Drink up! Learn the history behind your favorite teas

Nov 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. ET

Tea isn't just rich in flavor — it's rich in history! Many cultural traditions and historical events are steeped in tea.

Tea pickers in Darjeeling, India

Take in some tea 101

Tea isn't just rich in flavor — it's rich in history! Many cultural traditions and historical events are steeped in tea.

Where it all began

Tea was discovered in China, but there are actually many cultures that claim to have discovered the leafy beverage. One popular Chinese legend dating back more 4,000 years alleges that Emperor Nun Shen, a scholar and herbalist, was kneeling beside a fire boiling water when a breeze blew the topmost leaves of a nearby tree into the pot. The story claims that the mixture created such a heavenly aroma that Shen just had to taste it. He deemed it delicious and invigorating — and tea was born!

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Tea's popularity quickly spread throughout China and Japan, thanks in part to eighth-century Chinese author Lu Yu's book Ch'a Ching ("The Classic of Tea"), which explains the cultivation and production of tea.

Hot commodity

Tea became a global commodity in the year 1600 through the founding of the East India Company in England, under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I to seek exotic riches. The East India Company had a monopoly on all goods entering Britain from outside of Europe, and that kept tea prices high — meaning it was mainly enjoyed by English high society. However, since sailors shared tea with friends and family and smugglers illegally imported it, tea's popularity spread among non-royalty, too. By the 18th century, tea had beaten out ale and gin to become Britain's most popular beverage.

The beverage that sparked a revolution

Could a harmless beverage really have sparked a controversy that eventually led to the American Revolutionary War? In an act everyone now refers to as the Boston Tea Party, a band of American colonists rebelled against unfair taxation and the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the East India Company the right to ship tea directly from China, putting many American importers out of business. On December 16, 1773, at Griffin's Wharf, the rebels (disguised as Native Americans) boarded three East India Company ships and dumped the ships' cargo of tea into Boston Harbor.

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Coming to America

Many Americans turned to coffee as an act of protest following the Boston Tea Party, but much later, tea regained popularity with the discovery of iced tea at the 1904 World's Fair. No one wanted to buy piping-hot tea during that summer's heat wave, so Richard Blechynden began serving his brewed tea over ice.

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New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan is considered to be the first person to make and market tea bags. He packaged loose tea in hand-sewn silk muslin bags. While he was delivering the tea bags to local restaurants, he noticed that they brewed the tea without even removing it from the bags. Sullivan began to market the tea bags as an easy, mess-free way to make tea!

Tea tidbit

Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world — and nearly 3 billion cups are consumed each day around the world.

More on tea

Tea 101: Types of tea & their health benefits
Why tea is good for your health
Tea lover's recipes

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