TEA IN THE WEST
Portuguese priests and merchants landed in Macao, China in the late 16th century and were the first westerners to learn about the beloved oriental beverage. But it was not until the Dutch and British traders began to import tea that it caught on in Europe and Britain. While Green Tea was initially the choice import, the discovery of Wuyi, or “Beiyuan”, tea gained favour. The darker and stronger liquor was more suitable to the British palate, and by the mid 18th century, tea made up 10% of all British imports. In no time, it had won the hearts of the British, and become England’s official drink.
In Britain, tea was initially reserved for the social elite, but as its presence increased, so did consumption among all social classes. Quickly, a cultural and commercial explosion occurred, but this exotic new pastime was becoming a drag on bullion reserves and was creating a growing trade deficit with China. In an attempt to reduce this deficit, British merchants – most notably the British East India company - began pushing Indian-grown opium on its Chinese trading partners. These questionable tactics were met with resistance when the Chinese emperor at the time ordered 1200 tons of British opium to be dumped into the sea, citing that the drug was ruining his empire. For this, the British waged what is known as “the First Opium War” (1839-1842 ) on the Chinese, defeating them in a clear-cut victory. This led to The Treaty of Nanking, which secured British trading rights with a number of major coastal trade hubs and ownership of the island of Hong Kong.
Despite the win, England realized the fragility of their trading relationship with China and ventured to grow their own tea in their neighboring colony - India. Access to inland China where the tea was grown was nearly impossible, so the Brits sent a Scottish horticulturist, Robert Fortune, disguised as a Chinese official into the inner tea regions of China to steal plants and learn how to grow, pick and process the esteemed plant. He was successful in his mission and brought back plants and knowledge that would eventually lead to the development and success of India’s massive tea industry. This tea plantation system was founded on slave labor and was eventually introduced throughout the British empire, most notably in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and Kenya. To this day, tea from these 3 countries produce the vast majority of commodity-grade tea bags consumed around the world.
Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, preceded only by water. This comes as a shock to most, but especially to people in North America, who are so accustomed to hearing about society’s addiction to coffee. The reason coffee plays a bigger role in North American conversation actually stems from a monumental American event in 1773: The Boston Tea Party. Facing a new tax on tea imports by the British, a group of angry demonstrators dumped an entire boatload of British imported tea into the Boston Harbor. This famous act of rebellion led to the American Revolution, and would later make tea drinking “unpatriotic” in America. To this day, the Brits have remained tea drinkers and Americans and Canadians are hooked on coffee – but things are changing. Today, thanks in part to an increasingly globalized and culturally integrated world, the old tea traditions of Asia seem to be resurfacing in the Western world. While coffee and tea bags made from the plantation teas of Colonial Britain dominated our cups for a time, a surging demand for higher quality loose-leaf teas has inspired tea merchants (like us) to supply it. Tea is an incredible beverage with a truly rich history – influencing all aspects of society, ranging from war and imperialism to art and ecology. Tea has withstood the test of time and evolved alongside humans and nature. For this, we not only love tea, but respect it. We truly believe that knowing and understanding it improves the taste of each brew, and so we continue to immerse ourselves in this wonderful world of tea, one cup at time.