Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
If you’re anything like us here at Lucy Bee, then you’ll agree that there’s nothing quite so soothing as a steaming mug (or vat) of tea.
Yup, our love affair with the humble tea shows no sign of fading – a hot mug is about as British as fish and chips or Coronation Street. But have you ever stopped to think about how a basic plant from China ended up in kitchens across the nation?
If you’re a fellow tea lover, then pull up a chair, pour yourself a cuppa (what else?) and read all about the history of our favourite drink.
Look into it and you’ll find many different myths and legends about the origins of tea. However, our favourite – and perhaps the most famous story of them all – involves the Chinese emperor and herbalist Shen Nung. Legend has it that Shen Nung was boiling water when leaves from a nearby shrub blew into the cauldron. He tasted the resulting brew, loved it, and tea was born.
Credit to wokcitywithlove
While there are many other stories around about the origins of tea (including one involving the Indian prince Bodhidharma, who converted to Buddhism and took tea leaves to help him stay awake for meditation) one thing we do know is that we have a lot to thank China for. You see, brews were consumed during the reign of Confucius (c.551-479 BC) and soared in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).
Although the Chinese fell out of love with tea for many years, it became fashionable once again under the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After years of foreign rule, all things quintessentially Chinese became fashionable once more, with tea one of them. It was during this time that China started experimenting with their drinks, making fermented black teas, unfermented green teas, and even oolong blends.
We often think of tea drinking as the height of Britishness but its popularity in England only soared thanks to a foreign princess. Catherine of Braganza was a Portuguese princess who married King Charles II in the 1660s. In fact, as part of the marriage dowry, Princess Catherine’s father provided the pair with ships full of luxury goods – including tea – so that King Charles could pay off some of his debt.
Although Catherine did adopt many English customs, she still loved the food and drinks of her native Portugal, which included tea. Her love for a good brew was picked up in royal court and then spread across aristocratic circles around the capital.
This new-found love for tea, as well as the monopoly of the British East India Trading Company (probably one of the most successful trading companies the world has ever seen), was soon to become the basis for the British tea trade.
The East India Company soon started trading in Canton and brought many products back to England. Tea was just one of those products but proved by far the most successful. Although tea was originally marketed as a medicinal drink, it soon gained in popularity and, by 1750, became the nation’s most beloved drink.
Selection of teas from The East India Trading Company
In fact, tea became so popular that it was soon being smuggled illegally into the country. Fed up with sky-high prices and high taxes on teas, there became a tea underworld and tea smuggling went on for years. Would you believe that something so innocent as a mug of tea became the reason for murderous ways, violence and underhand tactics?
Eventually, after many protests and uproar, William Pitt the Younger – a 24-year-old Prime Minister – slashed tea taxes in 1783, and smuggling eventually came to a halt. Following this, cafes and coffee houses opened up, serving our beloved drink.
So, now you know just how these teas arrived in Britain. But how did they transform from a black, slightly bitter drink into our milky (and two sugars) brew of today?
Well, bizarrely, it involves more breaking of the law – who knew that tea could be the basis for so much criminal activity?
As tea became more and more popular in the 18th century, so too did 'British tea´, which was made from elder, hawthorne and ash. Often, this was sold ‘as labelled’ but sometimes it was also passed off as genuine tea. Although these leaves were eventually banned by parliament, black market tea was still sold, with chemicals added to dye green 'tea' the right colour.
These chemicals included copper carbonate and lead chromate, which were highly toxic and incredibly poisonous. To avoid drinking these poisonous dyes, black tea became more popular and so too did the addition of milk. And, although this poisonous tea blend and tea smuggling did have a negative impact, it also made tea more affordable to millions of homes.
Fast forward a few more years and, as we started to trade more and more with India, Indian tea replaced Chinese blends in our hearts. Then, in 1908, a genius invention that would change our tea-drinking ways forever came about - the tea bag.
Incredibly, it wasn’t a Brit who invented the tea bag. Nope. Instead, it was a New York tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan, who started to send samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags.
Many of his customers assumed that these bags were designed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers (by dunking the entire bag into the pot) rather than emptying out the contents. Yup, the tea bag as we know it was a complete and utter accident!
Eventually, Sullivan worked on the material these bags were made from and developed sachets made of gauze. These were later launched for commercial use in the 1920s these were developed for commercial production and the bags grew in popularity in the USA.
However, us Brits – as wary of change as ever – didn’t embrace these fancy new tea bags until the 1950s. During this era, fancy household gadgets were marketed to help housewives cut down on chores. This meant that tea bags were seen as brilliantly convenient when they were introduced by Tetley in 1953. Now, tea bags make up 96% of the British tea market – we bet you’ll struggle to find a home or office in the country without one in the cupboard.
Whether we are enjoying a cup of tea over our keyboards as we hammer away to hit work deadlines, or sip at it as we read a beloved book, there’s something calming about a hot tea. In fact, it’s completely engrained in our national psyche.
What’s the first thing you do in a crisis? Yep, you go to make tea!
Our love affair with the humble brew means that us Brits drink an astonishing 165 million mugs of tea a day. Yes, every single day. That’s more than 2.5 cups of tea for every single man, woman and child in the country – and a staggering 60.2 billion cups a year. Incredible, isn’t it?
However, as other drinks – such as lattes or espressos – boom in popularity, tea drinking is slowly on the decline. In 2003, a survey1 showed that there was a 10% decline in the buying of normal teabags in Britain in just five years. Now it seems that we are turning to healthier options, such as fruit or herbal teas (purchases of these sailed by 50% in the same period).
Storing tea in recycled Lucy Bee jars
From green tea to fruit teas, black teas and rooibos, there are dozens of different brews on the market today. But which is your favourite and what’s the difference between the various types?
Incredibly, there are 1,500 different teas2 available today. However, some are definitely more popular than others. Here’s our Lucy Bee guide to the teas stocking your cupboards today.
Black teas (also known as “red teas” in China) get their strong flavour and distinctive colour from a natural oxidation process. They’re made by drying and rolling the leaves once they’ve been picked, although there are a huge variety of types and blends.
You can now take your pick of black teas, including Assams, Darjeelings, Ceylons and even bespoke blends. These blends also make up your favourite Earl Grey teas (which is just black tea with added bergamot oil), full-bodied English breakfast, and spiced flavours such as Masala Chai (which combines black tea with spices, milk, and a sweetener such as sugar or honey).
Although green tea tends to lose its flavour within a year, black tea keeps its flavour for a long, long time.
Health benefits of black tea are huge, and it is known to help lower the risk of stroke, boost our levels of antioxidants, prevent certain cancers, ease stress and act as a stimulant to keep us awake.
Beloved by fitness types across the globe, green tea is renowned for its various health-boosting qualities. Our favourite green tea is made from unoxidized leaves, which are then heated after picking as this destroys the enzymes that cause oxidation. These leaves are then rolled to release their flavour. We love to add a teaspoon of Lucy Bee to green tea -have you tried this yet?
Green teas tend to be rich in vitamins and antioxidants, which mean they are often marketed as a healthy, fragrant and refreshing drink. Of course, we all know that green tea is loaded with health benefits (in fact, many say it is the healthiest drink on the planet), including:
Matcha Tea has a distinctive, almost neon green appearance (it’s often used as a natural food dye) and comes in powdered form. It’s basically just finely powdered or milled green tea and originates in Japan.
It is made by rolling the leaves out before drying. If the leaves are laid out flat to dry, they crumble – also known as tencha – and can then be de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone-ground to form the talc-like powder you and I know as Matcha.
Pretty clever, right? However, it can take up to one hour to grind just 30 grams of Matcha Powder, which is why the cost of this superfood is often sky-high.
Matcha can now be found in dozens of health foods and products, from cereals to energy-boosting protein bars. Why? Well, researchers4 have found that the concentration of certain antioxidants are three times greater in matcha than in shop-bought green teas.
There’s also evidence to suggest that drinking matcha tea can help to boost weight loss, send energy levels soaring and even regulate stress levels.
Oolong quite literally means Black Dragon and is usually from China and Taiwan. It is a cross between green and black teas and is semi-fermented tea. Oolong is also renowned for its digestive benefits.
Oolong is made using a unique method where the tea plant is withered by being oxidized and placed under strong sunlight. There are many different flavours and types, from sweet and fruity tastes, to woody or green and fresh aromas.
Health benefits of Oolong Tea include helping to fight heart disease, inflammatory disorders, and high cholesterol levels. It is also rich in antioxidants, which boost both the skin and our bones.
Gently brewing white tea
White tea is the world's rarest – and most expensive – tea type as it can only be picked for a few select weeks each year. Types of white tea vary from Silver Needle Tea to White Peony.
Authentic white tea is grown in the Fujian province in China, although the method of processing remains top secret to this day. However, we do know that white tea is made using a clever method which raises small silvery hairs on the leaves and buds.
White tea has many detoxifying benefits and is higher in antioxidants than black tea. It is also thought that drinking white tea could lower cholesterol levels as well as lowering the risk of heart disease.
Fruit and Herbal Teas
Most of you will probably have tried the various fruit and herbal teas on the market. From raspberry leaf tea to ginger tea, each of these has its own individual health benefits and can be used to treat an array of conditions, from nausea and sickness to digestive problems.
Take your pick from peppermint tea (fantastic at combating sickness and soothing stomachs after heavy meals) to chamomile which can help to aid sleep and ease insomnia.
So, there you have it – the history of the humble brew, and all the various types. How many mugs did you drink while reading this? We think it’s time we put the kettle on…
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Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.