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A History of Tea

" Birth of a legendary beverage "


The year was 2737 BCE, over four thousand years ago. The emperor of China, Shennong, was on a trip to a distant province when he and his entourage stopped to rest. Shennong was thirsty, so he commanded his servants to fetch him a cup of boiled water. The emperor believed that boiling water rendered it 'clean' and suitable for consumption, and he always had it that way.
On this fateful day, a dried leaf from a nearby tea bush dislodged itself and floated right into the cup of hot water prepared for the emperor, turning the water into a clear, brownish hue. The change was unnoticed, and the drink was served.


Shennong was taken aback by the strange new aroma from his usual cup of water, and became further amazed when his taste buds picked up the refreshing and energizing flavour caused by the dried tea leaf. Convinced that he had made an exciting new discovery, he ordered more of the tea leaves to be gathered and brought back with him.
And just like that, the custom of brewing tea leaves in water began.



Tea: herb, gift and privilege 


The humble tea went by many names throughout the years that followed Shennong's invention. In the beginning, the Chinese called it 'tu' and 'jia', which in turn became the more familiar terms of 'tea', 'cha', and 'chai'.
Amazingly, tea never became popular until years after its discovery. More likely, the drink was used as a medicinal remedy due to its refreshing qualities. Later on, however, more people began to appreciate it as a beverage to be enjoyed. This was the case for the upper class, which tended to send and receive gifts of tea leaves as exquisite presents.
It wasn't long before tea began to be exported out of China, and into other parts of Asia. On the other hand, it took until the dawn of the 17th century before the Western world had its first sip.
The Dutch and the Portuguese were the first to sample the marvels of tea. Astounded by the drink, they hastened to bring the leaves back to the Old World. Tea eventually reached the shores of Britain and Holland, and quickly made its presence known among the rich and famous in Europe.


The drink that made the world a smaller place.



But why did the rich get exclusive access to it? Tea was a luxury commodity in those days. If you could afford to drink it, the world was your oyster. And that's not all – people were consuming tea faster than it was brought home. Europe was craving the hottest new refreshment, and they soon thought of ways to get more.


Companies like the British-founded East India Company (or John Company, as they came to be known) made it their mission to get as much tea as they could back from Asia. Competition was fierce between the sea-faring nations of Europe; tea was an extraordinarily profitable commodity, after all. Regardless of their rivalry, the activities of these merchants played an essential role in bringing the East and West together in the interests of trade.


America and the Tea Party


Tea made its way to North America at the start of the 18th century. It was an instant hit, becoming exceptionally popular in Boston and New York. The drink became so desirable that London-style teahouses began sprouting up in every city, bringing it to the general public.
But like wolves circling a feast, the demand and potential profits proved too difficult to resist for the British Empire. Taxes were imposed on the suppliers of tea to the American territories under their rule, inflating its selling price. This fuelled the growing resentment the colonists had for the British government. What right did they have to set such high prices, for a land that they did not govern directly?


And so the Boston Tea Party came to pass. When the final negotiations had broken down, disgruntled Americans boarded one of the tea ships at the harbour and began throwing the crates containing the leaves overboard, destroying them in the process and marking the start of the American War of Independence.


The 20th Century and beyond



Thomas Sullivan was a tea enthusiast who lived in the early 20th century, and he had a habit of sending samples of tea sealed in white silk bags. This, he reasoned, would allow the tea leaves to infuse the water without the troublesome scattering of residue, eliminating the need for special utensils used to address this problem.


Unbeknownst to Sullivan, he had unwittingly created the concept of tea bags, and his customers were impressed with the invention. Brewing tea has never been easier or cheaper than before!


It has been a century since this groundbreaking product, and tea has never been more popular. It's now the second most consumed beverage in the world, coming second only to water.


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