The History of Tea


Other than water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world and one of the oldest, tracing its roots (so to speak) to at least the 5th century BCE.  Join Active Minds as we tell the story of tea, including the role it played in colonial empire building, the different types of tea, how it is grown and processed, who grows and drinks the most (which are not the same), and much more.

Key Lecture Points

  • Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water.  There are countless teas on the market but they all come from the same plant, genus Camellia.  Tea is separated into 4 basic types: white, green, oolong and black.  The process used to prepare the leaves determines the tea’s classification and oxidation creates its color, body and flavor. The quality and taste of a particular tea is influenced by climate, altitude and season.
  • China and India are the two largest tea producing countries in the world, yet the country that consumes the most tea per capita is Turkey.
  • Tea was already a part of Chinese life by the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE).  It was introduced to Japan in the 8th century CE.  In China and Japan tea became more than just a beverage--it was elevated to an artistic and philosophic expression of their cultures.  During the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu (733-804), the Tea Sage, wrote Ch’a Ching, a comprehensive treatise on tea, specifying how tea should be grown, manufactured, prepared and consumed.  Part poetry and part production manual, the Ch’a Ching established the foundation for the Japanese tea ceremony we know today.
  • Tea came to Europe during the Age of Discovery when Portuguese and Dutch traders brought it back from Asia.  The East India Company controlled the tea trade between Britain and China.  Until the 19th century, China had a monopoly on the cultivation and production of tea and closely guarded its valuable trade secrets.  China’s hold on the tea market was broken when the British sent the botanist Robert Fortune, disguised as a mandarin, to China to discover how tea was produced.
  • Tea is a delicate plant that is vulnerable to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns.  Tea producers, especially in India, are concerned that climate change is already impacting production.

Exploration Questions

  • How is tea grown and manufactured?
  • What role has tea played in British history?  US history?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever attended a Japanese tea ceremony?  An English afternoon tea?  A tea ceremony from another country?  What were your impressions?  Why do you think so many cultures have created rituals around tea drinking?
  • Are you a tea drinker?  What do you enjoy most about the beverage?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Dolin, Eric Jay.  When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail.  Liveright Publishing, 2013. 394 pages.  Ancient China collides with upstart America in this tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates and Clipper ships.
    Click here to order
  • Gascoyne, Kevin, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties (paperback). Firefly Books, 2013. 270 pages.  The authors take the reader on a tour of the world’s tea growing countries and show how tea, like fine wine, is influenced by terroir.
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  • Rose, Sarah. All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. Penguin Books, 2011. 272 pages. Tells the story of Robert Fortune’s trips to China to steal the secret of tea production for the British East India Company—one of the great corporate espionage stories in history.
    Click here to order