From Buddhist monks using it in their religious ceremonies to American revolutionaries tossing it in to Boston Harbor, tea has become more than a beverage; it has become an event. For nearly 5,000 years this drink has been a source of medicine, meditation, piracy, political upheaval, social order, congregation, and superstition. While the roles tea has played in Eastern and Western civilization are abundant, it is derived from a plant native to Central and Eastern Asia.
Botanically, the tea we drink is of the genus camellia and the species sinensis . This temperamental plant, which is greatly affected by variations of soil, elevation, and climate, originated in Central Asia and can be separated into three basic types: black, green, and oolong. The process used to prepare the leaves establishes the tea’s classification, while oxidation determines its color, body, and flavor. With black teas, the leaves are withered, rolled, sifted, and fermented, delivering a hearty flavor and rich amber color. Black teas, which account for approximately ninety percent of U.S. tea consumption, include such favorites as Orange Pekoe, English Breakfast, and Darjeeling. To produce green teas, the leaves are fired shortly after harvesting to prevent fermentation, yielding a greenish gold color and a delicate taste. Recent studies have shown that this tea can help reduce the risk of cancer. With oolong teas, the leaves are withered, rolled, twisted, and semi-fermented, producing a color and flavor that falls between that of black and green teas. Although herbal teas are designated as teas, they are not comprised of any tea leaves. Instead, these herbal teas contain peels, grasses, berries, leaves, flowers, and flavorings from a variety of plants.
As each variety of tea has evolved through centuries of refinement, the origin of the first tea is clouded by myth. The origin of tea dates back so far that it would have been forgotten long before the birth of Christ save Asian oral tradition. Accordingly, the event, which led to the discovery of tea, has transcended the historical and entered the realm of folklore. Thus, the particulars of the account are varied and debated. Considering tea is indigenous to both India and China, each culture originally staked claim to inventing this invigorating beverage.
According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Nong, revered for his knowledge of agriculture and medicine, mandated, presumably for health reasons, that his subjects boil water before drinking it. While preparing his water one day, a light wind deposited several tea leaves into his boiling pot. The aroma enticed Shen Nong to sample the pot’s contents. At once he found the flavor to his liking and his body rejuvenated. Other versions of the tale cite that the source of the tea leaves was not from a tree above the pot, but rather from a camellia branch which was fueling the flames below it. Still others attempt to validate the authenticity of the event by affixing a date to Shen Nong’s experience, asserting that it occurred in either 2737 BC or 2690 BC.
The Buddhist chronicle of the genesis of tea follows the mythical religious pilgrimage of Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese prince and historic founder of Buddhism. Siddhartha eager to prove his faith journeyed to China, pledging to forego sleep during his trip. Wearisome after days of travel, Siddhartha breached his vow and slept. Upon waking, he cursed his eyelids and promptly removed them, throwing them to the ground. To his dismay, the eyelids quickly buried into the soil and within moments sprouted a tea bush. Siddhartha partook in the leaves of the bush, and immediately his tired body was replete with energy.
While it is most likely that neither tale actually occurred, it is notable that tea was held in such high regard that a tea creation story was formulated and preserved by both the Chinese and Buddhists respectively (Bigelow Tea, 2014).