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The Origins of Tea | Haydn West

Those of you who visit the Tea House or see us at various Food & Drink Events will have met Haydn who is now a permanent member of our team at Comins Tea.  Haydn came to the Tea House in the first few weeks after opening & started working on Saturdays soon after.  It would be fair to say that tea has captured Haydn in the same way it has Michelle & I & since [very successfully] finishing school Haydn has decided to come and work and travel with us as we grow our tea business over the next few years.    We are delighted to have him alongside us - as well as being increasingly knowledgable about tea Haydn is a very talented photographer.  He will accompany Michelle to China in March/April taking his camera with him so we look forward to seeing and sharing the results.  In the meantime Haydn is also planning to start a regular tea blog and will contribute to ours.  With an interest in the origins of tea and early tea culture we are delighted to post this blog on our page.  Definitely some food for thought here - enjoy the read! ___________________________________________________________________________________

The Origins of Tea | A Blog By Haydn West 

Britain consumes around 165 million cups of tea everyday. We are one of the largest consumers of the drink in the entire world, and it has therefore become part of our society’s daily routine, something without which we have difficulty functioning. But where did it all begin? For how long has this craze been a part of British culture? In this blog I am going to explain how it all started.

China 2737 BC

Shen Nong was a famous Chinese Herbalist. He cared a great deal about his health and would always have his servants boil his water before consuming the drink, in order to get the liquor as clean and healthy as possible. According to Chinese legend, in 2737 BC, Shen Nong [pictured below] was travelling and whilst resting leaves from a wild Tea bush fell into his cup of hot water. The drink began to turn dark brown, and the Chinese Emperor found the resulting drink to be refreshing and enjoyable. He believed that this would be a healthy way of drinking and it was here that the practice of infusing leaves from wild tea bushes was born, and it went on to be used until around 618 AD. Until this date the leaves were unprocessed and some found the flavour of the infusion bitter and sharp. Herbalists and tea workers went on to experiment with different processing methods, trying to bring out different flavours from the tea plant.  


After a great deal of experimentation infusing leaves straight from the bush gave way to a new process and by the 9th century freshly picked tea leaves were steamed and then compressed into flat cakes. The cakes were then baked, and held together by pieces of string they were kept there until dry. To infuse the tea, workers would then break pieces of the cake off and boil it. This new process again gave off a strong, bitter flavour, but with more process added to the leaves the flavour was more roasted, with strong earthy tones coming through as well. These cakes went on to become quite valuable. China traded their blocks of tea to nearby countries for other goods, using them as a type of currency.

tea bricks


[Men, human porters, laden with "brick tea" in a 1908 photo by Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson : source Wikipedia]

At this time, China was the only country known to be producing tea. As they were trading the beverage to other countries, word of this popular drink got out and in the late Eighth century Buddhist Monk, Dengyo Daishi carried seeds back to his native Japan after studying in China. He planted the seeds in the garden of a monastery and when the Japanese emperor tasted the tea from these plants he asked for plantations to be established around Kyoto. Five estates were created initially and in the early stages of production Japanese producers decided to move away from the conventional method of baking tea.

After picking the fresh leaves, workers would finely grind the leaf into a powder, and by then adding hot water they would whisk the powder creating a smooth but thick foam on the top of the infusion. The flavour was grassy, slightly bitter and vegetal. It contrasted well with traditional Chinese method of drinking strong teas with dark and roasted flavours. This Japanese process of infusing tea went on to become the centrepiece of their tea ceremony, which is still enjoyed today.  Whisking tea was the sole way of enjoying tea in Japan, until 1300 AD when the process gave way to infusing dry, processed loose leaves in hot water. Experimentation finally reached a pinnacle point in the development of tea. Workers felt they had reached a conclusive way of enjoying the tea leaf in the best possible way.

Europe - 17th Century 

At this time, European countries didn’t drink much tea; this was simply because they weren’t able to access it. It wasn’t until 1557 when the Portuguese reached China by sea that a trading base between the two nations for the transportation of tea was initially discussed. By 1610 they had established a trading base and along with the Dutch, tea was imported into Europe. A huge boost in Europe’s ability to gain access to tea was the introduction of the East India trading company set up by Queen Elizabeth in 1600. Through the Dutch East India Company Europe was able to trade with both China and Japan. In 1611 the Dutch started trading with Japan, and continued this until 1633 when the Japanese sealed off their boarders to the rest of the world, ruling out all trade worldwide.

DATE 04_03_2003 PRODUCER Electronic Imaging Officer Andrew Holt CAPTUER DEVICE Creo (Scitex) Exersmart Supreme Scanner CAPTURE SOFTWARE DETAILS Software: oXYgen v1.2.1 Scanner Setup: MODE: B&W TYPE: TRANS MEDIA: NEG DPI: 400 END POINTS: Custom GRADATION: Custom COLOUR TABLES: NA SHARPNESS: No_Sharp_STD ICC PROFILE input: NA output: NA Device Link: BW_Default CHANGE HISTORY Images were adjusted in PHOTOSHOP V 7 image editting software. COPYRIGHT © NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON RESOLUTION JPEG: 1280 X 1024 pixels at 72 dpi THN: 180 X 180 pixels at 72 dpi COMPRESSION JPEG Quality:10 SOURCE Black and White Negative COLOUR MODE GREYSCALE 8 BITS/CHANNEL  COLOUR MANAGEMENT SYSTEM: POWERMAC G4 DUAL PROCESSOR                22 INCH LACIE COLOUR CALIBRATED MONITOR                ICC ADOBE GAMMA PROFILE IS: Grey Gamma 1.8


During this early trade period, Britain wasn’t too interested in tea. They struggled to gain a trading base with China and the East India Company didn’t import tea into England until 1669 with a secure trading base not gained until 1672. Over the next 20 years London received a number of Chinese teas. The amount was small meaning the price was extraordinary. However, demand for the drink grew, and in 1703 75,000 pounds of Singlo Green tea and 20,000 pounds of Bohea black from the Fujian Province were imported, along with many more single estate teas. The import of tea to Britain kept getting larger: between 1789 and 1793 the value of tea imported into Britain by the East India company alone was nearly £12,000,000. It was from here on that tea became more accessible. The drink was popular, particularly amongst the English monarchy. King George encouraged the sale of tea, and merchants began specialising in the product, meaning it was easier for the British public to get hold of. With such a high demand the drink became quite famous all over the country, but interestingly English men and women didn’t know much about the beverage, and with demand increasing everyday it became more difficult for the British government to pay for. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that Britain and Europe were able to access and understand tea more easily.

In 1843 Robert Fortune, a Scottish Botanist, travelled to China hoping to learn more about tea and how it was produced. He was there for three years, disguising himself as a Chinese merchant. This was extremely dangerous; if his true identity was discovered he would almost certainly have been killed.  

RobertFortuneOn his travels Fortune visited areas of China that weren’t previously explored by western culture. He spent a great deal of time in the Fujian Province, one of the most important regions for tea in the world. Here some of the oldest and most famous teas are still being produced today. From his journeys Fortune brought back knowledge of the tea world that we previously didn’t have. His became quite famous, resulting in him travelling to China four more times before passing away in 1880. It was Fortune’s brave missions that led to our understanding of tea. The knowledge he brought back helped the European culture to understand the beverage that had become so popular.  

But were his so called ‘brave’ missions seen as heroic or an act of thievery? At the time when Fortune embarked on his mission tea producers in China were worried about the secrets of their globally popular beverage falling into the wrong hands. The governing body put in strict regulations on how countries could purchase it. They asked to be paid only in solid silver, which for the British was a struggle, forcing them to buy it from other western countries. Struggling to pay for such a large amount, Britain began to look into other ways of producing tea. They started by looking to grow tea in their Indian colonies. This didn't prove to be very successful, due to the lack of Chinese wisdom being provided on how to produce good tea. It wasn’t until Fortune stole plants and seeds from China and carried around 20,000 into Darjeeling, Northern India that India started to produce exceptional tea. The huge exportation from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) meant they were supplying more tea to Europe and America then China had been previously. They went on to become the main supplier for tea in the West.

Therefore it was Fortunes theft that eventually provided Europe with easy access to tea. Certainly, his mission was brave, and yes, it did help Western culture to understand tea better, but should he be classed as a thief or a hero? I suppose it ultimately depends on what part of the world you are from. Fortune loved nature, we know this from his profession and obsession with the subject. It seems to me that he didn’t steal out of spite, he stole to help the world understand something incredible so for me, there is no definitive answer on the subject. I personally believe that without his mission we, the British, wouldn’t drink as much tea as we do today. His mission allowed individuals to know what they were drinking and resulted in Britain becoming one of the largest tea drinking nations in the world.   As we travel and meet those who work in the tea industry it is clear that this topic still divides opinion and certainly leads to some interesting debate....keeping the history and origins of tea very much alive. _______________________________________________________________________________


  • Jane Pettigrew, 2013. A Social History of Tea - Expanded Edition. 2nd Expanded Edition. Benjamin Press.
  • teanamu . 2011. Robert Fortune: thief or hero?. [ONLINE] Available at:
  • Kevin Gascoyne, 2013. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Second Edition Edition. Firefly Books.

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