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History of Tea

history of teaIt is said that the origins of tea date back over 4,700 years ago. Wild leaves from the camellia sinensis plant fell into a pot of boiling water. The resulting brew was then sipped by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, known as "the Divine Healer." The story states that he noted the following: "It quenches thirst," "it gladdens and cheers the heart," and that it was "heaven sent." All of us who love tea can attest to his words of wisdom.

It is also said that Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, meditated for nine years. When he fell to sleep he was so upset at himself by his tiredness that he cut off his eye lids and threw them to the earth. At the very spot where his eye lids hit, there sprung up the first tea plants. The legend says that from that day forward, the serrated ovals of the tea leaves would be watchful over carelessness.

Drinking tea spread around the world after being enjoyed in China. It traveled to Japan when a Japanese monk brought the seeds to that country in 1191. Tea reached Europe in the 17th century, when Portuguese and Dutch traders brought it back as a luxury. It was the Portuguese, Catherine of Braganza, who included tea as part of her dowry when she married the British King, Charles II, and it went on to become the height of sophistication among the aristocracy. The tea leaves were so expensive that they were locked in tea caddies, and kept in the bed chambers of the Lady of the House, far away from servants. The new drink was sipped from porcelain imported from the east, named "China" after the country of origin. During the same time period, caravans of camels brought tea across the desert from China to Russia, where traditions of tea drinking had their beginnings in that region as well.

The first tea shipment to arrive in Canada was imported by the Hudson Bay Company in 1716 and took more than a year to arrive. Until the 19th century tea drinking was expensive, because it was imported from China. In the 19th century, the British Empire helped make tea drinking a daily experience for the working class and the wealthy alike. In India, entrepreneurs and botanists set up tea plantations, which made it less costly to transport the tea to the British Empire.

Because tea is made with boiling water, it was thought to have reduced urban disease. Additionally the health properties of tea helped energized the work force of the Industrial Revolution.

It was at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis that iced tea was popularized and commercialized (but not invented). A group of Indian tea producers from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) organized a special tea pavilion under the direction of Englishman, Richard Blechynden. As it was a very hot summer day, people ignored the tea and went in search of cold drinks. In a desperate effort to sell the tea, Blechynden packed ice cubes into glasses and poured the tea over them. As word got around, customers started lining up to buy the cooling beverage. This cold tea was an instant success and changed the way the rest of Americans thought of tea, thus popularizing iced tea.

Today, tea is once again becoming a very popular drink of choice. It bridges all ages, young and old, all demographics, allows for different palates and encourages creativity for the tea drinker to experiment with a blend of different teas.

It is no wonder that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world next to water, with such a colourful history! So the next time you sit down to enjoy a lovely sip of tea, you can better appreciate its epic and well-traveled history.