Origins of Tea Culture in Britain and China

Around 4000 years ago in 270 BCE, tea was discovered and used as medicine in the western Zhou dynasty. According to the myth, the Holy Farmer– the god of farming and medicine– was poisoned 72 times while tasting herbs. After stumbling upon the tea plant and drinking its brewed liquid, he was cured and purged of those toxins. The industry of cultivating tea began to emerge, and in the Han and Qin dynasties, tea was integrated into Zen culture. Taoists drank tea for self-cultivation and to maintain alignment of the soul and body, Buddhists drank tea for a deeper understanding of Zen, and Confucianists suggested one’s evaluation of tea through drinking it could judge their morality and character. By the Tang dynasty, tea was enjoyed by people of all classes, and thus tea art, ceremonies, and customs facilitated the development of tea sets.

Different teas have specific methods of preparation with distinct types of water, materials, and processing methods. The tea scholar Liu Bodang distinguished twenty different types of water for making tea. Well water was considered inferior, river water mediocre, and spring water, dew drops, and river streams through mountains were the best due to meeting the five qualifications of being light, clear, cold, sweet, and live. Tea drinking methods can be divided into pure drinking and blending. Pure drinking refers to brewing with water only, while blending refers to the addition of flavorings such as sugar and milk. Pure drinking in the natural environment was indicative of noble and scholarly taste, as well as harmony between heaven, earth, and man. Indeed, the tea ceremony is considered art in the elaborate process of picking, making and tasting, while the ceremony aspect refers to the spirit with which it is done and the virtue cultivated in the process.

Meanwhile, around 350 years ago, the East India Company began importing tea in 1644 under the charter of Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, it wasn’t until merchant Thomas Garaway began selling tea in dried and liquid form at his coffee house in 1660 with medical benefits such as “preserving perfect health until extreme old age, good for clearing the sight” and a cure for “gripping of the guts, cold, dropsies, scurveys” that it began to gain popularity. By 1700, tea surpassed gin and ale to become Britain’s most popular drink. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, supposedly began the tradition of drinking tea in the afternoon to tide her hunger in the early 1840s. Afternoon tea rituals, which only the aristocracy could afford, consisted of a period between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. where tea was served in fine china alongside dainty sandwiches, scones, cakes, and pastries. Tea-drinking customs retain this air of elegance and aristocracy today. While fermented and clean green tea is a favorite in China, black tea became preferred in Britain due to its ability to withstand humidity and fog for long periods without losing flavor as well as its pleasantly mild taste— perfect for mixing with delicious condiments like milk, honey, and lemon.