How Tea Captured the World

Feb 16, 2021

How did tea become so popular around the world? From its beginnings in China over 2000 years ago, tea eventually spread to nearby Japan. Tea was first brought to Japan in the 12th century by the Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai, who brought tea seeds back to Japan with him after a trip to China. He began cultivating the tea plant at home, and later wrote a book called Drinking Tea for Health. The Japanese eventually developed their own tea ceremony, which is known as chanoyu or the “Japanese Way of Tea”.

Tea began to travel further when Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat, brought tea on his visits to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Africa.

Portugal was the first European country to encounter tea when they began trading with China during the 16th century. The first shipment of tea arrived in Europe in 1606. It landed in Lisbon, Portugal, and from there, Dutch ships carried it to France, the Netherlands, and beyond.

Tea gradually became popular with both the Dutch and the French, and was later embraced by the Germans, Scandinavians, and Spanish. Russia was introduced to tea in approximately 1618, when they established their first trade route to China.

By 1652, tea had made its way to England. The tradition of tea drinking in England was popularized by King Charles II and his wife, Catherine de Braganza of Portugal. Since the Portuguese had been importing tea since the early 1600s, Catherine had grown up drinking tea. She brought a supply of tea with her when she travelled to England to marry Charles II in 1662. Her fondness for drinking tea made it a very fashionable beverage among the ladies of the English court. By the 18th century, tea had gained popularity across Europe. Tea was very expensive at this time, so it was mainly enjoyed by royal families and members of the upper class.

The first tea shipment to arrive in Canada was imported by the Hudson Bay Company in 1716, after spending more than a year in transport!

Since tea was very expensive to import from China, the British and Dutch sought a new source of tea outside of China. This project was spearheaded by the British East India Company, also known as the East India Trading Company. They began growing their own tea in India, where there were suitable growing conditions for the plant.

Two famous black teas, Assam (1835) and Darjeeling (1841) are from the state of Assam and the region of Darjeeling in India. Since then, the British have developed more varieties of black tea, such as Earl Grey**. This tea is a blend of black tea leaves and oil of bergamot, and was named after Charles Grey, the second Earl of Grey, who served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

So many blends are available today for us to enjoy, and thankfully tea is now available to everyone, not just the royals! Tea is something we often think so little about, yet it has such a rich history. Next time you brew a pot of tea, maybe you’ll think of Charles, the Earl of Grey. Or perhaps you’ll think of the first tea shipment to Canada in 1716, and the settlers who waited more than a year for a good cup of tea!

**Fun fact: Earl Grey tea was named after Charles Grey, the second Earl of Grey, who also served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. He was a tea enthusiast, and while serving as Prime Minister, he was presented with a special tea blend by a Mandarin envoy from China. It is reported that he loved the tea so much, he commissioned the major tea companies of Britain to recreate its flavour. Twinings was the first brand to create a blend to the Earl’s liking. Their tea was a black tea blend with bergamot oil. Since then, it has been known as “Earl Grey tea”!