The Brits are well known for their love of tea and during these challenging times, consumption has increased to record levels. Here we consider why tea has become so popular over the course of time.
The Birth of Tea in China
According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled some drinking water, when a few leaves from the tree fell into the cooking pot. The tree was a Camellia sinensis (sinensis is Chinese for ‘of China’). Today there are over 3,000 different types of tea in the world and they are all produced from the one same species of Camellia.
Containers for tea have been found in tombs in China dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China. It became such a favourite that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic.
Tea in Britain
The first dated reference to tea in this country is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘’China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha’’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.
It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at the Royal Court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole.
Capitalising on this, the British East India Company began to import tea into Britain, its first order being placed in 1664 for 100lbs of China tea to be shipped from Java.
Smuggling and Taxation
Smuggling tea started in Britain in the early 1700s in response to increasing demand and high taxation. By the late 1700s, smugglers were perhaps importing as much as 3,000 tons of tea annually as compared to a legal import of some 2,200 tons!
High taxation also encouraged the adulteration of tea, particularly of smuggled tea which was not quality controlled. Leaves from other plants, such as willow and sloe or leaves which had already been brewed and then dried, were added to the tea. Sometimes the resulting colour was not very convincing, so sheep’s dung, licorice or copper carbonate were added to make it look more like tea.
By 1784, the government realised that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was solving. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, reduced the tax from 119% to 12.5%. Suddenly, legal tea was affordable and smuggling stopped virtually overnight. Tea continued to be taxed in Britain until 1964 when duties were finally abolished by Conservative government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Tea Trading and Consumption
In 1851, virtually all tea in Britain was imported from China and annual consumption was around 2lbs per person. By 1901, with cheaper tea from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), average consumption increased to over 6lbs per person. Tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life. This was officially recognised during the First World War, when the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential beverage continued to be available at an affordable price. The government took control again during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952. In Britain, we now drink an incredible 165 million cups of tea every day and import some 150,000 tons every year.