When most Americans talk about tea, they’re often thinking about the iced sweet tea that was popularized by the South. Others, like myself, are thinking of English tea, with scones and porcelain cups. However, tea at we know it did not originate in the American South, and it did not originate in England. No one knows exactly how or when tea was discovered, but it has a long history dating back to 2737 B.C.E. according to Chinese legend. It is said that Emperor Shen Nong inadvertently discovered tea when a leaf fell into the water he was boiling. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you believe that story, but it is believed that tea did get its start in Southwest China and Northern India became widespread between 618 and 907 A.C.E.
Tea didn’t become popular in England until about 1657 when the first tea shop opened up in London. It became popular among women, and became even more popular when Charles II married Cathrine of Braganza. The Portuguese royal loved tea and brought about the tradition of tea time in the court. However, afternoon tea as we know it didn’t come around until 1840 when Anne Duchess of Bedford began requesting a pot of tea and a light snack in to ward off her mid-afternoon hunger. From there, the East India Company monopolized the trade of tea among the west and brought tea to America.
America doesn’t have a culture built around tea like so many other countries do. I think we have the Boston Tea Party to thank for that, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t grown in popularity in the last 200 years. The United States is the third largest importer of tea in the world and the only western country to see a rise in both import and consumption of tea. While 80% of the tea consumed in America is iced, hot tea has been slowly but surely rising in popularity over the last few years.
While there are many people out there who know quite a bit more about tea than I do, I think it’s important to talk about the simpler aspects of tea for those of us who aren’t training to become tea sommeliers. Most of us aren’t coffee experts, but there is a right and wrong way to make coffee that tastes good. The same goes for tea. You don’t need to be an expert to make a good cup of tea, but there is a right and wrong way to do it.
Water temperature, steeping method, and amount of time steeped are all factors that can affect the flavor of your tea. Different methods are required for different types of tea as well. Steeping most teas for too long will make the tea bitter, and using the boiling water required for black tea will ruin a cup of green tea. Part of why I didn’t like tea for so long was that I wasn’t making it correctly.
While everyone agrees that green tea requires cooler water and that most teas shouldn’t be steeped for more than five minutes, there are other aspects of tea making that aren’t agreed upon and can spark passionate debates. I won’t get into why 1984 author George Orwell is wrong about tea strainers or the great milk first vs tea first debate on this post, but those are things you can look forward to in the future.
Being the most widely consumed drink in the world makes tea a noteworthy thing to learn about, and I hope you’re excited to jump right into it.