According to Chinese mythology more than 4000 years before British mythology claims that Isaac Newton was inspired by a falling apple to discover gravity, the Emperor Shen Nung sat beneath a tree and made, what many consider, an equally important discovery, by watching a falling leaf. Legend has it that in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, and amateur herbalist, observed leaves of a wild tea tree falling into a pot of drinking water that his servant was boiling. Enticed by the aroma of the resulting infusion, Shen Nung was moved to sample the brew, and, it is said, he was so delighted by the taste, that he never again drank plain water. In Indian and Japanese tradition, the discovery of tea is ascribed to Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who is believed to have kept himself awake contemplating Buddha for seven years with the aid of the stimulation provided by chewing wild tea leaves. All of which suggests that tea is probably best avoided at bedtime.
The Latin name of the tea tree, Camellia sinensis, gives away both its place of origin and the fact that it is a close relative of the garden Camellias. In the non-cultivated state, the tea tree can grow to 30 metres high, and its evergreen leaves were originally picked by trained monkeys (not PG chimps). However, in modern tea gardens the more regular picking of leaves ensures that the bushes rarely develop above one metre. Tea originated in sub-tropical South East Asia in the area between the Yangtze and Brahmaputra rivers, with distinct types developing in different regions. Some botanists have described these types (Assam, Cambodia, China and Irrawady) as different sub-species with hundreds of different varieties occurring within them. But the situation is confused further by the division into, black, green and oolong teas. Although historically many Europeans thought that these were derived from different plants, they are in fact the products of different methods of processing the leaves. Nevertheless, it is true that generally green teas are made from the Chinese sub-species and black teas are made from the larger-leaved Assam types.
The best teas are made from small young leaves picked as the bush produces a mass of new growth. These are processed by being spread out on racks and allowed to wilt. The leaves are then rolled to break open their cells and mix the cell contents, which starts a complex chain of chemical reactions termed fermentation. Although referred to as fermentation, this process does not involve alcohol but is similar to the reactions, which cause cut apple and other plant material to brown in the presence of oxygen. During the fermentation phase the leaves develop flavour and colour as they are spread out on trays in a humid but cool environment. In the production of green teas the leaves are steamed which prevents fermentation. In contrast black tea is fully fermented and oolong or literally black dragon tea is partly fermented. Finally the leaves are dried with hot air, or more traditionally over hot ashes, before grading by size.
The longer the fermentation period the stronger the flavour and the higher the caffeine concentration of the resulting tea. The amount of caffeine in tea is also affected by the variety of tea, the age of the leaf and, critically, on the method of brewing. Increasing the temperature of the water, allowing the tea to stand for longer and decreasing the size of the tea leaves all increase the amount of caffeine in the final drink. Caffeine is a complex molecule, which has a stimulating effect on the tea drinker. It was first discovered in tea in 1827 and was named theine. Later the same compound was found in coffee and named caffeine. Eventually it was realised that the two things were one and the same and the name theine was dropped. Weight for weight tea does contain more caffeine than does coffee, but because less tea is used in making a cup of tea than coffee is used in making a cup of coffee, an average serving of tea contains about half the amount of caffeine of an average cup of coffee.
Over the years tea has not only stimulated the tea drinker but its high value also helped to stimulate American independence and subsequently the opium wars between Britain and China. The early history of tea in Britain is obscure. The Dutch and French were the first in Europe to popularise the beverage. With the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, tea drinking finally became fashionable in Britain. Working with the premise that if anything is popular it must be regulated, Charles II tried to outlaw the sale of tea from private houses in 1675. This failed to become law, but a year later the first duties were imposed on the sale of tea and licences were required to run tea-rooms. Tea taxes rose dramatically reaching a peak in the mid eighteenth century at 119 percent. In addition, tea prices were elevated by the John Company.
Founded under Elizabeth I the John Company held the most absolute monopoly of trade in world history. It had total rights to trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of Cape Horn, and was granted rights to pass and implement laws, mint money, raise arms and declare wars. Powers you would hope that modern multinationals do not even dream of. By 1777 the cost of a pound of tea was equivalent to about one-third of the average weekly wage. This stimulated mass smuggling of tea, via Holland and Scandinavia, with syndicates distributing the contraband across the country. In addition the adulteration of tea was widespread, and although outlawed in 1725, it was common to find tea mixed with, ash, elder and willow leaves, reused tea leaves and even sheep dung.
In 1773 the John Company was merged with the East India Company. Its new charter granted it a total monopoly of commerce with China and India and the right to by-pass the colonial merchants and sell tea directly in America. The result was to force many American tea importers out of business. This came on top of The Stamp Act – a purchase tax on many products and an importation tax on tea, paper and glass, both of which the British imposed on their American colonies to recoup the costs of the recent French and Indian War. These events outraged the American colonists, who were great tea drinkers and lead to the famous Boston Tea Party, which in turn precipitated the American War of Independence. On the night of December 16th 1773, about 50 men dressed as Mohawk Indians (in protest against the rise in the tax on tea linked to the Indian war) boarded three of the East India Companie’s ships in Boston Harbour, the Dartmouth, the Beaver and the Eleanor. Once aboard they smashed open, or threw overboard, 342 chests of a choice black Chinese tea called Bohea worth £9,650. In retaliation English troops occupied Boston City and closed the port through which most of America’s tea was imported. The colonials responded by declaring the revolution and turning their affections from tea to coffee.
Finally in 1784 the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger slashed tea tax from 119 to 12.5 percent, thus ending tea smuggling and encouraging free trade. The nineteenth century witnessed intense competition between the British and Americans to dominate the world trade in tea. The Americans literally lead the race by designing new and faster tea clippers. The British quickly copied these more streamlined vessels because they halved the journey time of the older heavier tea wagons. Until the introduction of the steamship, American and British tea clippers vied to be the first each year to bring tea from China to the London Tea Exchange. Curiously the most famous tea clipper ever built, The Cutty Sark, only rarely carried cargoes of tea. The trade in tea was to create America’s first three millionaires, J.J. Astor, S. Girard and T.H. Perkins.
Crippled by the outlays of cash required to purchase tea in China, the East India Company devised a solution. By growing poppies cheaply in the newly occupied India, it could exchange opium in China for tea. Not surprisingly the Emperor of China was not pleased, and the Opium wars broke out. Britain fought to protect its right to swap hard drugs for soft, which it did unmolested in China until 1908. It is rather ironic that the most ‘civilised’ of British traditions, the afternoon tea, was formerly paid for by the international drugs trade.