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Where did tea actually come from?

Jul 14, 2017

The history of tea is complex – it spreads across multiple cultures and over thousands of years. The story of tea, as it is most often told, invariably begins with a handful of myths! We came across quite a few of them and decided to pen down the ones that were somewhat interesting and thought provoking.

A very popular myth that is told repeatedly will certainly remind you of the story of how Newton discovered gravity! Chinese inventor, Shennong was sitting in the shade of a Camellia sinensis tree when a leaf allegedly fell into his cup of boiled water and began to steep. It created a beautiful green colour and made him feel refreshed. Hence, tea was born. Believable, right?

A very absurd myth that is shared repeatedly has Buddhist origins. The founder of Buddhism sat down after a long walk and fell asleep. When he woke up, he felt furious at his lack of control and discipline. So, in a fit of rage, he ripped out his eyelashes and threw them in the wind. From the said eyelashes grew the first tea plants. As mind-boggling and unbelievable as this story may seem, it provides a glimpse into the Buddhist world view and illustrates their belief that true enlightenment cannot be found until a person escapes the bond of the material world. This story is a bit tougher to grasp, but we still found it quite interesting.

The next story or myth we were quite taken with has more of a western European origin behind it. In short, this story basically tells us that unlike many Asians who conceptualize tea as a way of life, most in the West have historically viewed tea as a commodity and means for acquiring wealth.

The story unfolds in three different acts, so we thought we’d highlight them here:

ACT 1: INTRODUCTION OF TEA

Tea was introduced in Europe sometime in the 1600s when England created the East India Company. The company started trading tea for silver which virtually depleted England’s reserves in the mid-1800s. In order to correct the imbalance, the company acquired large fields of poppy seed and used it to process opium. They started trading opium for tea which resulted in a severe opium addiction throughout China. But, after the 2 opium wars, trade between China and the West stopped and the tea industry was forced to become creative to sell its tea.

ACT 2: CREATION OF A COMMODITY

In order to break China’s tea monopoly, the British governor general began investigating whether it was possible to grow tea in India. He started experimenting in Assam and by 1834, the English began propagating tea in the territory. After meeting with a lot of nationalistic fervor, the English started dreaming of a day when they would control the entire market. In 1839, the 1st Assam black tea was auctioned in London and was sold for extremely high prices.

ACT 3: EMERGENCE OF BLACK TEA

As the English were beginning to create the south Asian tea industry, they discovered that the Chinese tea processors were using gypsum to make their tea leaves appear more green. The discovery that the they were slowly being poisoned had a chilling effect on their green tea consumption. Even after trading tea with China for the past 300 years, it was not until 1843 that the English realized that black tea and green tea were made from the same plant! Had they realized this earlier, they could have used the leaves growing in India to create green tea and the tea culture in the West would have been very different.

Never knew so much history around tea existed? Or maybe you’re already a tea lover and this is old news to you! Nevertheless, because we’re constantly learning and adding to our team, we think it’s important for us to know about the past and how it has helped shaped what tea in our country is today.

Share some stories that you’ve heard in the comments – we’d love to read about them! Or even any fun facts about tea. Let us know what else you’d like to read about – Saffron Cup is excited to join the online world, and we can’t wait to meet all of you!