Tea: A Journey To The New World

Did you know that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world? For over 5000 years our civilization has been enjoying the uplifting benefits brought forth by the leaves of the Camelia Sinensis plant. As many of you already know, all tea comes from the same plant: Camelia Sinensis. What might not be as clear is how this humble and wise plant has managed to severely alter history time and time again. In brief, here is the story of how theine and the processed tea leaves served as a catalyst for the world we reside in.

Tea, as a beverage, did not really leave China until relatively recently. Discovered around 2500 BC by a truly admirable healer, Shen-Nung, the beverage quickly became a fundamental part of Chinese culture. It remained that way until Buddhist Monks traveling to Japan took the habit with them, and again creating a huge following for the infusion in their new found land. But tea remained Asian until the mid 1550.

The Japanese and Chinese were in no need of trading given they had everything they could possibly want. That was until Portuguese merchants introduced them to silver. The Chinese were now willing to give up their precious product, but none of their knowledge. Tea quickly became a staple of European lifestyle, but it had some challenges, mainly coffee. Coffee, as a beverage, was already established as the beverage of aristocracy and business, which served tea in an uncanny manner. Given coffee was the beverage of exclusivity, it was easy for tea to find a niche as the household beverage. As more and more tea was consumed and traded through Europe, the East India Company came into life. Europeans, not knowing how to grow, harvest, or process the plant left the Chinese with the great advantage of being the sole distributors of the leaves everybody wanted. This led some Bristish scientists to head out to origin and find out about the processing of tea, but we’ll get back to this. The trade of silver for tea worked for both sides until the devaluation coming from the Napoleonic wars. As war left people impoverished, they no longer wanted to trade very valuable silver for a commodity beverage. But tea they wanted and tea they got.

The East India Company, instantly becoming the largest corporation in the world, had taken the lead in colonizing Indian lands. In them they found something better than silver, “trading gold”. They started cultivating and processing the poppy fields to produce opium, something every Chinese man wanted to get their hands on. This gave rise to a huge black market trade of Opium for tea, as well as the severe colonization of Indian lands. The Chinese government, dislking the fact that European merchants were introducing an ilicit substance into their lands, burnt down Chinese ports and jailed all British sailors! Alas, the genesis of the first drug wars. As the Opium Wars continued, one of those British scientists set out to learn about the processing of tea, found a varietal of the plant that was thriving in northern India, Camelia Sinensis var. Assamica: Assam Tea. The East India Compnay exploited this lower quality plant and cheaply mass produced the beverage that everybody wanted.

But what do you do to low quality, bitter tea?

“Milk and Sugar.” Milk was readily available, but sugar was a luxury. Refined sugar, mostly coming from cane, was imported from the Caribbean, giving birth to the slave trade. European merchants would travel to Africa, stock up on slaves, travel to the Caribbean, trade the slaves for sugar, and then come back to pour these refined crystals into their tea. Also marking the beginning of “Fair Trade” certifications. In Britain, some sugar imported from the Pacific Rim was marketed as Slave Free!

As New England grew, the habits they brought back form their ancestors grew with them. Tea drinking was still a habit of colonizing immigrants. Being the corporation they were, the East India Company would sell tea to the New World with an added tax of almost half the price of the tea. Not having it, American bandits would smuggle tea from England to New England avoiding the tax. As the East India Company’s sales plummeted, the British government allowed them to sell their surplus of tea tax free, at a lower price than even the smugglers were offering. This didn’t go well, prompting Bostonians like Hancock to organize a massive dumping. As the surplus made its way into the Boston Harbor…well you know the story. And here births American Independence.

So much for Lipton.


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