How Tea Changed the World

  • Post published:03/21/2014
  • Post comments:2 Comments


Chinese tea for two

I never imagined that tea changed the world. In my world, tea was served endlessly in the English novels I love, but tea did not become a regular part of my life until I met Elsa Bakalar in 1980. With Elsa I could imagine myself living in one of those English village novels where tea was served up with gossip, or to survive shock with milk and sugar. Now I have a collection of tea pots – and a collection of teas – black,China, green, white and Indian. Tea has changed my world, but how could it be that tea changed the whole world?

While weeding out my bookshelves, to make room for new books, I found a nearly forgotten volume, Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Changed the World by Henry Hobhouse. Hobhouse explains how quinine, a cure for malaria, opened Asia and Africa to colonial expansion, and allowed the population ofIndiato increase sevenfold. With sugar came slavery. Cotton also fueled the growth of slavery, but also, our Civil War, and what the poet William Blake called the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the textile industry inEngland. Those mills brought no prosperity to the workers. The potato brought an explosion of population toIreland, then a famine and great immigration to theUnited States.

And then there is tea. It could be said that tea, or at least the tea tax, was the beginning of our revolutionary war. The Boston Tea Party was held in December of 1773. In fact the Declaration of Independence specifically mentions King George’s “tyrannical acts” which include the tax on tea.

But tea was changing the world long before the 18th century. The Chinese were drinking an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves as early as 2737 BCE. According to legend, the mythical hero Shen Nong, brought agriculture to the Chinese people so they would not starve. He also brought them knowledge of medicinal plants including tea.  When one thinks about how tea drinking traveled around the world it is good to remember that water supplies throughout the ages were not always dependably clean. Boiled water is necessary for tea making, so it is a dependably healthy drink.

The English were great drinkers of tea beginning in the late seventeenth century. However, the Chinese were not terribly interested in selling their tea, and certainly not for the paper money the East India Company offered. They wanted copper, silver and gold.

As the demand grew for tea, the East India Company found an answer in another plant (not one of Hobson’s five), the poppy which grew inIndia. Opium had been banned inChina, but through a circuitous sales route and smugglers, the East India Company earned the hard currency that the Chinese demanded. This ultimately resulted in the two Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60. The Chinese lost.

Tea production has spread over the years. The British brought tea cultivation toIndia. The wild tea growing there was not C. sinensis, but C. Assamica. Today if you buy tea from a big importer like the Upton Tea Company you will see teas organized by China teas and Assam teas. I am reminded of all the times the grande dame in my English novels asks her guest “China or Indian?” as she sits with her tea pots, ready to pour.

They Upton Tea Company offers 480 types of tea, black, green, white, oolong and Pu-erh. The differences are in the way it is processed. Black teas are harvested and oxidized to change the color, flavor and chemical composition of the tea leaves. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, and green teas are not oxidized at all. A cup of Chinese green tea is probably the same cup of tea the mythical Shen Nong might have brewed up for himself. Pu-erh teas fromYunnan province inChina are doubly oxidized and have a strong flavor. It is sometimes sold in brick shaped blocks instead of as loose leaves.

Tea requires a wet and warm climate, a deep rich soil with lots of humus, and a pH between 5–5.5 which explains why it is grown in Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, the Philippines and parts of Africa, and Latin America as well as India and China. Another element that is needed is cheap labor to harvest the ‘tiny little tea laves’ by hand.

We visited our daughter Betsy in Kenya where she was serving in the Peace Corps in 1989 and made a tourist trip to Mrs. Mitchell’s tea farm. The 80 year old Mrs. Mitchell (she was celebrating her birthday when we visited) was definitely a grande dame. As a young man her father had been one of the first to start a tea plantation in Kenya. She had a spiel to give and did not welcome questions, but she said the interest in mechanizing the tea harvest was a very bad idea because it would put the tea pickers out of work, and un-employment in Kenya was already very high.

During our time in China we became aware of the gourmet aspects of the various teas, but we were more familiar with the Nescafe jars that workers carried with them all day. They put in their tea leaves in the morning and then kept refilling the jar as they drank it and as the opportunity for more boiling water presented itself.

Tea has a long and colorful history. When I have my afternoon cuppa I join with the witty British cleric Sydney Smith (1771-1845) in saying “I am so glad I was not born before tea!

Between the Rows   March 8, 2014

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I’m just catching up on my blog reading and finally got to this. Fascinating. It was tailor made for me. I love tea, I love British novels, I love camellias, I love history — this had it all.

  2. Pat

    Dear Galloping Horse – I love it all, too.

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