Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ch'a Ching!

According to Chinese legend, tea drinking began over 5,000 years ago.  It is believed that Emperor Shen Nung sampled the very first cup in 2737 B.C.  It seems that the Emperor thought water should always be boiled before drinking.  Supposedly during one of his travels, he and his posse stopped to rest.  As a faithful servant boiled water underneath a tree, several leaves fell into the pot.  The water turned a dark rich color and so intrigued the Emperor that he tasted it.  With royal backing, tea became a popular drink throughout China.

Credited as refreshing AND healing, the dark colored brew was known as ch’a and in 780 A.D. Chinese author and Buddhist monk, Lu Yu penned a three-volume masterpiece all about it.  Titled Ch’a Ching, Yu’s words became the definitive source on all things tea.  Proud of their fellow monk, other Buddhist holy men took their tea to Japan.  The Japanese, however, didn’t develop a taste for the drink until 1191 A.D. when Zenn Buddhist leader Yeisai brought seeds from a tea plant to Japan.  He too wrote a book about tea.  A shrewd salesman as well as a writer, Yeisai even ‘cured’ an ailing Shogun with his tea and then presented the Japanese leader with a copy of his book.  With a royal seal of approval, the book and the brew became instant hits.
It took a while longer for the Oriental drink to reach Europe.  The Portuguese first opened a trade route to the Far East and transported tea back to Lisbon where it was distributed by Dutch ships to the Baltic countries, as well as France and the Netherlands.  As more tea was imported, the price lowered and tea went from being an elite drink to a common brew enjoyed by all.  The Dutch even brought tea to their recently established colony, New Amsterdam—now New York.  Unwittingly, the colonists set the stage for a revolution, but it wasn’t until tea reached England that all the trouble began.

Believe it or not, England was the last to sip tea.  It wasn’t until after 1650 that tea was served at coffee houses throughout Great Britain along with coffee and chocolate.  King Charles II imposed a tea tax in 1660 and several years later, the crown outlawed the imported drink, but at the same time gave Britain’s East India company their very own tea monopoly.  By 1720, tea became a staple in the New World, but the tax issue embittered many of the settlers.  As taxes increased, the outraged colonists refused to drink English tea.  The whole debacle resulted in The Boston Tea Party when rebels dumped a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor, which eventually led to the American Revolution. 
Throughout the nineteenth century, tea remained a popular drink around the world.  In 1904, however, tea plantation owner Richard Blechynden gave the brew another twist.  That summer, he planned to pass out samples of his tea at the St. Louis World’s Fair, but the warm summer weather left him with few takers.  Desperate to drum up business, Blechynden cooled his tea with ice.  To everyone’s amazement, it was just as tasty cold.

Four years later, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan bagged tea leaves for the very first time.  The pre-measured sacks assured a good cup of tea with little effort.  The teabag soon became a staple in almost every home.  So the next time you sip some tea, you now know that you have something in common with both royalty and revolutionaries.


  1. I nearly choked on my tea when I read that England was one of the last countries in the world to sample tea! That's almost unbelievable.

    Very interesting history of this wonderful drink. Bless that Thomas Sullivan who had the idea to bag the leaves and make life easier for all of us!

    1. I'm not a tea drinker, but I thought the background story was interesting. As for the English, they may have jumped on the bandwagon a bit late, but they turned tea time into a ritual!!!