Robert Fortune’s exploits in China, I can’t fathom, but they are definitely adventures that if you were to read them in a script, you might call them too crazy to be true. Except they are true and he even wrote about them in his own book called “A Journey to The Tea Countries of China; Including Sung-Lo and the Bohea Hills; With a Short Notice of the East India Company’s Tea Plantations in the Himalaya Mountains” published in 1852.
Now, precious little is known about the early life of Fortune. But by his early 30s, he had proved himself to be an able botanist and had been nominated by the Royal Horticultural Society as its “Collector in China.” Over the following years, he learned to speak Mandarin fluently and made visits where he encountered violent storms, pirates and mob uprisings. He survived through them all and, in 1848, was employed by the East India Company to go on an undercover fact-finding mission to China. Although Britain bought a huge amount of tea from China, the process of its manufacture was a closely guarded state secret.
The East India Company told Fortune that, and I quote:
“Besides the collection of tea plants and seeds from the best localities for transmission to India, it will be your duty to avail yourself of every opportunity of acquiring information as to the cultivation of the tea plant and the manufacture of tea as practised by the Chinese and on all other points with which it may be desirable that those entrusted with the superintendence of the tea nurseries in India should be made acquainted.” End quote.
Fortune disguised himself as an official from a “far province,” found a man to act as his servant and set out to see what he could find. It was when he was granted access to a tea factory that he saw the full process in action with the tea being “cooked” in the sun, rolled with bamboo rollers, and then sorted to separate the finest leaves from the dust.
Not only was Fortune successful in finding out the secrets to the Chinese tea process, he was also able to smuggle out nearly 20,000 plants in terrariums and seedlings which he brought to the area of northeastern India. The impact on the tea industry was rapid and, within his lifetime, India began to produce more tea than China itself.
Tea was grown in regions like Assam and Darjeeling in India and also in Ceylon -- modern day Sri Lanka -- which is the region where vast amounts of plantation land was brought by Sir Thomas Lipton. Lipton was a man who inherited his family’s small grocery business in Glasgow, Scotland and had managed to turn it into one of the first successful supermarket chains with branches also in London. However, when he saw the opportunity presented by the demand for tea, he purchased five plantations that had formerly grown coffee but had been abandoned after a fungus had wiped out the crop. Lipton began to grow tea there with the notion of selling the tea in his own stores by the pound, half pound and quarter pound at a price that would make it accessible to all, which he was able to do because he was cutting out the middle man of the tea auctioneer. It was inevitably a huge success and was really the prime mover in taking tea from being a drink for the well off to being one that could be enjoyed on a daily basis by the masses, as it still is in Great Britain today.
And what of tea in America?
The first records of tea in America go back to the arrival of Governor Peter Stuyvesant -- also a board member of the Dutch East India Company -- in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam -- later, of course to become New York. The drink was immediately fashionable and inventories of households have records of fine tea cups, pots and tables on which tea was to be served. When, in 1664, New Amsterdam was ceded to the British during the second Anglo-Dutch war, both the British and the Dutch settlers began to live together and share their passion for tea.
The obsession for tea grew until, by the late 1700s, the American colonists were drinking 1.2 million pounds of tea every year. The majority of the tea came from the British East India Company. As I mentioned earlier in the podcast, they saw the colonies as the perfect place to dispose of excess tea during their struggles against tea smuggling in England. Following the end of the French and Indian War – 1754 to 1763, which formed part of the Seven Years War – 1756 to 63 -- Great Britain’s national debt had almost doubled and the decision was made to impose taxes on the colonies to help counter these debts. They included a tax on tea. The Tea Act of 1773 gave the British East India Company a monopoly on supplying tea direct to agents, which undercut the work of local merchants. When this was added to a tea tax from a previous legislation -- The Townsend Act of 1767 -- the colonists were infuriated. For them the notion of “taxation without representation” was something that was keenly resented and formed part of a series of events that led up to the Boston Tea Party, and from there to the beginning of the War of Independence.
So there you go. One could argue that without tea, there would be no United States of America. So, to have been responsible for the creation of a nation is a pretty big claim for any beverage, even one as mighty as tea.
Oh, and just as a final note before I leave you for this week. I mentioned at the very beginning of the podcast how I always take my own stash of teabags with me whenever I travel, so I would like to give a big Eat My Globe shout out to one Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, who in 1908, began sending out samples of his teas to customers enclosed in silk pouches. Misunderstanding their purpose, his customers dropped them straight in to boiling water, bag and all, thus creating the first tea bag.
So, after all of that, I am going to go and make myself a cup of tea and while I sip on it, I shall give thanks to the Chinese and Lu Yu, the Portuguese, the Dutch, Thomas Garway of London, the Marquise de Sevigne, and Thomas Sullivan, without whom it would never have been possible for me to have me mornin’ cuppa. See you next time.
See, you got to sip tea properly. You’ve got to give it …
So, make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at Eatmyglobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, just in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if you have any questions or if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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So, thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of the transcripts.
Published: November 5, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.