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The Rise of Tea In Britain

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink, and we have been drinking it for over 350 years, but the history of tea goes much further back.

Anji Bai Cha

There are many legends about the discovery of tea, but none have any really solid foundation in historical fact - what is without question is that tea originated in China. One legend refers to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, in 2737 BC, who was sitting under a tree, while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.

Originally, coffee drinking was much more popular in Britain. The real turning point in the history of tea, was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza. She was a Portuguese princess and already a serious tea lover, so chests of tea accompanied her to England as part of her wedding dowry. She soon popularised the custom of taking tea at court. Its popularity then extended beyond court, however this fashionable beverage remained limited to the wealthy classes as it was so expensive.

At this time, the East India Company had a monopoly on all trade from the East and would import tea from China in huge, tall ships called Tea Clippers which would race to return to England as fast as possible to secure the best price. After a time, the English started looking for ways to break the Chinese hold on the tea supply. They started to grow tea in India and the resulting Assam tea proved even more popular with the British palate, as it was far stronger than any of the Chinese teas.

By 1886 fewer than 50% of tea purchases were of China tea, and this was the year in which Whittard of Chelsea was founded. By 1901, fuelled by cheaper imports from India and Sri Lanka, another British colony, consumption of tea had rocketed to over 6lbs per head. Tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life – a drink enjoyed by all and considered so important that during the First World War, the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage continued to be available at an affordable price.

Today tea is imported from China, India and Africa and black tea blends remain the most popular, with some 165 millions cups of tea being consumed each day in Britain.

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