The History of Tea – Where did tea come from?

The history of tea is long and rich.

Where did tea come from?

Which country invented tea?

How did tea get so popular?

The legend of the first cup of tea

Legend has it that tea was discovered in one of those “happy accidents” by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung and his entourage in the year 2737 B.C. While servants were boiling his drinking water, some leaves from a large nearby tea plant fell into the water after a strong gust of wind.

The aroma of the brew captivated the Emperor so thoroughly that he demanded it be prepared for him daily, thus, tea was born. History over a 5000 year period does get a little fuzzy, and what we do know for sure is that Shen Nung was a Chinese Herbalist who tested many plants for their medicinal properties. So, it is very possible that he was the first human to taste this jewel of nature.

For centuries in China, monks and herbalists studied plants for their healing properties, and handed down their knowledge to the next generation by verbal instruction.

The 20,000 secrets of a Chinese herbalist

There is also a tale that tells of an ancient Chinese herbalist who knew 100,000 healing properties of herbs, and began to pass his wisdom on to his son. The herbalist taught his son 80,000 secrets, but fell ill before he could complete his lessons. On his deathbed, the herbalist told his son to come to his grave 5 years from the date of his death, and there he would find the other 20,000 secrets. On the fifth year, the obedient son went to his father’s grave, and found the Camellia sinensis tea shrub growing on the site.

Tea travels to Japan

When Japanese Monks traveled to China to study with Buddhist monks there in 805 A. D., they returned home with seedlings of the tea bush as parting gifts. Today, Japan specializes in the production of green tea, which has become its national beverage.

The silk road and Russian czars

The romance of the famous “Silk Road” and its trekking caravans began in the late 17th century. Once Russian Czars had tasted this jewel of a beverage, they had it imported by these caravans carrying chest of the precious cargo.

The journey could take almost a year for the trip from Russia to China and back! The Silk Road caravans lasted surprisingly for almost 200 years until the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1880, and the caravans passed into history in 1900 when the railway was completed. In honor of this history, try our Organic Russian Caravan black tea.

East India Trading Company and Europe’s love affair with tea begins

Tea also came to Europe in the 1600’s, when Dutch merchants and the East India Trading Co. brought it by ship, another painfully slow method of transportation. The clipper ships in the mid 1800’s made the trip a bit faster, reducing the time from 2 years to 6 months round trip.

During the 20 year reign of the clippers, they competed in Tea Races to see who could get tea to England the fastest. Tea was such precious cargo in its early years of import that it was reserved for royal tables or tea tasting parties of the wealthy as the price could exceed $100 per pound. One can only imagine what that would equate to in today’s dollar!

Where is tea grown today?

The tea plant is now cultivated throughout the world.

Along with China and Japan, there are tea gardens or estates in India (the world’s largest producer of tea), Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa), Africa and Indonesia also produce tea.

There are three tea plantations in the US. The oldest plantation is the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina. They have been producing tea for about 150 years.

There is a new plantation in the Seattle. Thia McKann, the founder of The Path of Tea tasted their green and oolong tea. She found them to be immature but not bad tasting.

Hawaii also has a tea plantation. The tea is tasty being grown in the rich volcanic soil but it is so pricey that most of us can’t afford it! Thia felt that none of the US tea will ever rival the Chinese, Japanese, Indian or Sri Lankan teas. But, don’t take her word for it….try it for yourself.

The origin of iced tea

By the way….iced tea, currently a very popular beverage, had its popular beginnings in 1904 during a heat wave at the St. Louis World’s Fair. A tea vendor decided to cut his losses by throwing the tea over ice and giving it away.

Today, iced tea has become so popular that it is even served in fast food restaurants.

The origin of tea bags

In 1908 tea importer Thomas Sullivan decided to cut costs when sending out tea samples. He sent small quantities of tea in silk bags to customers. They did not know what to do with them so they put them in the boiling water. Tea bags were born.

The tea bush has a prominent place throughout global history, and has only gained in popularity along the way. Today, tea is the most highly consumed beverage in the world, second only to water. Quite a powerful claim for an ordinary shrub!


This content has been adapted from the book Your Path of Tea for Health of Body, Mind and Spirit by the late Thia McKann, Tea Master and Owner of The Path of Tea.