History of Tea

Tea, the choicest modern day beverage for refreshment and stress busting, recommended and confirmed by doctors and scientists alike as the medicine for a troubled mind or a benign condition, has an ancient history before it came to be served on a platter for all and sundry.

Tea has found mention generously in pre-dated texts and documents and scriptures from different parts of the world, in gentle portions, which is a clear reflection of its timeless association with human civilization and it unordained status as an acceptable beverage and stress buster and relaxant. But the road to empyrean bliss for the taste buds was not built in a day just as Rome was not built in a day. The soothing power of a regular cup of tea had to travel a long journey before it could actually go forward to be made available at every convenience store for a ready brew. Steeping the leaves to boil them at exactly their optimum temperature, so that the tannins and catcechins and the polyphenols are released to induce flavanoids which regulates the taste and flavour the leaves would add to the brew, has been a time staking process and has undergone timeless research and extensive experiments before it could be made ready for consumption. Tea indeed is a very complex substance which has been suitably simplified for regular consumption after years of dedicated and unrelenting efforts to unveil the same. Just like the Boston Tea Party, which rather unlike its name suggests, is not a fancy American Tea Party for connoisseurs, but a political movement etched in the pages of world history in which American patriots threw tea into the sea harbour because apparently they would have nothing but liberty. IngenuiTEA, eh?

Okay enough of tea puns. Before we actually proceed to uncover the birth & discovery of tea and trace its journey back to its original location, below is an excerpt from an actually overheard conversation on the morning tube which highlights the legacy of tea and its importance in diurnal life on a slightly humorous note.

A: How does Moses make his tea?
B: Hebrews it
A: You must be kidding me
B: No I am serious, that Israeli how he does it

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The history of tea is complex as tea itself and in tracing it back to its origin we will travel through many different cultures across different countries spanning over 10,000 years or more. Even before we start, we have already discussed tea and its significance historically in the American freedom movement. Although drinking tea globally was made popular by the British in the late 17th century, thanks to its extensive colonial efforts. The monopoly on tea was previously held by the Chinese before the British started mass cultivation of the tea plant in India and introduced drinking tea to the whole world. After much introspection and careful examination, it can be inferred that the origin of tea in China was largely based on its medicinal value than for its taste and refreshing flavor. The Camelia Sinensis or the traditional tea plants from which leaves are used to brew tea, is naturally occurring and singular to the Yunan province in China and some parts of Northern Burma. On careful observation, it is concluded that the Assam, Darjeeling & Sikkim tea are variations of this plant itself, and apart from morphological differences, they exhibit the same genus traits as Camelia Sinensis. Hence it may be suggested that the British had initially obtained seeds for large-scale plantation of tea plants for cultivating tea and its consumption from China and planted it in the hill slopes of India. And from then on, tea has been as integral to Indian history as it has been synonymous with the rest of the world as a mildly refreshing beverage. However, tea itself as a medicinal extract has found mention in Chinese texts dating back to 3rd century BC in Yunan, the birthplace of tea from where it possibly spread to all other parts of the world. The Chinese believe that tea has been consumed in their culture since 10,000 years and recent excavations have produced palpable evidence which reveals tea to have been very popular in the Han Dynasty of China which was flourishing as early as 2nd century BC. Whereas consumption of tea first finds mention in the epic of Ramayana whereafter for the next years documentation on tea was lost in transition. Even some primitive tribes of India claim to have a primitive association with tea even though tea became popular in India only after the British invasion. There are plenty of folk tales and lores surrounding the advent of tea and its remarkably miraculous benefits for the human body. Such was the Chinese monopoly over tea production that at one point of time it was stored in the form of bricks and used as currency for trade.

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The way in which tea has been made fit for human consumption has also changed over the course of time. Initially the Chinese would steam the leaves, pound them and store them as bricks. Later on, when tea became revered not only for its medicinal value but also for its taste, tea leaves were roasted and crumbled for storage purposes. This was probably the first instance of reducing the oxidation of tea leaves and retaining their dark green color and rich oxidants. However in keeping with Western taste which preferred fully oxidised leaves over the former variety resulted in discovery of coloration of leaves yielding different flavors. When tea finally made it to India, courtesy the British, it was planted and cultivated using the century old Chinese expertise in an effort to launch a full-fledged tea industry to break the Chinese monopoly over the beverage. Thus the introduction of tea in India and its subsequent popularity by forming the India Tea Board and plentiful advertising can be credited solely to the fruitful visionary efforts of the British. Although only till recently, only black tea was produced in keeping with Western palate and Assam was the chosen land for kicking off this novel venture. One of the reasons for choosing Assam to start their tea cultivation is said to have been the presence of certain tribes like the Singpho who claimed to have been drinking tea before the British brought it to their shores and had prior experience and understanding regarding the cultivation and brewing of the same. And thus was founded the Assam Tea Company in 1840. It was the foundation being laid for rapid progress in the years to come to the turn of the century by which Assam had already become a leading tea producer of the world.

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Assamese Women in Costume, Sorting Tea

Sprinting to the present day dynamics of the tea industry, India after being industry
leaders in tea production globally has again lost its position to China. However, the silver lining being by this time Indian tea companies had acquired quite a few leading British tea brands such as Tetley & Typhoo. Interestingly, it is worth bringing to the reader’s notice that the North East part of India starting from Assam has long contested for introducing another time zone in India as they have see sunrise at least an hour ahead of the rest of India. However, till the same is officially announced, Assam tea gardens have devised their own Time System which is known as Tea Garden Time or Bagan Time. This helps in controlling and regulating the productivity of tea garden workers as they save on daylight by finishing the work during day time. Such is the impact of tea on present day Indian life, that efforts are on to have it declared as the national drink. Today chai, the Indian equivalent for tea is largely available in every domestic household as well as sold by vendors in close proximity such is the affinity to the drink for Indians. Indian tea is slightly heavier than its Chinese version as it includes milk sugar and other additive herbs to brew a sweet and savoury concoction. Whereas in most Indian households tea will be served in a cup with snacks or biscuits, traditionally tea is served in clay pots and brewed with infused with spices on request.

This version available only in India is known as Masala Chai and is extremely popular with tourists and locals alike.

Octavius Tea & Industries Ltd., founded in 1898, as a subsidiary of Octavius Steel and Co. Ltd. was a proprietary business headed by Walter Duncan. The establishment was initially formed as a potential investment from the surplus of more profitable steel industries, in erstwhile British India.

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