Tea through the Ages

Camellia sinensis, or the common tea plant, was initially cultivated around 400 CE, after wild varieties made their way from India to China. A tea plant is actually an evergreen tree capable of growing to a height of 50 feet. However, the domesticated plant is pruned to bush size and maintained at a height of five feet. After growing from three to five feet, the leaves are ready to be harvested to make tea.

Teapots were not immediately used after the introduction of tea leaves. Beginning around 800 CE, tea leaves were hand-rolled, dehydrated, and then ground into a powder. Initially, this powder was mixed with salt and shaped into cakes which would be dropped into bowls of hot water to create a thick mixture. In the course of time, the powder was left in its loose form, to be combined in a bowl with boiling water and whisked into a froth.

The early days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China brought popularity to the leaf infusion as we now know it. The earliest prototypes of teapots from this period, created from zisha or “purple” clay were from China’s YiXing region. YiXing teapots, up through modern times, were used to brew tea as well as being a drinking vessel — the tea was sipped directly from the spout of a single-serving pot. These teapots eventually season, the unglazed clay absorbing the flavor of the brewed tea, making them ideal for a specific taste of tea.

During the next several hundred years, interest in tea shifted to England, becoming a way of life there. Consumption of the drink increased dramatically. By 1650, Peter Stuyvesant had brought the first tea to America to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later to be renamed New York by the English). The settlers in New York were such dedicated tea drinkers, the small colony partook of more tea at that time than all of England.

Teapots were dispatched to Europe with shipments of tea. The costly tea itself was considered so precious to the economy and worth a king’s ransom to tea drinkers that the ships docking at English ports carried teapots stored underneath the massive crates of tea, serving as a barrier against the elements and spoilage.

Tea was the major beverage being served in English coffee houses, which were so named because coffee was introduced in England before tea. Admittance strictly reserved for men only, they were called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, any man was entitled to purchase a pot of tea, a copy of the newspaper, and to engage in conversation with the most discerning minds of the day.

The English went on to develop the concept of the tea garden. Both ladies and gentlemen took their tea outside to enjoy such entertainments as orchestras, hidden arbors, flowered walks, bowling greens, concerts, gambling, or fireworks. Women enjoyed a new-found liberty, being permitted to enter a mixed, public gathering for the first time without social criticism. Because the gardens were open to the public, British society mixed here freely for the first time, erasing the boundaries of class and birth.

Tipping as a reward for proper service began in the tea gardens of England. The tables throughout the garden each held a small, locked wooden box. Inscribed on each box were the letters “T.I.P.S.” which stood for the words “To Insure Prompt Service.” If the patron wished the waiter to hurry (and so to insure the tea arrived hot from the kitchen) he deposited a coin into the box upon being seated “to insure prompt service.” Thereupon the custom of tipping services was created.

The cost of tea was reflected in the cost of the teapots, and eventually, whole tea services were essential to properly serve the delicacy tea had become, including tray, spoons, creamers, sugar bowls, and storage canisters. A parade of different styles presented themselves: classic Brown Betty teapots (retain heat well); Japanese Tetsubin teapots with enameled interior (retain heat well); silver teapots (durable, retain heat well); and clear glass teapots. Clear glass teapots are a wonderful way to experience the “agony of the leaves”, the term given for the manner in which the tea leaves unfurl and brew in hot water. Give yourself a visual treat and buy this clear glass pot!

Now in the 21st century, tea is second only to water in terms of worldwide popularity as a drink. An unbelievable 50 billion cups are served each year.