What is it about tea that makes it such a beloved beverage? The Brits famously drink tea at every opportunity, but other countries like China, India, Japan, and Morocco are all famous for their social and ritual tea traditions. Tea has also become very popular as a health supplement, with herbal and medicinal teas being sold to alleviate pain and aid with everything from weight gain to chronic sleeplessness.
In popular culture, too, tea has taken on many meanings: Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise famously enjoyed a cup of tea on the bridge, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would never take anything but a tisane (herbal tea), and the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has popularized the term ‘Spill the Tea’, used to refer to the contestants gossiping about one another. So how, exactly, has this leaf-based beverage become such a staple of our culture worldwide? Here are some of the more interesting facts about your favorite cuppa.
Tea and Trade
Though tea today is most frequently associated with the United Kingdom, it is originally a Chinese tradition. All tea comes from the Camellia sinesis plant, which is native to Southeast China. It is no surprise that the earliest evidence of tea comes from the 2nd century BC during the Han Dynasty; by the time the British Navy began exploring under Elizabeth I, Chinese tea drinking rituals were already well established.
The East India Trading Company came into existence primarily to ship Chinese tea leaves, along with sugars to sweeten them when brewed, from the East to the West. The company, which was hugely responsible for the expansion of global trade routes around the world, is still in existence today as a purveyor of fine teas and foods.
Adaptations of Tea
As tea was moved around the world, it changed to suit the cultures it met. In Morocco, for example, tea is at the center of the most important tradition of hospitality to this day: Atay Naa Naa, where traditional Chinese tea is sweetened with sugar and flavored with fresh mint and served out by the head of the household as a sign of respect to guests.
In the southern United States, teatime was adapted for local climates. As refrigeration technology made it possible to keep food and drinks cold, tea began to be served over ice as a refreshing antidote to the sweltering hot weather. Iced tea is now extremely popular all over the world, and brands like B.W Cooper’s Iced Tea continue to make high-quality iced and sweet teas in the southern tradition.
As recently as the early 1980s, traditional tea was used in Taiwan to create bubble tea: a sweet, cold tea drink filled with tapioca pearls. This once cult beverage has become popular worldwide and comes in all sorts of crazy flavors and types. You can get cookie dough, fresh fruit, or even cheese foam on the top of your bubble tea!
Tea has changed the way the world connects and remains a staple beverage in many forms around the globe. Who knows what forms of tea will become popular next?