Aaah, a nice hot cuppa tea. What could be better? Tea is a hug in a cup; a moment of calm in an otherwise hectic day but who would have thought that the hot beverage which is enjoyed by millions every day has a tumultuous past. The story of tea is an epic saga, an odyssey across international seas, full of criminal gangs and political turmoil.


A long time ago in a country far, far away

Tea is commonly thought of a quintessential British drink, sipped from floral china cups by people who speak in the Queen’s English. Whilst we have been drinking tea for hundreds of years, its history goes back thousands of years. Tea was drunk in China long before it made its way to the west. Indeed, tea has been found in tombs which date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

Legend tells us that tea was discovered by Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC. As he sat beneath a tree drinking boiled water, a gust of wind blew leaves into his bowl and changed the colour of the water. A renowned herbalist, Emperor Shen Nung tasted this new concoction and was pleasantly surprised by its flavour. This is how tea was born. The plant, by the way, was Camellia sinensis.

Conversely, Indian legend recounts tales of Prince Bodhi-Dharma, who left India to preach Buddhism in China. The prince vowed to meditate for nine years without sleeping. However, towards the end of these nine years, the prince slept. When he awoke, he was distraught by his own weakness and cut off his own eyelids and cast them away. A tea plant grew from the place where his eyelids hit the ground.


Once upon a time in America

Tea was as popular with the British American colonies as it was in Britain. Britain realised that, by imposing taxes on the Americans, they could make even more money from the lucrative tea trade. This tax was called the Tea Act. We’re a nice bunch, aren’t we?

Tea was also a major source of income for the British-owned East India Company. Therefore, the British government at the time prevented American colonists from buying tea from any other company. However, the colonists refused to be dominated by British Parliament. They refused to pay the extortionate taxes on the tea and began smuggling tea from the Dutch.

In December 1773, British East India ships brought tea to American shores. They were forbidden by Parliament to leave America without selling the tea. However, the American colonists refused to let them come ashore and so there was a stalemate.

The Boston Tea Party took place on Thursday 16 December 1773. American patriots protested the high taxation and monopoly of tea by us Brits by casting 342 chests of tea belonging to the East India Company into the sea. The value of the tea dumped into the Boston Harbour is about $1 million. (What a waste!)

Eventually, the Boston Tea Party sparked the American War of Independence, leading it to become the independent nation it is today. (Unfortunately, Donald Trump is still the leader of the free world).


An English love affair

It was not until the second half of the sixteenth century that tea started to make an appearance in Europe. The first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland as late as 1606, which is just 400 years ago. It was intensely popular with the Dutch but it was also a very fashionable drink drunk only by the wealthy because of its cost.

Catherine of Braganza is credited with introducing tea to England. A Portuguese princess married to King Charles II and a tea addict (a bit like us really!), Catherine made tea very fashionable in the high court and amongst the wealthy. In fact, it became so popular that the East India Company began importing tea. The first order was placed in 1664, just two years after Catherine married King Charles and became Queen of England.  

Although tea was now being imported into the country, the tax was incredibly high. Criminal gangs began to capitalise on people’s love of tea by smuggling it into the country. Estimates suggest that 7 million pounds of tea was smuggled into the country every year! However, tea was not just smuggled, it was adulterated too. Leaves from other plants were mixed with real tea leaves which changed the colour of the tea. To make it look more like actual tea, the gangs added anything from sheep dung to poisonous copper carbonate. Yum …

Eventually, in 1784, the British government realised that the high taxation of tea was doing more harm than good and slashed the rates from 119% to 12.5%. Smuggling stopped almost overnight! In the first half of the 19th Century, Britain began to cultivate tea in India to compete with China’s monopoly of tea. It was first cultivated in Assam, a state in south-eastern India.

Thomas Ridgway opened his first tea shop in London in 1836 and so Ridgways tea was founded. He was renowned for travelling across the world to source the most exquisite teas from the finest tea gardens and then blending these to perfection. People would be for the privilege to work and be trained at Ridgeways. In 1886, Thomas Ridgway was asked to craft a tea for Queen Victoria’s personal use. He was also appointed as a tea merchant for King George VI. (Pssst … Change supply Ridgways tea; the choice of the true tea lover!)

By 1901, tea was established as an integral part of the British way of life. During the First World War, the government ensure that tea was still available and affordable for the British population because it was an important morale-boosting beverage!

The tea bag was accidentally invented by New York merchant, Thomas Sullivan, in the early twentieth century. He would send samples of his tea to his customers in silk bags, who assumed that both the tea and the bag should be brewed in the pot. Thus, the tea bag was born. However, it was not until the 1970’s that teabags became widely used in Britain – without which we wouldn’t have a Builders Brew!