Tea Time: The History of Tea


Jill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz

With a huge array of beverages available on the market today, it might come as a surprise to learn that common black tea is the most popular beverage in the world. In this 3-part series on tea that I first published in Llewellyn’s 2015 Herbal Almanac, I delve into the tantalizing world of tea.

The History of Tea

Although no one knows precisely when tea was first used as a pleasant beverage, there can be no doubt that the leaves of the common tea plant (Camellia sinensis) were first used for medicinal purposes. Even today, tea is favored for its ability to reduce inflammation, nausea and pain and to stimulate blood flow and increase energy while still having a calming and soothing effect on the body.

Researchers have confirmed green tea’s ability to help reduce the incidence of diabetes, stroke and certain types of cancer. The first humans to gather and use the leaves of the tea plant were no strangers to the use of wild plants as medicine. When they happened upon Camellia sinenses, they quickly realized that a decoction of the leaves was not only safe and healthful, but that it tasted good, too.

Tea was first introduced to Europe by Dutch traders who imported leaves from China in 1606. Almost 60 years later, tea was brought to Britain by the Portuguese wife of King Charles II. Being rare and unusual at the time, tea was tentatively embraced by members of the British aristocracy but it wasn’t until the 1800’s, when the East India Company was given exclusive rights to import Indian tea to the British Isles that drinking tea became much more popular.

For the British elite, Low Tea was a formal social event that often took place in a comfortable parlor where fine, delicate sweets and tea were served on low tables. As tea became more affordable and popular among the working class, they renamed their tea time, Afternoon Tea.

As with any trend, tea time took on many roles and names. Cream Tea consisted of scones with jam or clotted cream. Light Tea included finger sandwiches and delicate sweets. Full Tea was more of a meal than a snack and included heartier fare such as quiches, tarts and meat pies. If a special occasion arose, Full Tea would fill all of the above roles, with the addition of refreshing cider drinks, light wine or champagne.

The ever evolving nature of tea time eventually led to High Tea, a moniker that referred to the time of day. This particular tea was the equivalent of dinner and common fare included meat pies, potato cakes and filling casseroles with a few sweets on the side.

As the British Empire colonized far flung parts of the world, the custom of taking tea followed. In America, where early British customs pervaded the common culture, tea would become an important symbol of American Independence. The rebellious and independent attitude of the inhabitants of the New World pervaded and changed many of the customs associated with the British.

What once was Afternoon Tea became the classic American Coffee Break, while High Tea morphed into Sunday Brunch.  As for Meat Tea, it came to be better known by the Western working class as Supper or Dinner.  But despite the name changes and their earlier associations with British colonization, tea as a refreshing drink has never lost its appeal in the West.

In the next installment of Tea Time, we’ll learn more about the interesting types of tea that are enjoyed by different cultures around the world!

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8 responses to “Tea Time: The History of Tea

  1. Loved this history. As usual……from someone who knows. Thank you, JIll.

  2. Tea is great Jill, a great medicine, so is your story, fascinating. I enjoy reading, thanks for sharing.

  3. Love this! Tea has been an important part of our lives. We had a Tea Room here in Acton,Maine several years ago. It was one of the best things we ever did.

    • Thank you, Mari! There has been a resurgence in tea houses over the last few years. How lucky to have one in your community.

      • I meant that we owned the Tea Room “Garden Gate Luncheon and Tea Room”. We closed as my husband had cancer and I had to have both knees replaced. If we were in better shape we would open it again. We still hear from our awesome customers and we have been closed since 2008. Good luck with your articles.

      • Oh, I’m so sorry to hear you had to close it down. I’m sure the community really misses the wonderful venue. Blessings to you both!

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