History of Tea

The history of tea dates back to ancient China, almost 5,000 years ago. According to legend, in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. He was immediately interested in the pleasant scent of the resulting brew, and drank some.

Shen Nung named the brew “ch’a”, the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. In 200 B.C. a Han Dynasty Emperor ruled that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used illustrating wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two. This written character, also pronounced “ch’a” symbolized the way tea brought humankind into balance with nature for the Chinese culture.

History of Tea in India

The Opium Wars
As tea consumption grew, Britain’s exports could not keep up with the demand for tea imports. The Chinese were more interested in silver than in cotton, Britain’s main export. Finding enough silver to trade for tea became increasingly difficult, however, so the British turned to growing opium in its large Asian colony…India. The scheming British sent opium to China across the Indian border in exchange for silver, then traded the same silver back to China for tea. The illegal opium scheme worked until 1839 when a Chinese official sent 20,000 chests of opium to a watery grave in a sea near Canton. A year later, Britain declared war on China and China retaliated by placing a strict embargo on all exports of tea.

Tea Plantations in India
China was hesitant about trading with the West even before the Opium Wars began. China believing their nation to be self-sufficient and took steps toward isolation. The difficulty of obtaining Chinese tea prompted Britain to explore other alternatives…like growing their own tea.

The climate and high altitudes of Northern India made it a promising location for tea cultivation. Also, explorers had discovered indigenous tea plants growing in Assam, India as early as 1823. Before long, Indians became experts on growing very beautiful tea plants, but lacked knowledge on tea processing. Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, is credited for spying on China’s ancient sacred tea processing techniques and returning to India with knowledge, equipment, and a small team of experienced Chinese growers.