Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, after water. Its popularity stood the test of time because it’s more than just a warm drink. From the moment it was discovered, over 5,000 years ago, when the Chinese started stewing tea leaves in hot water, its health benefits started to be noticeable and since then it’s been traditionally used for a multitude of ailments, from headaches to cold and flu symptoms.
Knowing its importance, research has become increasingly interested in testing this wonderful drink, as initial results showed that in fact, it has many compounds that can potentially have serious implications for human health. Every day, new studies emerge with more applications, from fighting cancer to improving cardiovascular health.
Originating from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, many different types of tea can be produced, depending on the processes the leaves go through. The most important chemical aspect is the level of oxidation varying from no oxidation in the case of green tea, to an extensive oxidation, in the case of black tea, with several intermediate types of tea. In addition to this beverage, the Chinese also gave us a name for it. The word tea is believed to come from ancient Chinese dialects, and words such as “tchai” or “tay” were in use to describe this drink.
There is some evidence to suggest that the art of producing tea was discovered and developed by the Chinese over 5,000 years ago. According to the legend, tea was an accidental discovery made by Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 BC. At the time it was believed that drinking hot water was healthy, which due to the contaminants in the water it probably wasn’t a bad idea! One summer’s day, when the Emperor and his entourage were visiting a distant region in his empire, they stopped for a rest and one of his servants offered the Emperor a cup of boiling water. As he was drinking it, a leaf from the tea plant fell in his cup. Instead of removing it, the Emperor left there as he realised that it was giving a wonderful aroma and it tasted delightfully. Tea was invented!
Initially, it was only “prescribed” for medical reasons, but its popularity grew so much that very quickly became the standard daily drink in China. As a testimony to its importance in Chinese culture, in 780 AD, a scientist called Lu Yu wrote “The tea Classic”; with details about how to grow the tea plant and process the different types of tea, as well methods from brewing and drinking this beverage. By this stage, tea had reached a high social status in Chinese society and became the inspiration of many poems, art and music.
By 900 AD, the number of tea houses in China had grown exponentially as simpler techniques to produce and brew tea meant mass production was possible. At this stage, the habit of drinking tea had spread to Japan, which developed their own tea-drinking rituals.
Europeans had to wait until 1600s to experience this drink, with the oldest reference to its use in England dating back to 1669. Initially the high price was prohibitive to working classes, and only the most privileged families could consume this drink. But similarly to what had happened in China 4,000 years before, it very quickly became a popular drink and the market expanded rapidly.
Nowadays, tea is readily accessible to everybody and no longer a luxury item. It has become one of China’s most important exports, but recently other countries have also become relevant tea producers.
A further interesting development in the history of tea involves another accidental invention. In 1908, a New York supplier called Thomas Sullivan, sent small samples of tea to selected customers in small bags. The ideas was that the tea would be removed from the bag and used as normally, but the customers unsure of what to do with the bag, simply placed everything in hot water! The tea bag was born! After some improvements, by 1920 tea bags were mass-produced and the most popular way of consuming tea in America, slowly winning over the rest of the world as well. Today, tea-lovers are spread across the world enjoying a variety of different types of tea. Western countries tend to prefer black tea, while China, Japan, India and some countries in the Middle East opt for green tea.
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