Concise History of Tea

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Date Milestone
2737 BCE Founding myth of tea by the divine Emperor Shen Nong.
1122 BCE The Shijing, or Book of Songs, describes tea being used for the first time.
618 - 907 The Tang Dynasty and the first age of tea: boiled tea.
c. 780 Lu Yu wrote the first book on tea - the Cha Ching, or the Classic of tea.
c. 805 Buddhist monks introduced tea to Japan.
960 - 1279 The Song Dynasty and the second key period in the history of Chinese tea: the age of beaten tea.
1191 The monk called Eisai (1141 - 1215) brings the first tea seeds to Japan. Eisai wrote a treatise on the medicinal properties of tea in 1214 - 喫茶養生記 (kissa yōjōki).
1368 - 1644 The Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the age of infused tea, which we are still in today.
1582 Sen No Rikyu codifies the Japanese tea ceremony, basing it on the principles of harmony, respect, purity and serenity, which are characteristic of Zen Buddhism.
1599 Queen Elizabeth I founds the East India Company, which held an almost total monopoly on tea trade in the British Empire until 1834.
1610 The first import of tea into Europe (Amsterdam) by the the Dutch is recorded.
1636 - 1853 Japan is closed to foreign trade.
1645 Delivery of the first tea chests to London.
1712 The first botanical description of the tea plant, Thea japanense, by Engelbert Kaempfer.
1773 The Boston Tea party. This was an act of rebellion against the high taxes levied on tea by the East India Company (the monopoly on tea in the British colonies). Shipments of tea from three ships were thrown into the harbour, marking the start of the American Revolution.
Late 1700s - early 1800s Trade relations between England and China become difficult. The British introduce opium trafficking to China to create a dependency among the Chinese on opium and earn silver to pay for tea for exporting back to London.
1823 Robert Bruce discovers wild tea in the jungle of Assam in British India.
1834 The Tea Exchange opens in London
1839 - 1842 China's Emperor closes the port of Canton to prevent opium trade. The first Opium War between Britain and China ends with the Treaty of Nanjing, which favours the British.
1848 The British send Robert Fortune, a spy, to China to discover the secrets of tea-growing, stealing some tea plants. Robert Fortune writes Three Years' Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China, A Visit to the Tea, Silk, and Cotton Countries, with an account of the Agriculture and Horticulture of the Chinese, New Plants, etc.
1856 - 1860 The second Opium War in China, which ends with the Treaty of Tianjin.
1859 The start of the tea industry in Darjeeling, India.
1866 The great tea clipper race from Fuzhou in China to London takes place between the Ariel and the Teaping.
1869 The coffee parasite, Hernileia vastratrix, wipes out coffee on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) switches to tea growing a few years later.
1879 - 1904 Invention of Iced Tea starts with first recipe in 1879 for an iced tea made with green tea. In 1884, the first published recipe for sweet tea made with black tea in a Boston recipe book. The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis commercializes iced tea successfully and it has been a staple in the USA and elsewhere ever since.
c. 1908 The Teabag: Thomas Sullivan invents the tea bag, but it's not until the 1950s that teabags are mass produced.
c. 1930 The invention of the CTC (crush-tear-curl) process by William McKercher allows large-scale industrial tea production.
c. 1970 New fermentation processes for pu-erh teas speeds up their ageing.

Further Reading

  • Gascoyne, K., Marchand, F., Desharnais, J., Américi, H. (2014) Tea: History Terroirs Varieties, Ontario, Canada, Firefly Books. ISBN 9781770853195.