Ancient beverage steeped in history

No matter the colour, with sugar or without, tea has a legacy of exciting minds—and taste buds—around the world

Exotic “Three Flower Burst” flowering tea can be purchased at the Tea Store on Princess Street.
Exotic “Three Flower Burst” flowering tea can be purchased at the Tea Store on Princess Street.

Over 4,700 years ago, Chinese Emperor Shennong was traveling through the countryside. While stopping to rehydrate with a bowl of boiling water a gust of wind blew a few leaves from a nearby tree into his drink.

As the once clear liquid began to turn a murky brown, Emperor Sheenong bravely took a sip and found the concoction delightfully quenching and rejuvenating. And that’s the how humans first discovered tea—or so the story goes.

Emily Hill, an associate professor in the history department at Queen’s, debunked this quaint myth.

“I don’t believe in this fanciful tale, and I doubt many people do,” she told the Journal in an e-mail. “It’s entertaining though. Shennong is a mythical figure.” But Hill said there’s evidence that China is indeed the birthplace of tea.

“Traces of tea have been found in archeological excavations of Chinese Han dynasty sites. The Han period was from 206 BC to 220 AD.  I don’t know of any evidence of the earlier use of tea elsewhere in the world,” she said.

Hill said early Buddhist monks used tea to help them stay alert during their meditation—a practice that soon spread to other parts of Asia, includung Japan and Korea.

Over the course of many centuries, tea made its way to North America via European traders and smugglers around the late 17th century. It quickly grew in popularity, especially in the trading port towns along the eastern seaboard.

Famous for their love of a good “cuppa”, the British introduced the beverage to Canada when they began its colonization.

Early North American tea drinkers differed from their Asian counterparts in one main regard: in Asia, tea is traditionally served straight up, but European cultures served tea with milk, and generally sugar—a tradition that continues today.

“After drinking good black tea from China, I’ve been fond of it,” Hill said. “I now feel that black tea with milk, or even worse, with milk and sugar too, is a strange drink.” Tea has been a universally popular beverage for centuries, despite its propensity to stain teeth and cause frequent bathroom breaks. For many, tea brings back fond memories of calming visits with friends or perhaps first dates. Others are attracted to the rejuvenating and addictive caffeine content, as well as the joy the warmth of a steaming mug on a chilly fall day brings into our lives.

“There’s comfort in tea,” Stephanie Mechanic, ArtSci ’11, said when asked why she drinks tea. “Coffee’s on the go and is often associated with a quick fix. Tea is something that you indulge in, that you use to relax and de-stress. There’s a universal appeal to it.” Many of our associations with tea seem to come from the basic idea of comfort. Most tea drinkers have special stories or rituals associated with the practice.

Personally, I’ve drunk tea with many people over the course of my ongoing love affair with all things caffeinated: with my tea-crazed housemates, during study dates and with a wide variety of distantly related family members. But nothing quite compares to the cups I’ve savoured with the person who first brought tea into my world: my Earl Gray obsessed father.

Monday to Friday at 3:30 p.m. exactly, he appears from his office triumphantly to brew his “perfect pot,” always poured into a mug already containing the allotted measure of milk and wild meadow honey. To receive a cup from him, laden with love, affection, and perhaps a lecture on the fine art of tea brewing, is what I think about every time I make a cup on my own, especially now that we live thousands of miles apart.

But for all the comfort it brings, tea has a controversy-filled history. After the Opium wars, Britain forced China to trade tea for India-grown opium. Tea also became an important element of Britain’s global trade.

Perhaps the most famous being its role in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, in which American protestors threw crates of British tea into the Boston harbour in response to the brewing revolution.

Whether it’s the love of a family member, memories of tradition, or, like the mythical Emperor Shennong, a reminder of home during a long journey, tea inspires something in those that drink it. And, seasoned appropriately, it tastes good too.

Tea has come a long way since its early days of discovery. Originating in China, it traveled throughout Asia into Europe, and across the Atlantic Ocean to North America. There are hundreds of flavors, methods of brewing and cultural rituals involved in the quest for the perfect cup of tea, and in many countries it’s second only to water as the most popular beverage.

As Mechanic said, “It just makes you feel good.”

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