An Overview of the History of Tea

Tea is the world’s second most widely consumed drink, after water, and so it’s hugely popular, especially in the UK. It’s estimated that Brits collectively drink a hundred million cups of it every day. That’s roughly one and a third cups for every person in the country!

Many people who drink tea aren’t aware of where it came from or how it became so widely drunk. If you’re interested in the history of tea, carry on reading. We’ll trace the development of the drink from its origins several thousand years ago to the present day. Put the kettle on and start reading!

Ancient Times

Camellia sinensis is the plant from which tea is derived. It’s native to east and southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.  Therefore, the origins of tea can be traced to this part of the world.

Physical evidence suggests that Chinese people were drinking tea in the second century BC. Written evidence implies that tea drinking was taking place a lot earlier, as early as the second millennium BC. It’s believed that the Chinese didn’t drink for enjoyment, instead, it was purely a medicinal drink. One source puts forward the theory that the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan is actually the birthplace of tea. It claims that when tea spread to the neighbouring Sichuan province, people began to drink tea for pleasure for the first time.

According to legend, a Chinese emperor discovered tea when some leaves fell into boiling water, changing its colour and giving it taste. Another legend describes how a god of agriculture would consume parts of plants to see if they had medicinal properties. If he ate something poisonous, he would cure himself by eating tea leaves.

Most drinkers wouldn’t have had tea sets. Even those who drank tea recreationally would have only had basic production and drinking utensils.

Mediaeval Times

The Portuguese established a trading port in Macau in 1557 and brought back tea samples for those back home to try.However, they didn’t export tea commercially. The Dutch were the first to do this and they started in the early 17th century.

Over the next few centuries, tea began to spread across Europe. Because it was imported, it was an expensive drink. Therefore, it was most often associated with the upper classes. It was a drink that royals and other wealthy people would enjoy.

In 1600, the UK established the East India Company to handle trade with India and parts of southeast and east Asia. It had a monopoly on goods imported from other countries.

There’s evidence from 1658 of a London newspaper promoting ‘a Chinese drink’ at a coffeehouse. However, tea drinking doesn’t appear to have taken off until the mid-17th century. Charles II had married Catherine of Braganza, who was an avid tea drinker from Portugal. She started the trend of drinking tea and it became popular among the nobility and the rich. The East India Company imported tea from China for the first time in 1664.

By the mediaeval era, tea was drunk more for its taste than any supposed medicinal properties. Tea sets made of materials such as fine china became must-haves for the elite.

The Revolution of Tea

By the start of the 17th century, tea was not yet widely drunk among the middle and lower classes in the UK. This was because tea was taxed at quite a high rate. So much so, that many people who wanted to drink it were priced out of doing so.

With demand high and prices too high, it was inevitable that smuggling rings would emerge. It got so bad that for a while, illegal imports outnumbered legal ones. Smugglers didn’t just bring in the proper product; they eventually created fake teas and tried to pass them off as the real thing.

The smuggling trade came to an abrupt end in 1784 when the then prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, drastically reduced the tea taxation rate. This made the drink affordable to just about everyone in the country. Since then, tea has been a universal drink enjoyed by people of all classes.

Tea sets were still made with the upper classes in mind. They were produced of valuable materials and would have intricate designs and patterns on them. Even though the drink itself became cheaper, some of the sets that people had were still quite expensive.

Tea in Pop Culture

It’s safe to say that tea is a staple of British culture. Brits are known around the world for their love of tea and how much of it they drink. In fact, it’s so big that it’s made its way into pop culture many times. Some characters in books, TV shows and movies have a particular fondness for tea.

One such character is the Mad Hatter from the classic novel Alice in Wonderland. Famed for his zany tea parties, he pops up in several much-loved films: the 1951 animated adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and the 2010 remake. He even makes an appearance in some casino games such as the Absolootly Mad slot by Microgaming. This slot game features tea cups, of course: the setting is the Mad Hatter’s tea party and symbols include tea cups and cakes. 

Another famous fictional tea drinker is the detective Hercule Poirot, who has a fondness for herbal tea. Agatha Christie, the writer of the Poirot books, was a big fan of tea herself and gave her love of the drink to the character. There’s also the hobbits from the Lord of the Rings series; their preference is black tea. Another keen drinker is Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who can’t get enough of Earl Grey.


As you can see, the history of tea is quite interesting. However, this article only scratches the surface of the drink’s journey from a medicinal beverage in Asia to a drink enjoyed casually by billions. As for tea sets, they’ve long been costly because of the drink’s association with royalty and the wealthy. Today though, you can get cheaper ones made of less expensive materials that do the job just fine.

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