While Chinese lore maintains that tea was first discovered by the ancient Chinese emperor Shennong in 2747 BC (when a tea leaf fell from an overhanging tree into his bowl of hot water), anthropologists believe that it actually made its way into the diet of ancient Chinese tribes first. Their argument points to the discovery of the tea leaf as a product of trial and error, rooted in the evolutionary belief that humans foraged for healthy, digestible plants. Despite differing origin stories, both sides agree that tea began its relationship with humans thousands of years ago somewhere in the jungle forests of Yunnan, China.
In the Shang (1766-1050 BC) and Zhou Dynasties (1122-256 BC), tea was no more than dried leaves in boiled water, often accompanied by other forest plants, seeds, barks, and leaves. While it was initially consumed as a medical tonic and believed by its Daoist proponents to be an elixir of life, as its cultivation, processing and brewing techniques evolved, tea became a popular beverage also consumed for its pleasant taste and stimulating effects. It would eventually become one of the 7 Chinese necessities along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, and vinegar.
The Han dynasty (221–206 BC) witnessed the first signs of modern tea processing, as producers began steaming the leaves and pressing them into bricks. This new form of processing and storage would prove instrumental in the expansion of tea as a traded commodity. With new technology, tea merchants began trading tea with civilizations in Bengal, Tibet, Mongolia and central China. The Tibetans and Mongolians developed a taste and need for Chinese tea as it quickly became a staple in their diet, providing the much-needed nutrients that they lacked from their predominantly carnivorous diets. The Chinese also found these trades hugely valuable, particularly their newfound access to horses. At the time, horses were imperative to building and maintaining an empire, and the Tibetans and Mongolians had horses in spades. Equipped with horses, the Chinese were able to transport up to 600lbs of tea per person, on horseback. These trade expeditions led to the development of what would become one of the largest and longest recorded trade routes in world history – The Ancient Tea Horse Road.
As tea began its foray into international commerce, it also began to root itself in the domestic culture of China. It was early in the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D) – a dynasty general considered to be a high point in Chinese civilization – that tea permeated the fabric of Chinese culture. Daoist and Buddhist monks used the drink as a meditation aid, approaching it with spiritual reverence. Emperors were donated “tribute teas”, which were held in high regard and only consumed by the ruling class. Common folk drank tea at social gatherings, business meetings and at home with their families. Beyond consumption, the beverage also influenced the artistic community profoundly. Potters made clay and porcelain teaware - establishing a craft we still see and admire today - while famous poets wrote some of the most historically prominent poetry in the country’s history.
As tea became a daily pastime in China, the need for improved processing and brewing techniques followed suit. Brick tea had served them well for many centuries and was a vast improvement from previous methods, but the brew was still quite bitter and often required the accompaniment of other flavors. It was some time after Lu Yu released the famous “ Cha Qing “ or the “ Classic of Tea “ (762 A.D), that tea began to be consumed as a standalone beverage. Lu Yu was a true tea purist and in his book, he outlined all of the knowledge and tools necessary for any tea drinker. He stressed the importance of themes such as good water, proper tea instruments, and drinking tea without any additional substances.
It’s important to note that until this point, tea was almost exclusively green tea, along with some white tea. Fast-forward a millennium - somewhere between the late Ming (1368-1644) to early Qing dynasty (1644-1912) - oolong and “red tea” (black tea) was born. These teas are believed to have been born out of “Beiyuan Tea” - a brick tea traditionally produced as a tribute tea for the emperor. Brick (or wax tea, as it was sometimes called) was outlawed by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who claimed the processing technique was a “burden on the people’s strength” and that all tea should be produced as loose leaf. This shake-up in production would eventually lead to the development of new categories of tea. Tea makers learned that if they held off from firing the leaves immediately after drying, the tea would change, creating a darker, more fragrant varietal. This tea is now known as oolong. Further experimentation and categorization would lead to the development of modern black tea.