Where legend ends and fact begins is uncertain, but it is generally accepted that the discovery of tea occurred in ancient china. The Chinese say it was their Emperor Shen-Nung in 2737 B.C. who first tasted tea. The story goes that while he was boiling his drinking water a few leaves from a wild tea bush accidentally fell into the water. The Emperor liked the delicate flavor they imparted to the water and so the art of tea making was born. According to Eeh Ya, an ancient Chinese dictionary dating back to 350 B.C., tea was cultivated commercially by the first century A.D.
In 1600 the Dutch opened tea plantations in Java and imported tea to Europe. Legend has it that the first tea to reach England arrived with a British admiral who had captured a Dutch ship and discovered the tea in its galley.
When the East India Company began importing tea to England, the English were … coffee drinkers. However, tea conquered the coffee habit in a few short years. For the first hundred years, tea was a novel treat only for the very rich. It wasn’t until the close of the 17th century, when imports were up to 20,000 pounds a year, that enough tea was available for almost everyone to have a cup a day.
In the 18th century, tea became an institution, partly with a boost from Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. She started the custom of drinking tea instead of ale for breakfast. She is also credited with originating the use of a large silver teapot instead of the small Chinese ceramic ones.
When the English taste for tea outdid coffee and made a dent in the ale trade, Parliament levied tax on tea. Despite the expense, tea was something the British could no longer live without.
Now tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular drink, as well as the least expensive.