Morning, Noon or Night: A History of Tea and Why We Love It

February 02, 2020

Morning, Noon or Night: A History of Tea and Why We Love It

Morning, Noon or Night: A History of Tea and Why We Love It

People have a long association, and indeed an extended love affair, with tea. Today, you'll find these fragrant dried leaves around the world, from high-end tea shops to chain supermarkets, and from exclusive afternoon teas to delicious street cart offerings. Whether sipping your tea while nestled in a window seat or settling in with friends around an outside table, your tea drinking experiences are nearly endless.

Where did tea originate? And how did we come to love it so?

Tea's Origins

Tea's earliest history is shrouded in legend, but its discovery extends back several thousand years in China. Camellia sinensis leaves, which produced a bitter liquid, were believed to have medicinal properties. Little-known before, these leaves enraptured those who sought enlightened minds and healthy bodies. Tea remained a Chinese luxury for the next 2,500 years, something for royalty and then gradually for scholars in tea houses. The common processing method was to steam, dry and press the leaves into "tea bricks," which were then crumbled into boiled water.

Widespread dispersal began in the 700s via the Tea Horse Road across Asia. New processing methods encouraged people of all classes to sample this formerly rare brew.

Tea houses and tea ceremonies, however, kept tea from losing its superior status. Even in lower-ranking households, tea trays, with their pots, cups and utensils, were brought out to greet friends, welcome neighbors and celebrate family events.

European Expansion

Europe saw its first tea leaves in the 1500s and it was instantly mesmerized. Tea took over Europe through its introduction by Portuguese and Dutch trading vessels, with England's first introduction in the mid-1600s. Russians had sampled tea by the early 1600s, while in the Americas, the first to drink tea were the Dutch colonists in the 1650s and the British colonists shortly thereafter.

Britain brought India into the tea culture by the mid-1800s through a combination of transplanted Chinese seeds and cultivation of the native Assam tea plant. The great Tea Race had begun, and it encouraged a mad fascination with all things tea. Tea started out as a rare and expensive commodity but later represented a leveling ground between classes.

Afternoon tea was popular in Victorian times when the upper class would drop by for a chat and a light snack, usually around 4 p.m. Working class did not have this luxury, and they instead took "high tea," tea plus a meal, after the work day was complete.

Today, tea remains a highly popular drink, and it is consumed both hot and cold. From oolong to masala chai and from iced tea to chai lattes - not to mention the many herbal tea alternatives - tea has become one of the world's most cherished beverages.

A Look at Popular Teas

Caffeinated Tea, Camellia sinensis

  • Green: By far the most common throughout Asia, green tea is non-fermented, comes from young leaves and contains the most antioxidants.
  • Black: This tea is completely fermented and appeals most to American and European markets.
  • Oolong: A semi-fermented tea, oolong comes from the mature leaves, which are rolled into shapes resembling "black dragons."
  • Masala chai: Ubiquitous throughout India, masala chai is black tea steeped in milk and spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper.

Herbal Tea, an Infusion of Flowers, Leaves or Spices

  • Rooibos: Infused from the fermented leaves of Aspalathus linearis, a shrub from South Africa. High in antioxidants, vitamin C and polyphenols.
  • Peppermint: Made from dried peppermint leaves and helps soothe digestive issues (except for acid reflux) and headaches.
  • Chamomile: Made from dried flowers, chamomile tea is the ultimate sleepy time drink.

Tea for Health

All of the above teas, including caffeinated and herbal teas, are regularly consumed for their health benefits. Detox tea blends often contain other herbs, such as milk thistle, dandelion, burdock and chicory, to support the detoxifying organs.


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