Although the origin of tea is unknown, there are two legends that are always referred to when discussing the history of tea. The first took place in 2737 B.C., when Chinese Emperor and scientist Shen Nong was boiling water in his garden. A leaf fell from a tree and into the pot, to which Shen Nong discovered he quite enjoyed the accidental concoction. As a scientist, he was able to determine that the plant has medicinal properties, which became the main use of tea until 618-907 A.D. During The Tang Dynasty, or the “classic age of tea,” people began drinking it for pleasure, soon resulting in it becoming China’s national beverage. The Buddhist tale of tea’s origin however, derives from Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese prince and founder of Buddhism. Siddhartha had vowed not to sleep during his trip to China as a symbol of his faith. After days of traveling, he broke his vow and slept. Upset at himself upon waking, he removed his eyelids and threw them onto the ground. The eyelids sprouted a tea plant in the soil, and Siddhartha realized the leaves of the plant gave him energy. While both of these origin stories are legends, their existence shows how important tea was to the Chinese and Buddhists.
The tea trade between Europe and China began in 1516, and Dutch merchants entered the trade by the 17th century. The tea merchants spread tea beverages across Europe as well as the North American colonies. Tea was made popular when Princess Catherine of Portugal married Charles II in 1662. Tea was her preference of drink, making the demand higher among aristocrats and women. Although it was Britain’s most common beverage, the colonies actually consumed more hot tea than England at the time. The Dutch had established their colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), and enjoyed having tea in fine cups and pots. Then, in 1773, taxes on tea were raised tremendously, causing the Colonists to revolt against the British. This was known as the Boston Tea Party, which caused tea-drinking to be an unpatriotic act for Americans at the time. Coffee replaced tea as the most common beverage and remains so until this day. Despite this fact, Americans still consume 7.8 gallons of tea per year. Interestingly enough, due to the hustle and bustle of coffee culture, specialty tea sales have begun rising as people seek a relaxing contrast. In addition, people are becoming more health conscious and seeking specialty teas as an alternative. The U.S. specialty tea market is now worth $6.8 billion a year after quadrupling in 1993–2008.
All tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis, a species of evergreen shrub native to regions of Asia. The tea is produced with its leaves and leaf buds and come in two main varieties. Chinese tea is made with Camellia sinensis v. Sinensis, while Indian Assam teas are produced with Camellia sinensis v. assamica. Although the plant is mainly cultivated in China and India, it is grown in tropical climates all over the world, including in some parts of the US.
There are two types of tea processing and manufacture: CTC and Orthodox. CTC, or “crush-tear-curl”, is the process of breaking down black tea leaves into small pellets that produce a rich reddish-brown when boiled. The Orthodox method on the other hand, involves a process of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidation, firing (either steam or pan firing), sorting and grading. Depending on the level of processing and oxidation/fermentation of the Camellia sinensis plant, six different types of tea will be produced as a result. The six types are: (1) white tea, (2) yellow tea, (3) green tea, (4) oolong or blue tea, (5) black or red tea and (6) pu-erh or dark tea. White tea has the least amount of processing, yellow tea is classified by leaf size and is the rarest of the tea types, green tea is un-oxidized, oolong or blue tea is semi-oxidized, and black or red tea is fully oxidized. Finally, Pu-erh, or dark tea, is created with an additional step of using a Chinese fermentation process requiring the tea leaves to be sprayed with a secret bacterium.
No matter what kind of tea you drink, tea in general has been known to have a number of health benefits. It has been said that black tea, which has the highest caffeine content, can reduce the risk of stroke. Green tea on the other hand, has antioxidants, which contain properties to prevent cancers and other diseases. Oolong tea has been shown to lower cholesterol and has even been marketed for weight loss. The benefits of tea are endless, with recent findings showing it even helps prevent depression. Although tea can contain as much caffeine as coffee, it doesn’t cause the jittery feeling. Tea’s relaxing component is called l-theanine, an amino acid that neutralizes caffeine’s effects and creates a feeling of calm. The amount of caffeine in all tea starts off the same; it’s the extraction process that makes the difference between tea types. White tea has the longest extraction process, followed by yellow tea, green, oolong, black and pu-erh.
There is also herbal tea, also called a tisane, which is not made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, but rather from an herbal infusion of berries, peels, flowers, and other herbal ingredients. For this reason, herbal infusions are not technically “tea.” One of the most popular forms of herbal tea is Roobois, a red, caffeine-free herb from South Africa often used in Indian spiced teas called Chai. Another is Yerba Mate, a plant of the holly family whose leaves are used in many herbal infusions. The plant, which has varying caffeine levels, is extremely popular in Spanish-speaking countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
Iced tea is also an invention enjoyed across the nation. Although iced tea was known to exist before, it became popular in 1904 when Richard Blechynden, who sold hot tea at the World's Fair in St. Louis, realized an iced version of his product would be more cooling in the summer. With so many people seeking cold drinks in the heat, the iced tea sales skyrocketed and became the common refreshment it is today. Currently, iced tea is popular in the southeastern states where sugar is added to make sweet tea. It was intended as a healthier substitute for Coca-Cola, and instantly took off. The demand for iced tea inspired the beginning of bottled tea brands such as Lipton Iced Tea, introducing a bottled version of its powder mix in 1991.
Among Lipton were Snapple and Arizona, making 1993 a big year for bottled, ready-to-drink, teas both nationally and globally. With more and more U.S. brands bottling teas that offered options like diet or juice blends, other countries took notice. After bottled teas came the rise of specialty teas, as educated consumers began seeking new and organic flavors. The increase in sales of specialty tea brands such as Honest Tea or Teavana has gone from less than half a billion in 1990 to almost 2 billion in 2014. With the hectic schedules of our culture, people can now get a relaxing beverage… on the go. If you would like to learn more about bottled iced tea brands and order tea online, you can do so at our Specialty Sodas website.