Tea is the most widely consumed daily beverage in the world. It has a fascinating history that dates back almost 4,800 years.

According to Chinese legend, in 2737 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung was resting under a wild tea tree when a slight breeze caused a few leaves to drift into his cup of boiling water. He found the warm drink both refreshing and invigorating. Tea was discovered.

Interestingly, tea was first used as a medicine. It wasn’t until the Fourth and Fifth centuries that tea became a very popular drink throughout China. An entire industry grew around tea. Tea merchants became wealthy. Potters, silversmiths, traders and goldsmiths started to manufacture expensive and elegant pots and cups denoting the wealth and status of their owners.

The Tang Dynasty 618-906 A.D. was known as “The Golden Age of Tea.” Tea leaves were pressed into bricks and orange peels, cloves, ginger and peppermint were added as flavorings.

During the Song Dynasty 960-1279 A.D. growers discovered how to preserve tea leaves by first fermenting them in air until they turned a copper red color and then halting the natural decomposition by baking them.

Japanese records show that in 729 A.D. Emperor Shomu served 100 Buddhist monks Chinese tea. It wasn’t until 803 A.D. that the first tea seeds were brought from China to Japan. Emperor Saga enjoyed tea so much that he ordered it to be cultivated in five provinces. Tea drinking in Japan is a ceremony. It embraces harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

Early in the 17th century the Dutch and Portuguese first brought tea to Europe. Portuguese boats from Macao — mainland China — and Dutch tall-ships from the island of Java carried silks, brocades, spices and tea. Tea soon became very popular in Great Britain and Russia.

In 1618 A.D. Chinese tea was given as a gift to Tsar Alexis. Two-hundred-and-fifty camels each carrying a load of 551 pounds trekked from China to the border of Usk Kayakhta. The arduous journey took about 18 months. Tea was traded for Russian furs. And by 1796 Russians were consuming 6,000 camel loads of tea a year. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903 enabled Chinese tea, silks and porcelain to reach Russia in just over one week.

Tea arrived in Britain in 1658 and was very expensive. Tea was consumed by ladies at home and men drank it at coffee houses. Edward Lloyd — founder of Lloyds of London Insurance — started Edward Lloyd’s Coffeehouse. In 1706 Thomas Twining, founder of the famous tea company, opened Tom’s Coffeehouse outside the old city walls of London.

Tea was expensive in England because Charles II taxed it. Britain had an insatiable demand for tea. It grew from 92,594 pounds in 1701 to 17,636,979 pounds by 1791.

The British East India Company grew opium in Bengal and from 1800 to 1839 traded it to China for tea. In 1840 Britain declared war on China and tea supplies from that nation were cut off.

Britain sourced northern India, Upper Assam first and then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to supply its demand for tea. And in 1870 British grocery mogul Thomas Lipton bought a half a dozen plantations in Ceylon and produced and marketed his own tea using the slogan “Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Tea Pot.”

British consumption rose from 28,660,092 pounds in 1801 to 275,577,809 pounds in 1901 and most of the imports came from India and Ceylon.

Tea comes from an evergreen plant in the Camellia family. There are three varieties of tea from China, Assam and Cambodia that are used in plantations.

Camellia sinensis thrives in China, Japan and Tibet, it can reach a height of about 13 feet with 2-inch long leaves. It tolerates cold temperatures and can live for a hundred years.

Camellia assamica is a fast growing tree, it can get to 56 feet with leaves over 12-inches long, but it only lives for 40 years. 

The best teas are grown at high elevations above 4,921 feet. Slow growth at high elevation promotes flavor.

Green, oolong and black tea all come from the same plant. The processing methods produce six main types — white, green, oolong, black, scented and compressed tea. There are more than 3,000 kinds of tea around the world (www.mightyleaf.com/).

Tea pickers remove the two leaves from the bud of a new shoot. One picker, working an eight-hour day, can collect 100,000 leaves a day.

Tea leaves contain amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, caffeine andpolyphenols. The aroma of black tea contains over 500 chemicals including hydrocarbons, alcohols and acids. The taste of tea comes primarily from polyphenols and caffeine.

All types of tea contain caffeine, but in different quantities. An average cup of green tea contains 8.4 milligrams of caffeine, oolong tea has 12.6 milligrams and black tea 25-110 milligrams, whereas an average cup of coffee contains 60 –120 milligrams.

The caffeine from coffee is absorbed quickly into the body by increasing the heart rate and blood circulation and the cardio vascular system. The polyphenols in tea slow down the rate of caffeine absorption and stay in the body longer. That’s why tea is a more refreshing and invigorating beverage than coffee.

Tea has a wide-range of beneficial qualities. Tea leaves contain fluoride which strengthens teeth, and a host of chemicals that fight plaque and prevent gum disease. Green and black teas reduce the risk of lung, colon and skin cancers. Drinking tea also reduces heart disease, stroke and thrombosis.

The caffeine in tea is a gentle stimulant promoting the heart and circulatory system, and it helps keep the walls of the blood vessels soft, thereby reducing the risk of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Tea stimulates the digestive juices, cleanses the kidneys and liver, and removes toxins from the body.

Billions of people from around the globe drink tea every day, including 125 million Americans.

The remarkable tea plant is a wonderful example of Mother Nature’s most popular elixir.

Dr. Reese Halter is a public speaker and conservation biologist. His upcoming book is entitled “The Incomparable Honey Bee,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be contacted through www.DrReese.com.

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