John H Weisburger & James Comer. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Tea, a drink made from the leaves and buds of the shrub Camellia sinensis, is the most culturally and economically significant nonalcoholic beverage in the world. Originating in China, it had spread to surrounding nations before European contact, after which it was made a commodity of world importance by the British and Dutch East India Companies. Wars have been waged, nations punished, and fortunes made and lost because of this beverage. One reason that tea has been a very profitable article of trade is that it is a source of caffeine—a major factor in its popularity (Willson and Clifford 1992).

Although there are many kinds of herbal beverages called “teas,” in this chapter the term “tea” refers only to Camellia sinensis. Both infusions (pouring hot water over the leaves) and decoctions (boiling the leaves in water) have been made from the plant, which has also been eaten raw, cooked, or pickled and has even been snuffed.

Botany and Production

Camellia sinensis is native to the mountainous highlands between India and China and, when untrimmed, can grow to a height of about 10 meters. One variety, Camellia sinensis sinensis, is native to China, whereas Camellia sinensis assamica comes from India (Harler 1963). A semitropical or tropical climate is necessary for raising tea; the northernmost places where it has been grown are South Carolina (in the United States) and in Asia near the Black Sea. Bushes grown at high elevations produce the best tea (Willson and Clifford 1992). Yields range from 700 to more than 1,800 kilograms (kg) per acre (Harler 1964).

Tea undergoes a long journey from bush to cup. The leaf buds, which appear in the spring, along with the leaves directly below them on the stem, are generally hand plucked by skilled workers (Pratt 1982). The first buds to appear (the “first flush”) and the smallest leaves (“two leaves and a bud” is the ideal) command the highest price, whereas the larger leaves that can be cut by machines usually become part of lower-grade teas.

About 98 percent of the tea that enters the world market is black tea, and there are four steps required to ready this tea for Western tastes. The first, “withering,” involves drying the leaves to the point at which they are structurally weak. This is followed by “rolling” the leaves (in the past, between the heels of the hands), which crushes their cells and blends their chemical constituents, the characteristic tea polyphenols and the enzyme polyphenol oxidase. Moreover, the twist this imparts to the leaves slows the rate at which their essence blends with hot water. “Fermentation”—the third step—actually involves oxidation by the polyphenol oxidase and is produced by aerating and heating the leaves to between 72° and 82° Fahrenheit for 1 to 2 hours, during which their flavor develops and they turn a brownish color. The final stage is called “firing” the leaves. This further heating process stops fermentation (oxidation) by deactivating the enzyme and reduces the leaves to a moisture content of about 5 percent (McGee 1984). Needless to say, all of these procedures require a highly developed sense of timing on the part of the tea maker.

Although black teas monopolize the international market, the teas drunk in China and Japan are mostly green (Harler 1963). In preparing the latter, the fermentation stage is eliminated, and the enzymes are destroyed by steam or pan heating before the leaves are rolled and fired. In North Africa, too, green tea is common, in this case because the classic word “fermentation,” applied to the oxidation process, was misunderstood by Muslim religious and political leaders; they thought the word referred to the formation of alcohol, which their religion prohibited. Thus, this stage of tea preparation was omitted.

The size of the leaves determines the grade of a green tea: The tight, small balls of younger leaves are called “gunpowder”; “imperial” tea comes in larger and looser balls; Hyson varieties are long and looser leaves of mixed ages (McGee 1984). It might be added at this point that Oolong tea stands between green and black teas in that although it is fermented, this is only done briefly for about 30 minutes after rolling.

Grades of black teas, although they may vary, typically conform to guidelines that emerged from the British tea industry in nineteenth-century India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Whole leaves, which are generally thought to produce the best flavor, are classified by size and the ways in which they are rolled. For example, Flowery Orange Pekoe leaves are smaller than those of Orange Pekoe, and some of the leaves of Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe have highly prized golden tips (indicating that the tea consists of small, intact leaves), whereas in the case of Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, all the tips are golden.

Leaves that have been broken, whether deliberately or not, also make high-quality teas that conform to some of these classifications (for example, Broken Orange Pekoe, Golden Broken Orange Pekoe, or Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe). Small pieces of leaves (debris from the processing of whole and broken leaves) are called “dust,” and even smaller ones are called “fannings” (Stella 1992). These go into teabags and brick tea.

Teas are also named for the regions where they grow. For example, black teas from eastern India are known collectively as Darjeeling teas; Oolongs and Lapsang Souchongs come from Taiwan, and Keemun is a black tea from northern China. Teas are sometimes scented: An extreme case is Lapsang Souchong, a large-leafed black tea scented with pinewood smoke (Goodwin 1991). More often, flavoring is done with essential oils before, during, or after firing. This is especially the case with blends—the form in which most teas are generally purchased. Constant Comment, for example, is a blend from Sri Lanka flavored with orange peel; Earl Grey, another blend, is flavored with a citrus oil (McGee 1984).



The true origins of tea are unknown. Wild tea leaves are still used by the tribes of Burma to prepare a beverage and a “tea salad” (made from leaves that have fermented underground for several months and are then mixed with mushrooms, oil, garlic, chilli peppers, and perhaps other ingredients). In that part of the world, tea is also chewed or sniffed as snuff, and many surmise that use of the tea plant originated there and spread to China by the Han dynasty period (206 B.C. to A.D. 221). However, the wild tea plants of nearby Assam, in India, do not produce a palatable brew, and present-day Indian tea culture is wholly the work of the British.


The question of whether tea came from elsewhere to Han-dynasty China is obscured by legend. One of the earliest tales would have it that (some 5,000 years ago) a mythical emperor, Shen Nung, drank boiling water into which a wild tea leaf had fallen and, consequently, was the first to taste the beverage. Other legends state that tea bushes first sprang up when a Buddhist monk cut off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep while meditating—this tale, perhaps, was inspired by the Buddhists’ heavy use of tea.

Mythology, however, is not as useful to the historian in dating the Chinese use of tea as are the mentions of an herb called t’u in the writings of Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.), who remarked “Who can say that t’u is bitter? It is as sweet as the shepherd’s purse”—which was another herb (Evans 1992: 14). In Chinese, the written character t’u later meant tea, so it is at least possible that Confucius knew of the beverage at this early date (Blofeld 1985). At any rate, there seems little question that at least some tea was drunk during the Han dynasty and that the lacquer cups known from this period (the “winged cups”) are in fact the earliest teacups (Evans 1992).

Tea was probably used first for medicinal reasons, but the leaf and its lore moved from the medicinal to the artistic during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907), a period of increasingly eclectic food and drink choices, which also saw the Chinese enjoying grape wine and butter cakes (Tropp 1982). In about 800, Lu Yu, the first known tea connoisseur, penned the oldest surviving tea manual, the Cha Ching or “Scripture of Tea” (Ukers 1935). This book described an elaborate ceremony of tea making, from picking the leaves, to roasting them, to serving the green tea in wide shallow bowls (Lu Yu 1974). All tea at this time was green, which kept rather poorly unless made into cakes (Blofeld 1985), and the Tang-dynasty Chinese also enjoyed spiced tea, made by adding onions, garlic, mint, orange peel, salted black soybeans, or five-spice powder (Blofeld 1985). Although despised by Lu Yu, it was a common drink, and the addition of these flavorings may have either disguised the flavor of poor tea or allowed more bowls to be made from the same amount of leaves. Of course, such beverages also—at least to some extent—prefigured the flower teas, such as “Jasmine” and “Rose Congou” later served in North China, and which subsequently became popular outside China.

Tea ways changed as tea use and tea plantations grew more widespread during the Sung dynasty (960 to 1280). Green tea was powdered, whipped until it was the color of a “river of jade,” and served in deeper and wider bowls (Evans 1992). The use of spices and other additives was discontinued. Poets praised tea and referred to cha tao, the “Way of Tea” (Blofeld 1985), and the beverage was used in Chan (Zen) Buddhist ceremonies.

Brick tea was employed by the Chinese to buy horses from the central Asian tribes, and in Tibet and Mongolia, it was churned with yak butter and barley or millet into a porridge, the national staple (Kramer 1994). Centuries of Mongol rule in China were followed by the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), under which the tea trade widened in scope. To preserve tea for trade, some varieties were fermented into novel black teas that had not previously existed (Evans 1992). Wine pots were employed as teapots for steeping leaf tea, and by 1500, such pots were being made especially for tea (Chow and Kramer 1990). It is entirely possible that the use of a pot, enabling the brew to be poured off the leaves, was connected to the increasing importance of leaf tea, for the brew—especially in the case of black teas—can turn bitter if left in contact with the leaves too long (Chow and Kramer 1990).

Under the Ming, small handleless cups were used with a teapot, and this was the style of tea drinking exported to the West, along with the unglazed earthenware pots of Yixing (favored by tea connoisseurs) and teacups of blue and white porcelain (Chow and Kramer 1990). From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in China, several styles of teapot were in common use, including some with a handle on the side and others with no handle (Kanzaki 1981). These were used for fine green tea, which must be brewed with simmering (rather than boiling) water (Arts 1988). Other types of pots included tiny personal teapots—”personal” because the tea was drunk directly from the spout (Tropp 1982).

Another Chinese development, which never reached the West, was the tea “requiring skill.” In this ritual, the finest green tea was packed into a small teapot, boiling water poured over the tea, and the first infusion discarded. The second infusion, however, was drunk as if it were a liqueur, and sometimes even a third infusion was prepared. Such an artistic tea ceremony is still practiced in Taiwan (Blofeld 1985).

Teahouses were social centers in China; they are documented as far back as the Tang dynasty and achieved great prominence from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries (Anderson 1994). Patrons bought the “house tea” or had their own brewed for a small fee. Poetry readings, opera singing, or dancers were typical teahouse entertainments. At some establishments, in fact, “singsong girls” (prostitutes) offered the customer other choices in addition to tea (Blofeld 1985). Most teahouses served food: The most common fare was and remains dimsum, an array of snacks (Anderson 1994).

In 1644, China was taken over by the central Asian Manchu dynasty, which presided over (among other things) a new fashion of lidded cups called chung (Chow and Kramer 1990), in which tea could be both steeped and drunk. Chung, however, never became popular in Japan or the West, and even in China, the older types of pots and cups remained in use as well. The origins of many kinds of tea still enjoyed today can be traced to this, China’s last imperial dynasty. The Manchu, whose staples on the steppes had been milk and butter, also served milk in black tea, a practice which did become popular in the West (Ukers 1935).

In the early seventeenth century, the Europeans, beginning with the Dutch, sought to trade for tea with China. The Chinese, however, proved to be difficult trading partners. Not only did they claim not to need (and consequently would not accept) anything from the West except the precious metals (silver and gold) and copper but they also kept the secrets of tea growing and processing to themselves—even to the extent of boiling any tea seeds they sold to render them sterile (Goodwin 1991). Indeed, so successful were the Chinese in maintaining European ignorance of matters concerning tea that it was only in the nineteenth century (after some two and a half centuries of tea trading) that their customers learned that black and green tea came from the same plant (Ukers 1935).

The largest of these customers was the British East India Company,1 which from the 1660s onward carried huge amounts of tea from Canton to Britain but always struggled with the balance-of-payments problem presented by the Chinese insistence on precious metals as the only exchange for tea. One solution for the company was to find products that the Chinese would accept in trade. The other was to grow its own tea, and India became the place where both of these goals were pursued.

In pursuit of the latter solution, Lord Bentinck (William Henry Cavendish), who was appointed governor of India in 1828, created the Tea Committee to foster a tea industry in that land. Several botanists were sent to China to learn about tea cultivation and to recruit Chinese growers to start tea plantations in India. One of these botanists, J. C. Gordon, collected more than 80,000 seeds and sent them to Calcutta, whereupon the British discovered that all varieties of tea came from the same plant (Willson and Clifford 1992).

But it was Robert Fortune—entering China in 1848 as an agent of the Tea Committee and for three years roving about the country’s tea regions disguised as a Chinese merchant—who finally unlocked the many mysteries involved in actually producing tea (Beauthéac 1992). Thereafter, Chinese tea was planted in India and, a bit later (after disease had wiped out the island’s coffee trees), in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as well. Tea bushes native to India were subjected to experimentation, hybrids tinkered with, and, ultimately, plants well suited to India’s climate were developed. The great tea plantations of British India were born.

Nonetheless, because China continued to supply most of the world’s tea, the problem of its insistence on bullion or copper as payment for that tea also continued. Actually, the British had already found one product—cotton from Bengal—that interested the Chinese. Then they hit upon another. Poppies, imported from Turkey, grew well in India, and the British East India Company entered the opium business. No matter that the Chinese government refused to permit the importation of the addictive powder. Intermediaries soon stimulated a lively demand for it across all strata of Chinese society, and as the government continued to object, the British went to war, their gunboats easily overwhelming the Chinese coastal defenses. The Treaty of Nanking (1842) not only forced opium upon the Chinese but also forced open four Chinese ports (in addition to Canton) to European trade. Hong Kong was ceded to the British, and British consuls were admitted to all treaty ports.

The decline of China from its former imperial grandeur continued throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century as foreigners increased their ascendancy, and in the twentieth century, the old China disappeared in the tumult of war and revolution. During these years, a great deal of the ancient art and culture surrounding tea was also destroyed. But it remained (and remains) the national beverage. Throughout the day, people carry with them lidded tea mugs, which, like the chung, can be used both for infusion and for drinking (Chow and Kramer 1990). Glass mugs or cups are aesthetically pleasing, because they allow the drinker to view the unfolding of the tea leaves as the tea brews (Chow and Kramer 1990); in fact, there are teas which are specially bred and rolled for this purpose. Teahouses in the new China include opera, television viewing, and even “karaoke” singing as entertainment (Anderson 1994).


Japan first obtained tea, along with many other cultural practices, from China. Tradition has it that the beverage was carried to Japan by the Buddhist monk Eisai; drinking tea before meditation was for the Buddhists a practical way to keep awake, and early Zen monks drank tea long before it was known elsewhere in the islands. To make it, cakes of tea were powdered, and water was boiled in a kettle and ladled into a bowl. Following this step, the tea was whipped with a whisk—itself made by splitting bamboo fibers and then bending them with steam into a double cone of curved spines. The early monastic “four-headed tea” was a rite in which a man served tea to guests by whipping individual bowlfuls (Hayashiya 1979).

In Japan, tea service evolved into an elaborate ceremony, continuing the Chinese Sung-dynasty use of whipped green tea, which as employed in the Japanese tea ritual still resembles jade in its deep, clear green color (Chow and Kramer 1990). When the country was unified in the sixteenth century after a long era of war among feudal lords, the cultivation and use of green tea became widespread, and the tea ceremony, which had served as an opportunity for ostentation by the nobility, was remade under the guidance of art collector and tea-master Sen Rikyû, who created the “tea of quiet taste”—a ceremony performed in a small, low hut and passed on to future generations as a tradition. Different kinds of sweets, flowers, incense, stylized conversation, calligraphy, bowls, and other utensils became associated with different “schools” of the tea ceremony, as well as months of the year, places, and so forth. Years of instruction became necessary to master the way of tea; Rikyû’s sons and grandsons founded several tea schools, which carry on old traditions to this day (Sen 1979).

During the seventeenth century, leaf tea was introduced from China, and the use of teapots became common. For ordinary tea, a teapot with a spout on the front was used. For fine tea, a hot-water pot (kyusu)—more convenient than the older kettle—was employed (Kanzaki 1981). Cups of porcelain in the style of the Chinese Ming dynasty became common alongside the kyusu. Although the tea ceremony of Rikyû used powdered tea, another ceremony involving fine-leaf tea also developed, and the kyusu employed were often beautiful works of art (Arts 1988).

In 1854, the isolation of Japan came to an end with the Shogun’s agreement to allow foreign ships to put into Japanese ports, and in the initial rush to modernize, the Japanese tea ceremony was lost. But at the start of the twentieth century, as Japanese culture underwent a revival, the ceremony became popular once again, a popularity that continues into the present. Tea also figures in popular culture. It is used regularly in homes and restaurants and can even be bought from vending machines. Green tea remains the most popular for daily use, although other kinds, including black tea and herb tea, are also drunk. In 1992, Japan exported a mere 290 tons of tea while importing 160,367 tons (FAO 1993).


Although a Dutch seafarer wrote of tea being eaten as well as drunk in India in 1598, accounts of earlier Indian history do not mention the use of tea or its cultivation (Pettigrew 1997). Milk and buttermilk, produced by the country’s millions of sacred cattle, were the preferred beverages in India (Tannahill 1988).

The tea cultivation begun there in the nineteenth century by the British, however, has accelerated to the point that today India is listed as the world’s leading producer, its 715,000 tons well ahead of China’s 540,000 tons, and of course, the teas of Assam, Ceylon (from the island nation known as Sri Lanka), and Darjeeling are world famous. However, because Indians average half a cup daily on a per capita basis, fully 70 percent of India’s immense crop is consumed locally (Goodwin 1991; FAO 1993). Tea in India is generally spiced and served with milk, thus incorporating two other prominent Indian products. As a cup of tea with sugar and milk may contain up to 40 calories, this is also a source of quick energy (Harler 1964).

In general, even though India leads the world in tea technology, the methods employed to harvest the crop vary with the type of tea and terrain. Fine-leaf tea is hand plucked, and hand shears are used on mountain slopes and in other areas where tractor-mounted machines cannot go. A skilled worker using hand shears can harvest between 60 and 100 kg of tea per day, whereas machines cut between 1,000 and 2,000 kg. The latter, however, are usually applied to low-grade teas that often go into teabags. The tea “fluff” and waste from processing is used to produce caffeine for soft drinks and medicine (Harler 1963).


Tea from China reached Tsar Alexis of Russia in 1618, and the Russians quickly adopted the beverage. They adapted the Mongolian “firepot” to their own purposes, creating the charcoal-fueled samovar, which boiled water in its tank and furnished the heat to make tea essence in a small pot atop the device. The essence was diluted with hot water from the tank whenever a cup of tea was desired. Samovars (now electrically heated) are still common, especially in offices and at parties and gatherings where much tea must be made at once. Lump sugar is used for sweetening, and Russians often bite a sugar lump in between sips of tea (Schapira 1982).

Tea is served in glasses with metal holders in public places and in china cups at home. Apples or cranberries (instead of costly lemons) are sometimes added along with sugar, and tea is usually drunk with milk. Pastries and sweets often accompany the beverage. The low price of tea led to its great popularity in Russia, and the tea plantations of Georgia (now a separate nation) are the most northerly in the world. The Russians, however, consider Georgia-grown tea to be inferior (Schapira 1982), and some 325,000 tons of tea were imported by the countries of the former Soviet Union in 1992 (FAO 1993).

Continental Europe

Tea first became popular in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. Served in the afternoon—in what would become the British style—it was mixed with sugar and, sometimes, saffron. As the custom of afternoon tea in the home developed, hostesses set aside special rooms, furnished with paintings, tables and chairs (Brochard 1992), and large quantities of tea were reportedly consumed: Montesquieu, for example, saw a Dutch woman drink 30 small cups at one sitting (Brochard 1992). In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in North America, water for tea was hawked through the streets, and prior to the dominance of the British East India Company, the Netherlands exported much tea to Britain (Israel 1987).

Tea cultivation in Indonesia, which began under Dutch supervision in the mid-nineteenth century (Ukers 1935), specialized in the production of black teas often used for blends. Tea is still popular in the Netherlands today; in 1992, the United Provinces imported 377,803 tons of tea and reexported 201,306 tons, leaving 176,497 tons for local use (FAO 1993).

Germany and France have historically consumed little tea, although the porcelain works of Meissen in Germany have produced excellent tea services. Some tea is consumed in the Dutch or British fashion in both nations, but most people there prefer coffee.


Despite the British fondness for tea, it does not have a long history in the islands. The first mention of “chaw” in a sea captain’s letter dates from 1597, and not until 1658 was tea first announced for sale at a London coffeehouse (Ukers 1935). From that point forward, however, sugar from British-controlled islands of the Caribbean became plentiful enough to make the new beverage palatable to Englishmen’s tastes. But leathern or wooden cups—used for ale—were unsuitable for hot tea, and consequently Ming-style pots and teacups were brought to Britain along with the new beverage.

Expensive at first, tea became more widespread as duties fell. By the 1710s, afternoon tea had become an important convivial occasion for women, who were discouraged from drinking alcohol socially because (according to the new bourgeois code of morals) they could not remain “ladylike” while intoxicated. In addition, eighteenth-century Britain saw the rise of “tea gardens,” where tea, snacks, and entertainment could be enjoyed by the bourgeois and upper classes. Sidney Mintz (1985) has commented on the “tea complex” of tea and sugary foods (such as jam and pastries) that came to be popular among the British, doubtless in no small part because of the stimulating effects of caffeine and sugar. According to Benjamin Franklin, eighteenth-century Britons and Anglo-Americans drank 10 pounds of tea per head yearly—which translated into 2,000 cups, or about 5 ½ cups a day (Pratt 1982).

Such demand invariably led to adulteration in order to color the tea and add weight to shipments. Ash leaves, licorice, iron filings, Prussian blue, sheep dung, and numerous other materials could be found in tea packages, and discarded tea leaves were saved from garbage heaps and washed for resale. Even the tea-loving Chinese happily dyed green tea a brighter green to satisfy British customers who disliked the pale color of the “real thing” (Goodwin 1991). It is interesting to note that some popular scented teas are the products of such adulteration: In the case of Earl Grey, for example, buyers came to demand the scent and flavor produced by the addition of oil of bergamot.

Chinese porcelain was painted with designs made especially for English buyers (such as the famous “willow pattern”), and cups began to be made with handles to enable the drinker to cope with tea hot enough to dissolve sugar—unlike the Chinese green tea, which was brewed at a lower temperature (Pratt 1982). Carried as ballast in sailing ships (one ship might carry as much as 20 tons of porcelain), this “china” was very inexpensive (Atterbury 1982; Hob-house 1986), but attempts were nonetheless made to copy Chinese porcelain. Such efforts eventually met with success, and by 1742 porcelain was being made in Europe.

British tea tariffs, which played such an important part in bringing about the American Revolution, were repealed the year after American independence was achieved (Goodwin 1991), and the adulteration of tea ceased as it was no longer profitable (Hobhouse 1986). In 1786, the East India Company sold a total of 2.4 million pounds of black tea and 1.15 million of green tea (Ukers 1935). Even in those days, green tea was already losing ground to black, but it was still relatively more popular than it would later become with the massive influx of black teas from India and Africa. Broken grades also sold very well in Britain because of their lower prices (Harler 1963).

The Victorian period found tea perhaps at its zenith, with even the homeless of Whitechapel partaking—a victim of Jack the Ripper was carrying tea on her person, along with sugar and a spoon, at the time of her murder (Tully 1997). The temperance movement was greatly aided by affordable tea, as millions were converted to “tee-totaling,” or abstinence from alcohol. The British took tea in the morning, at lunch, at “low tea” (afternoon tea, served in the “low” part of the afternoon), and at “high tea” (or “meat tea”), an early supper served at 6 o’clock (Israel 1987). Strongly scented teas, such as Earl Grey, Jas-mine, and Lapsang Souchong, were extremely popular, perhaps because the Victorian regimen of meats and sweets demanded strongly flavored teas to match. The rituals of tea became more complex, and from the drawing rooms (the “withdrawing rooms” to which ladies withdrew while gentlemen remained at the table) of London to the South African bush, the British cherished tea, the “cups that cheer.”

In the twentieth century, British workmen continued to break daily for tea, made and served collectively for groups of workers or purchased from nearby shops. In the 1980s and 1990s, the British each consumed some 3 to 4 kg of tea annually. In 1992, the nation as a whole imported 503, 350 tons of tea and reexported 122, 476 tons, leaving 380, 874 tons for local consumption (FAO 1993). The rising popularity of coffee and soft drinks have somewhat diminished tea’s popularity, but it remains a staple British beverage, and tearooms flourish throughout much of the English-speaking world, although not in the United States.

The United States

Tea in America has a history going back to the colonial era, when it was used by both Chesapeake planters and Massachusetts merchants and was especially popular in Philadelphia (Roth 1988). As in England during this period, most tea was green and often mixed with sugar, fruits, and liquors to make an alcoholic “punch.”

The legendary Boston and Charleston “tea parties” sprang from the British tax on tea, which, unlike other taxes, had not been repealed in the face of colonial protest. The result was a series of civil disorders in which shiploads of tea were destroyed (in Boston) or stolen (in Charleston). In retrospect, these acts were clearly precursors of the Revolution. Contrary to legend, however, tea drinking did not cease because of hostility to Britain, and George Washington continued to breakfast on three bowls of tea. The difference was that this tea no longer reached the United States through British channels, but rather in American ships, the first shipment arriving in 1784 aboard the Empress of China (Ukers 1935). But it was the case that, a few decades later, an increase in the availability of cheap, Brazilian, slave-produced coffee brought a gradual decline of tea consumption in favor of coffee.

Two great changes in American tea drinking came about in the early twentieth century. One occurred in 1908, when tea merchant Thomas Sullivan, in order to reduce shipping weight, began to package tea samples in silk bags instead of miniature tins. Some of his customers brewed the tea without taking it out of the bags and requested more tea packaged in this way; Sullivan obliged, and teabags were created. Today, in America, most tea is brewed from teabags (Schapira 1982).

The other innovation was iced tea, supposedly invented at the 1904 World’s Fair by Richard Blechynden, an English tea concessionaire who had been sent to the United States to promote black tea. But in the sweltering heat of St. Louis, he was unable to sell hot tea or even give it away. In frustration, he poured the tea over ice and began to serve it cold. Because there is much evidence of iced tea before this event, Blechynden gets more credit for his “invention” than he deserves, but it is probably fair to say that he brought iced tea to the world’s attention (Pratt 1982; Israel 1987). Indeed, from this point forward in the United States, the sale of black tea (which makes better iced tea) began to edge out that of green, suggesting that Blechynden gave his employers their money’s worth.

Still another development, which many find to be no improvement at all, is the invention of “instant” tea, which is an evaporated powder similar to instant coffee (Willson and Clifford 1992). Instant tea constitutes a significant amount of the tea consumed in the United States, but—as it is not made by brewing—it could be said that it is not really tea at all (Schapira 1982). In the early 1990s, the nation imported 305,017 tons of tea and exported 85,363 tons. Included in the latter was a small amount of tea grown in the United States (FAO 1993).

Until at least very recently, tea cultivation in the United States has never been a profitable enterprise because of climate, although, since the nineteenth century, individual tea bushes have been tended in gardens of the South. Between 1848 and 1852, the operators of a plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, tried to grow tea, and in 1880, John Jackson made an attempt in Summerville, South Carolina. Tea was also grown in several places nearby, but all these efforts were eventually abandoned (Ukers 1935).

In the 1980s, however, Mack Fleming, an engineer for the Lipton Tea Company, purchased the Summerville land and, with the help of Canadian tea taster Bill Hall, began experimentally processing leaves from the tea bushes that still remained. Fleming and Hall transferred tea bushes to Wadmalaw Island near Charleston and invented a machine to shear off the tea buds, literally mowing the tea like a lawn. The resulting product, marketed in both bagged and loose forms as American Classic Tea, is the only tea commercially grown in America. Hawaii, California, and Florida also have climates appropriate for tea growing, but labor costs for harvest are prohibitive.

Other Lands

Brazil and Argentina in South America, and Turkey and Iran in the Near East, produce undistinguished teas—mostly for teabags—as do Tanzania and Malawi in Africa. In Kenya, however, which now ranks fourth among the world’s tea-producing nations, some teas are emerging as noteworthy. For the most part, these black teas are grown on plantations on the high plateaus that are understandably similar to those of India, as they were founded by British planters who left that country following independence (Willson and Clifford 1992). In addition, South Africa produces an excellent tea from plants that originated in the Darjeeling area of India; in South Africa, as in Kenya, tea plantations are located on the high plateaus.

Tea and Health

In modern times, tea is one of the world’s least expensive beverages, which helps to account for the fact that, after water, it is also the most commonly used beverage. Because it is made with boiled—and therefore sterile—water, tea is safe to consume in areas where water quality may be less than satisfactory.

This is doubtless one of the major reasons that, over the millennia, tea has maintained a reputation for contributing to good health (Weisburger 1997). Buddhist monks in China and Japan, who were physicians as well as tea-masters, used tea to help people through their illnesses. Even today, tea is frequently employed in ancillary therapy for individuals who suffer from various infections, colds, or chronic diseases (Yamanashi 1991). Tea is a diuretic and produces both warmth (if it is served hot) and coolness (because it promotes evaporation of water from the skin) in the body; moreover, the steam of hot tea moisturizes the nose, mouth, and throat. The caffeine in tea is also a “pick-me-up.”

Perhaps because tea was first used in China and Japan, historically most research on its health benefits was conducted by Eastern research groups. These groups have held conferences to report on findings that have to do largely with disease prevention and, to a lesser extent, with therapy (Yamanashi 1991). But even though tea became a major beverage in some of Europe and all of the English-speaking world, relatively little research of this nature was done in the West until recently.

Beginning in about 1980, however, a number of laboratories and groups in the United States and Canada—and a few in Europe—have shown an interest in researching relationships between tea and human health. Their findings were summarized at the First International Conference on Tea and Health, held in New York in 1991 (Symposium 1992). Included were reports suggesting that people who drink tea regularly have a lessened risk of coronary heart disease. Moreover, some investigators also noted that tea has a beneficial effect in warding off cancers of the stomach, esophagus, and lung (Katiyar and Mukhtar 1996; Weisburger 1996; Yang et al. 1997), and new research suggests that the caffeine in tea may play a role in such cancer prevention. Black tea and green tea had very similar (if not identical) preventive effects, and a few findings showed delayed growth and even regression of cancers in laboratory animals.

Stimulated by such findings, considerably more research has since been conducted in Europe, North America, and Asia. One interesting area of investigation has to do with the incidence of lung cancer in Japanese men, which is lower than that in their American counterparts, even though the Japanese smoke many more cigarettes on a per capita basis. It has been hypothesized that tea drinking by Japanese men is the key factor.

The chemical basis for the preventive benefits of tea seems to be specific polyphenols in both green and black teas that can act as powerful antioxidants. It is suspected that the risk of heart disease and many types of cancer is lowered by the raised antioxidant level in the bodies of those who drink tea and, conversely, that the conditions promoting these diseases involve abnormally low levels of oxidation. Tea polyphenols also modify intestinal bacterial flora, leading to a decrease in the levels of undesirable bacteria and contributing to the maintenance and increase of desirable bacteria. In fact, tea is the culture medium for the “tea fungus” called kombucha, actually a symbiotic bacterial culture used in alternative medicine. Tea can have a specific antibacterial action and, perhaps, a limited but definite effect against specific viruses (Hara 1994). Moreover, recent results suggest that Alzheimer’s disease may occur less frequently in aging people who are regular tea drinkers.

One kilogram of tea makes about 440 cups, whereas the same amount of coffee makes about 88 (Harler 1964), which helps to explain both the relative cheapness of tea as a beverage and the higher caffeine content of coffee. The caffeine in tea was once called “theine,” but is chemically identical to the caffeine in coffee. Depending on the type of tea, a 150-milliliter cup may contain 30 to 50 milligrams of caffeine, only about one-third of the caffeine found in a cup of coffee (Harler 1963).

Nonetheless, this is sufficient to account for its reportedly pleasant, slightly stimulating effect on mental function, and is doubtless the reason for tea’s popularity as a morning beverage. However, the amount of caffeine in tea is low enough that an overdose is unlikely, whereas overdose symptoms ranging from headaches to severe gastrointestinal distress do occur in coffee drinkers (Willson and Clifford 1992). Tea is also available decaffeinated; to achieve this, solid carbon-dioxide extraction is employed to remove caffeine selectively without removing the desirable polyphenols. Thus, decaffeinated tea provides the taste and most of the health benefits of its caffeinated counterpart for caffeine-sensitive tea drinkers and can be consumed in the evening without fear of sleep deprivation.

Ordinary tea, however, can be made as free of caffeine as decaffeinated tea. One way to do this is to brew a first infusion, discard it, and brew a second from the same tea. Caffeine is extracted from tea in 1 to 2 minutes, and so a second infusion will have a weaker taste but no caffeine. Another means is to make “sun tea” by placing cold water with teabags in it in direct sunlight, usually for several hours. The result is a tea virtually free of caffeine, normally served iced. However, it is not known whether the health-promoting antioxidant tea polyphenols remain intact after being subjected to the sun’s radiation.

How to Make Tea

Starting with Lu Yu and Sen Rikyû, tea-masters throughout the ages have emphasized both the ease of making good tea and the philosophical significance of the beverage. The following is offered as a basic modern outline of how good tea should be treated.

Start with fine tea, whether whole or bagged, and clean, cold water. Avoid water that has a taste of its own. For green tea, bring the water to a simmer; for black or Oolong, it must be at a rolling boil. Warm the vessel in which the tea will brew by pouring boiling water into and out of it, and add about 3 grams of tea per cup to be brewed. Pour boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the type of tea. Finally, remove the leaves or teabag from the vessel and pour the tea, adding sugar (or other sweetener), milk, or lemon, as desired. On a cold night, tea with rum, brandy, or bourbon whiskey makes a warming and thus a pleasant beverage.