I drink an awful lot of tea. It’s just nice, isn’t it? Tea is one of those things that becomes so much a part of your daily routine that you do not even notice it. Some would call that an addiction; I would prefer to call it a hobby. Yet, when one day I stopped and thought about this cup of hot flavoured water I had in my hand, I had so many questions about it that I wanted to answer. This hot brew I was holding linked me to the state rooms of Windsor Castle, to the streets and markets of Turkey, to the most well-to-do tea parties and the most difficult days at work. What is this magical concoction? Why do we drink so much of it? What is its story? So, I set about answering these important questions as best I could.
The word “tea” essentially covers all drinks made by flavouring water with the leaves of a tea plant. Hot or cold, with milk or without. The earliest known written reference to tea comes from China in 59 BCE, though it was around much earlier than this with the oldest discovered tea potentially dating as far back as 206 BCE. In Chinese legend, tea has an even longer history, as far as 2732 BCE when Emperor Shennong discovered this herbal drink when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. Now that is a perfect storm. It is thought that tea’s popularity really took off during the 8th century as it became China’s national drink. As it gained popularity throughout China, eventually, foreign trade increased and tea leaves began to be exported across Asia, even being used, at one point, as a form of currency in Tibet. Tea growing regions across Asia slowly expanded as time went on, too, increasing the amount of tea and the chance of exportation. The earliest European reference to tea, however, did not come until the 16th century and it was not actually seen in Europe itself until the 17th century. It eventually spread across Europe and to America and is now the most popular drink in the world – after water, that is.
In addition to its own long and fascinating personal history, tea has left quite its own mark on the history of the world, too. Tea was a crucial reason for the East India Company’s foundation and its mega-monopoly. Tea further catalysed the start of the American War of Independence at the Boston Tea Party. The high price and taxation on tea also led to a rampant black market in Europe and the invention of rapid sailing vessels known as “clippers,” which were designed to speed up the importation of tea to Britain and Europe. Their aim was to reduce the price of tea, leading to the Great Tea Race of 1866. There is no denying that the world would be a considerably different place without tea.
In Britain, tea was made popular by Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza from Portugal, where tea was a popular drink for the upper classes at the time. Now in Britain, we tend to favour a version of black tea, referred to as “English breakfast tea”. This is notwithstanding the fact its roots most likely lie here in Scotland, at the hands of tea master Robert Drysdale. It was made widely popular by Queen Victoria who took a supply back to London with her after trying it at her Balmoral home, perhaps then causing the term “English breakfast tea” to be coined.
Tea was originally a status symbol, only drunk by the British upper-class. By the 18th century, every class wanted a cup but, given the high prices, trouble was brewing (pardon the pun) and a smuggling network thrived, until finally, William Pitt the Younger lowered the tax on tea by more than 100%. Tea then began to increase in popularity in all the classes – and the rest is history. The UK Tea & Infusions Association claims that 84% of the UK population drinks tea every day. So, it seems the cliché of the British drinking huge quantities of tea is true.
Here in Britain, we drink a phenomenal amount of tea. We are obsessed with it. When I went on my year abroad to France, I took teabags with me just in case. (You would have, too!) To an outsider, for example my North American girlfriend, my three or more cups a day are slightly peculiar, yet the British are not even the biggest tea drinkers in the world. Statista.com lists the UK as the third biggest tea drinkers per capita after Turkey and Ireland – they must drink an awful lot! Indeed they do. People in Turkey drink 3.16 kg of tea annually versus the UK’s 1.94 kg according to WorldAtlas.com. That is a mightily impressive amount of tea to get through. Interestingly though, China does not even make the top ten, an example of a great exporter of a goods who does not tend to consume the greatest amount of its product. Still, this is an unexpected finding given the strong origins of tea and its traditions in China.
One of the things that originally made me consider writing this article was just how often my flatmate and I stop what we are doing to make a cuppa. I call it “tea culture.” Yes, it may be a method of procrastination whilst writing an essay but it is no ground-breaking discovery that drinking tea is a perfect opportunity to socialise, relax, and chat – debate the nicest tea brand or the best biscuit to dunk (a custard cream, closely followed by a ginger snap). Making tea can also be an art. Whilst making a cup of tea has not necessarily reached the recent heights of crafting a cup of high-end coffee, it is certainly becoming an art in itself. Artisan flavoured teas are becoming more and more popular and people are choosing to make loose tea, enjoying the process of making as much as the drinking. We students across the country gather in our kitchens several times a day to put the kettle on or offer our snowed-under flatmates a hot brew to take the edge off. Maybe it is being stingy with the heating, maybe it is procrastination, maybe it is a social thing, maybe it is a comfort blanket in a crisis situation. Most likely, it is all of the above!
Tea is more than just flavoured hot water that you have a couple of times a day. It is a cultural rock, an emblem, as different countries have their own speciality and tradition when it comes to how they celebrate tea. Tea is a cultural focal point, often being the central point of friends coming together to share in a drink they all enjoy. Afternoon tea in Britain is another cultural tradition that focuses on the very raison d’être of this article. Tea gardens in Istanbul or teahouses in Marrakech or China are all cultural hubs in these vibrant countries, locations for chatter, entertainment, laughing and joking. Tea also has tremendous relaxing qualities, associating it with peace and meditation. By the 1100s, three formal zen Buddhist tea ceremonies had been created to aid meditation.
One other question I had in mind when considering this article, in light of recent ecological events in Glasgow in the form of COP26, was how much the shipping of tonnes and tonnes of tea from across the world to feed our obsessions here in Britain is affecting our environment. It is notably difficult to find where certain tea manufacturers source their tea on their websites, whereas it is very easy indeed to find their sustainability promises. Being very ecologically-minded and a great lover of tea, I am deeply concerned with the impact of deforestation, worldwide imports and exports, and the potential for poor working conditions in tea producing countries.
The sustainability promises from manufacturers may seem like mere marketing promises but the work some manufacturers are doing is truly beneficial to not only our future ecological goals but also equality and safety in locations where tea is produced. Manufacturers like Yorkshire Tea promise to plant a million trees and Tetley and PG Tips are making great efforts to help the communities in which they farm their tea. PG Tips’ site in Kericho, Kenya, has two community hospitals, four health centres and provides education for the 5,500 workers’ families on the estate. Tetley works with UNICEF and is part of the Ethical Tea Partnership; it has helped to improve the safety of over 35,000 girls across Assam, India, and formed 300 Child Protection Committees across tea communities in there to protect against trafficking and unsafe migration. These efforts are commendable; however, they must be made sure to continue in the most ethical manner, stronger and more widespread than ever into the future, bearing in mind the power these huge enterprises command. Environmental efforts need to be improved, too; companies ought to innovate and lower the carbon footprint of each cup of tea.
So, under the calm surface of this humble beverage that we make a few times a day is more than just a cuppa; it is a great story. A history, a culture, a symbol, and a reason for change. Tea is a commodity for huge swathes of the world and, sometimes, it is important to stop and think about the background to daily items in our lives so we can truly understand them.