It doesn’t matter where you perambulate in this world, one can always find a culture of tea drinking. Some are content with electric kettles, styrofoam cups and a tea bag swimming about. Others hold to bowing over a cup and waiting patiently for tea leaves to softly whisper their drinkable status into the listener’s ear. Sipping on a cup of English Breakfast myself in Austin, I decide to look into the oddities of this global phenomenon and how it is that I’ve come to be sipping British tea in Texas.
EMPERORS OR FARMERS?
Of course China is to blame. There’s an infamous legend about third century Emperor Shen Nung - conveniently a herbalist too - boiling drinking water under a Camellia Sinensis tree. Perchance, some leaves wander in to infuse the water, et voila! tea is served. Another version involves a prince-turned-monk cutting off his own eyelids after waking from a lax nap. A tea shrub allegedly sprouts where his bloody eyelids land on the ground; a ghastly tale.
Now while I do hold suspicions about such propaganda – a "Marketing Plan" versus the probable version of a plebeian growing herbs – we can assume, tea originates in China.
Still, the Western World has to wait a few centuries for the Dutch to show up on the international trading scene. Looking for a way to best the Portuguese at their game, the first consignment of tea reaches Holland in 1606. Tea spreads across continental western Europe as a fashionable beverage, though reserved for the wealthy. Wanting a slice of the action, the infamous British East India Company builds up a monopoly on British trade with India and “the Far East.” (Thus the company’s eponymous name, very original, well done chaps.)
But Brits being Brits, tea – considered as a foreign curiosity – has to wait for another key individual, Catherine of Braganza, to step into the light. A Portuguese queen to Charles II, she’s an avid tea drinker and uses the nation’s trading company to satiate her drinking habits. Naturally what a queen entertains, the nation desires. So by the 18th century, the East India Company is quite the lucrative organisation making a fortune through taxation of tea.
Now to get to the tea bag floating about in our cups, the narrative diverges here; inextricably linked, one develops further within the UK and the other crosses the ocean to the Americas. The steady rise of tea taxes in the UK culminates in an organised network of tea smugglers slipping tea into the country under the noses of the East India Company. Without the necessity to cover the taxes, store owners start selling illegal tea at lower costs, opening up the esteemed product to the masses in the UK.
As a result, the East India Company finds itself without much business, and looks to America to rid itself of its surplus stock. We all know where THAT goes: the Americans taking care of the “ridding” in Boston, which wasn’t so much of a Native American themed costume soirée, but more of an instigator for revolution. Once firing ceases, the American power houses of Thomas Perkins, Stephen Girard and John Astor, sets up direct trade with China by building the fastest ships on the market. This golden age of the American Tea Clippers break the iron first of the British tea trade monopoly and the beverage finds itself now streaming into the United States.
BAG & SELL
So it is that we come to 1908 and a New Yorker tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan, who gets tricky with his packaging strategy. Until this point, tea was in loose leaf form and prepared in tea pots. Sullivan starts sending out his samples to customers in small silken bags, a tip of the hat to the product’s quality and value. Except his lazy customers simply assume the object should be dunked straight into a cup of hot water, rather than emptying the contents into a proper teapot. Noticing this, Sullivan makes a few improvements to the packaging and we have the origins of the Tea Bag.
Which, considering their history, was a slap in the face to Britain and their tea-making rituals. So it takes yet another couple of wars to seal the Anglo-American bond and the postwar desire to economise life, that tea – now in convenient bagged form – enters 1950s UK by means of Tetley. Other tea giants including Twinings of London, established since 1706, quickly takes up the cause.
Skip forward to today and much of the Western World has adopted bagged tea as the standard. In some instances, we’ve even eradicated any trace of the tea drinking art by creating pre-made teas purchasable in plastic bottles; a shocking insult to Mr. Shen Nung. Though the danger packed glory days of the Tea Clippers are mostly forgotten, the import and export of tea across the world is to this day, a streamlined operation.
Still I find it rather strange to think that English tea left British shores for America, only to have it returned with a 50s ideal, and then re-shipped back to my local grocers for my personal enjoyment. As my tea grows cold and I reach for another English Breakfast in American bagged style, I wonder who I’m upsetting the most: the Brits, the Yanks, or the Chinese?