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A Glimpse into the Origins of Tea

The origin of tea can be traced back to China and the mythical sovereign and father of agriculture and herbal medicine, Shennong, 2737 BC. There are two versions of the divine legend. In one, Shennong tasted hundreds of plants to discover their medical usefulness, ultimately falling ill with several of the plants’ poisonous properties. Luckily, the wind carried one green Camellia sinensis leaf to his lips, healing him from pain.

In the second version of the myth, Shennong’s servant is said to have been boiling water in a pan when leaves fell in from an overhanging branch of a wild Camellia tree. He tasted the liquor and found it to be both delicious and restorative.

Later in Chinese history, during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), Lu Yu wrote in his Cha Ching (Tea Classic) – “If one is generally moderate but is feeling hot or warm, given to melancholia, suffering from aching of the brain, smarting of the eyes, troubled in the four limbs, or afflicted in the hundred joints, he may take tea four or five times.”

Well, that covers most ailments!

So, tea became known as:

  • A healthy tonic used to cure various ailments.
  • A refreshing beverage that sustained and refreshed.
  • A drink that brought calm and promoted clarity of thought.

As time passed, the Chinese population learned how to grow the plant, resulting in its increasing popularity.

Tea Preparation

Tea processing and preparation methods have changed significantly over the years. During the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D) Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the production of loose-leaf tea (loose leaves dry-roasted and brewed in hot water) instead of the more expensive and time-consuming steamed tea cakes. Before this, tea was steamed and compressed into cakes. The production of loose-leaf tea signified drying leaves, grinding them into a fine powder and whisking until frothy. This method produced the best-tasting liquor, so daily tea drinking spread rapidly throughout China and neighboring countries.

Tea Travels to Europe

European traders established regular trade with China in the early 17th century and introduced tea to Europe. Initially, tea was expensive and was reserved for royalty and the rich. By in the 19th century, the Dutch had started tea cultivation in Java and Sumatra and later, the British established cultivations in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This was to meet the increasing demand for tea, as it became more affordable and popular amongst the masses. However, it also prospered during the Temperance movement, where tea was presented as an alternative to alcohol.

By the beginning of the 20th century, tea had become the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. By this time, the medicinal properties of tea were mostly forgotten, and it was consumed regularly as a pleasant beverage.

The Health Benefits of Tea

In the 1980s, there was a renewed interest in the medicinal properties of tea because of the emergence of modern scientific research. This has continued, and consumers all over the world now view tea in the context of its proven health-beneficial properties. Including:

  • Tea (green or black tea) may reduce or delay dementia risk

Tea drinking has evolved over the 5000 years since it was discovered, from its origins in China and Japan where it was treasured for its medicinal properties, through its rise in popularity across the world. Tea was enjoyed for its popularity and taste, with its health benefits taking second place. Now, as lifestyle, diet and health concerns draw attention to the scientific research into tea, it is once again looked to for its health benefits.

As younger generations adopt a preference for low or non-alcoholic drinks and demand increases for ready-to-drink and exciting new flavours in tea, it will be interesting to see how the role of tea develops. Will tea continue to be popular for the health benefits it offers, or will we once again look to tea only to enjoy its taste?

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  • Sandra Benn

    Sandra Benn shares her passion for tea and its culture, lifestyle, travel, and health benefits in her Ankha Azzura column. She qualified as a Tea Champion with the UK Tea Academy in 2020. Her online shop, Chiya & Chai, offers a collection of loose leaf tea and accessories and she also hosts private tea tastings online and in-person. Follow me @chiyaandchai on Facebook & Instagram

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