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CHINA – THE BIRTHPLACE OF TEA

China is the great birth-place and first home of tea. Even the word ‘tea’ comes from China (where in some regions it is called te), as does that other worldwide name for tea, cha. Tea was always the favourite beverage of the Chinese Emperor. Exquisite tea gardens were carefully tended for their imperial tribute teas, as offerings to the Emperor (such as yellow tea, which only the Emperor was permitted to drink). So royal and distinguished is tea for the Chinese, that legend attributes the very first discovery of tea to an Emperor, Shen Nung – as astonishingly far back (and precisely dated) as 2737 BC. Almost 5,000 years ago, this herb-collecting Emperor is said to have sat beneath a tea tree and boiled up some water for his herbs – the wind blew some tea leaves into the bowl and thus began the amazing journey of tea. As a medicinal herb, tea has continued to be prized by the Chinese for its healing powers, its ability to stimulate and rejuvenate both mind and body, like the elixir of immortality sought by China’s alchemists.

It was around the 7th century AD, during the vibrant Tang dynasty, that tea really took off as a delicious and restorative drink for daily pleasure. The raptures and refinements of tea were soon to inspire a remarkable degree of connoisseurship. Beginning with the Cha Jing or ‘Classic of Tea’ by Lu Yu in 760, over one hundred treatises on tea production, storage, and gourmet appreciation were composed over the following centuries. Tea became as elevated a theme for poetry as the mountains and streams of China’s sublime landscapes. Amongst this profusion of rhapsodies on tea, it is Lu Tong’s 9th century poem, ‘Seven Bowls of Tea’, that is the most cherished by poetry and tea lovers. The first bowl ‘moistens’ Lu Tong’s lips and relieves his thirst; the second banishes all loneliness; the following bowls cleanse his body, while the final three ‘purify’ his spirit and raise him up to the realm of the ‘Immortals’. Such a ritual and celebratory approach to tea would later flourish in the Gong Fu Cha, the joyous and intricate Tea Ceremony that was later imported by Japan.

Tea also transformed China’s trade. The Tibetans developed a taste for tea with butter during the Tang dynasty, leading to the building of the vast ‘Tea and Horse Road’ across Yunnan and Sichuan in Southern China to Tibet and beyond. Carrying tea chests on mules through the winding river valleys and snow-capped mountain trails, and returning home with the Tibetan horses traded for the tea, this incredible journey across thousands of kilometres has been called the ‘Southern Silk Road’. When Europe discovered tea in the 17th century, it was China that dominated the world market as the only supplier of tea until the 19th century. The imbalance of trade was so great that Britain’s East India Company tried to pay for its tea by selling opium. When China banned imports of the drug, the notorious Opium Wars ensued (1839-60). This conflict’s diplomatic resolution led to the rise of Hong Kong (acquired by Britain through the Treaty of Nanjing), the opening of new ports in China, and an expansion of China’s international trade. China is still the world’s largest exporter of tea. Tea was instrumental in laying the foundations for the global power we know today, and China remains one of the world’s great tea cultures.

Japan and the ‘Way of Tea’

Japan was one of the first nations to import tea from China. The Japanese added a unique elegance and rigour to Chinese tea culture. Tea was first brought to Japan by the great Buddhist master, Saicho, on his return from a journey to China in 805 AD. Tea was prized by Buddhist monks for keeping the mind calm and alert through hours of concentrated meditation. When another great Buddhist master, Eisai, returned from the Chinese mainland in 1191, he brought back not only Zen Buddhism for the first time to Japan, but also the tea seeds that launched its cultivation on the islands. As in China, the inspirational and uplifting qualities of tea were celebrated by Japan’s great poets. Tea was a way to rise above the troubles of daily life and gain a taste of mental freedom.

Tea spread beyond the temples and monasteries to win a place of honour at the very heart of Japan’s social life. Nobles and merchants threw lavish tea parties and contests, at which guests were tested (and gambled) on their ability to distinguish high quality tea from false or inferior substitutes. The Muromachi period from the fourteenth century also saw the birth of Japan’s tea ceremony, the chanoyu of international renown, inspired by the Gong Fu Cha of China but richly developed in its sophistication and delicate art. The Japanese chado (“Way of Tea”) is an art of living through care for its most humble details. In the chanoyu, this spirit of reverence makes even a simple tea party into an occasion of wonder and beauty, coupled with a warm hospitality and animated conversation. In a beautifully decorated tea house, with windows that look out to an elegant garden, a finely powdered green tea known as matcha – now hugely popular in the West – is meditatively prepared and served with feeling to the guests by a tea master. In the sixteenth century, Sen no Rikyu, the greatest of all tea masters, brought the wabi sabi aesthetic of the tea ceremony, its emphasis on nature, sincerity and unadorned simplicity, to its ultimate refinement. So central was tea to Japanese culture, even in affairs of state, that Rikyu became tea master to Hideyoshi, the ruler of the nation, and held tea ceremonies for visiting dignitaries. A more relaxed and informal tea ceremony, based on the loose leaf green tea called sencha, was introduced in the seventeenth century. Both versions of the ceremony are still performed to this day. Japan’s rich and diverse range of green teas have remained its national drink and have become justly famous and coveted worldwide.

Tea Arrives in Europe

Tea in Europe began with the opening up of trade with China. The first recorded mention of tea was by a Venetian merchant in the 1550s, and this wondrous new discovery was soon to be reported by Portuguese missionaries to China. When the Dutch East Company took over the Portuguese sea route to China, it arranged the very first shipment of tea to Europe in 1610. Thus began a craze for tea that spread across Europe in the seventeenth century. Tea took over the court of Louis XIV, where it was sipped from exquisite porcelain – the Sun King himself was an enthusiastic tea drinker. For the first time in history, aristocratic ladies in France developed a penchant for tea with milk. Closely associated with the royalty in France, tea would fall into disfavour after the French Revolution, but the establishment of gourmet tea companies like Mariage Frères in 1854 would revive its following among connoisseurs. In Germany, tea also became a favourite refreshment, above all in the East Frisia region, and its strong black tea with cream, prepared with a ritual exactitude, is still celebrated among tea lovers. 

Tea in Britain

In Holland and Britain, the main importers of tea from China, the exciting new brew became popular across the whole of society. Dutch taverns served the drink from their newly invented ‘tea set’, and tea became a fixture in England’s coffee houses. On 25 September 1660, Samuel Pepys was sufficiently impressed to write in his famous diary that he had drunk a cup of tea for the first time. The English were soon to develop an enthusiasm for tea inspired by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II. On arriving in England for her marriage in 1662, she asked for a restorative cup of tea and her hosts, to their embarrassment, could only muster a jug of ale. Tea was heavily taxed (by more than 100% of its value) until the 1780s in Britain, which led to the rise of a vast smuggling network. These tea gangsters were the mafia of their day, including the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of the 1740s, who with guns raided a Custom House in Dorset, which had impounded a shipment, and rode off triumphantly with the tea chests strapped to their horses. It was the British government’s exorbitant tax on tea and monopoly on distribution that provoked the famous ‘Boston Tea Party’ of 1773, when American colonists stormed a fleet of British ships at Boston harbour and threw their tea consignments overboard – the opening salvo of what became the American War of Independence. Tea has a strong claim, then, to be the origin of the United States itself.

The British East India Company grew to dominate the European tea trade with China in the eighteenth century. When its monopoly on Asian trade was finally rescinded in the 1830s, rival British and American companies became fiercely competitive in this lucrative enterprise. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, their ships would dash to bring back tea to London in the legendary and exciting ‘tea clipper’ races – from China across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. Huge bets were placed on these fast and sleek clipper ships – most famously in the Great Tea Race of 1866 – which were specifically designed to speed up the transportation of tea. Around the time that these ships were introduced, in the mid-1840s, the Duchess of Bedford invented the elegant and genteel custom of ‘afternoon tea’ – tea that is taken with cake or sandwiches – to alleviate the thirst and mild hunger that came over her in the late afternoon. As the great novelist, Henry James, wrote in Portrait of a Lady: ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’. From afternoon tea to the more humble ‘cuppa’ (as the ordinary ‘cup of tea’ is often fondly called), tea has become identified with Britishness itself.

The Discovery of Tea in the Indian Subcontinent

Britain’s centrality in the tea trade was a major factor in the rise of India as one of the world’s greatest producers of tea. For over a hundred years until recently, more tea came from India than any other country, and it is now second only to China. Yet it was only in the 1820s that Britain found native tea plants (Camellia sinensis) in India. The discovery of tea in India was a remarkable piece of serendipity and stroke of luck. The British East India Company, which by the early nineteenth century governed much of India, was keen to break China’s monopoly on tea production. The Company planted seedlings from China in the Assam region of north-east India, but they failed to thrive in its lowland humidity. In 1823, however, the Scottish traveller Robert Bruce stumbled upon the tea plant growing wild in that very region – where its leaves had for centuries been brewed by the local Singhpo tribe. The production of Assam tea for export began in the 1830s and its bright and full-bodied black tea would soon rise to its current status as a key ingredient of the world’s best-loved breakfast blend. However, the tea bushes and seedlings that were smuggled out of China by British travellers like Robert Fortune in the 1840s – who disguised himself from head to toe as a Chinese merchant – were able to flourish in the Darjeeling region of the Himalayan foothills. Darjeeling, often called the ‘champagne of teas’, is especially prized by connoisseurs for its complex, delicate and distinctly flavoured four harvesting periods, its “Flushes’ from mid-March to mid-November, which range from a fresh, subtle and mildly vegetal taste to amber-hued muscatel bouquets and robust, effervescent flavours.

India is also one of the great tea drinking nations, with over 600 million cups consumed daily. A government campaign in the 1920s, when tea was offered at stands in railway stations, helped to popularize tea as a daily beverage throughout the country. Around 70 per cent of India’s tea production – almost a million tonnes per year – is now consumed internally rather than exported. Tea stalls and their owners, affectionately known as ‘Chai Wallahs’, as well as tea houses, are a familiar sight in India’s cities and rural areas alike. Especially popular is Masala Chai, a milky black tea with spices, such as cardamom, cloves and ginger. Masala Chaiis now spreading through the west, and has taken its place with Assam and Darjeeling tea as one of India’s great contributions to the world’s tea culture.

The Tea Culture of the Middle East

The Middle East is also one of the world’s most distinguished tea regions. Green tea seems to have reached the region via the caravan trade of the Silk Road, from China through Central Asia to the Middle East. In the nineteenth century, however, it was black tea that took over from coffee as the Middle East’s favourite drink. It was first introduced to the region by French and British colonists as well as by Russian traders. Just as the British smuggled tea trees from China to India, so an Iranian trader secretly carried tea plants from India to Iran at the end of the nineteenth century, where it is now extensively cultivated by the Caspian Sea. Turkey is also a major producer of tea on the Black Sea coast, and drinks more tea per person than any other nation in the world.

The Middle East has created a wide variety of unique teas by infusing them with herbs, fruits, flowers and spices. Iran is noted for its tea with cardamom, for example; Lebanon for its cinnamon and rose tea; Syria for its tea with aniseed; and the Maghreb for its world-famous mint tea. Tea in the Middle East is usually boiled in a Russian-style samovar on the stove. Honey or sugar, and other ingredients like chopped almonds, are often added. Tea is enjoyed everywhere in the Middle East – at home, at work, in the souk – and is drunk throughout the day and after every meal. Tea plays an essential role in the Middle East’s famously warm hospitality: a guest is always welcomed with a glass of tea. Tea houses are also highly popular, where tea can be sipped leisurely through the day, as a companion to lively conversation, or in tandem with a shisha pipe. Tea remains at the heart of Middle Eastern social life, an oasis of tranquillity and peace.

Today’s World of Tea

The popularity of tea has grown exponentially over the last fifty years to become a truly global phenomenon. It is now second only to water as the world’s most popular drink. Large-scale tea production has spread to Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya, Argentina, and Hawaii, as well as a handful of tea producing areas in Europe, such as the Azores of Portugal and Dalreaoch Hill in Scotland, whose award-winning white teas fetch high prices at top-end hotels and retailers. The tea gardens at Tregothnan in Cornwall now cater even for English supermarkets.

And we are currently witnessing a major new trend and chapter in the appreciation of tea. The relative blandness of ‘instant tea’ is driving tea lovers to seek a more nuanced, genuine brew. A new generation of tea aficionados has arisen, and ever-growing numbers of people are discovering that the rich flavours, delicate notes and subtle aromas of premium tea are comparable to fine wine. Tea sommeliers are in high demand, luxury hotels now offer the finest teas, gourmet tea companies are flourishing, and tea bars are opening everywhere. Restaurants and cafés have also embraced the trend, sometimes by introducing fine tea through idioms more associated with coffee, as in the current vogue for Matcha lattes and frappés. The sheer versatility of tea is also displayed by the recent surge in tea cocktails, floral or exotic flavoured teas such as Dragon Leaf and Jasmine Pearl, new forms of iced tea, the bubble teas of Taiwan, tea cakes and ice creams, and tea-scented bath products and essential oils. The health benefits of tea are also a major attraction – green tea, for example, is particularly rich in anti-oxidants. Scientific research is constantly discovering new medical purposes and potentials for tea. The new passion for tea is also raising awareness of the way it is produced. In sympathy with this concern for ethically sourced tea – something that is close to our hearts at Lotusier – we welcome steps that have been taken by the tea industry to work together to improve labour conditions and remuneration on its tea estates, and to guarantee their environmental sustainability. Global brand names that were former rivals have joined together to form the Ethical Tea Partnership. It is an encouraging sign for tea’s long-term future as its popularity soars even further. We at Lotusier intend to be at vanguard of this drive for quality and striving for change.