It’s commonly accepted that the first cup of tea was a result of an unexpected circumstance which occurred to the Chinese emperor Shen Nong in 2737 B.C. This royal leader let his interest in herbalism rule his curiosity, and he allowed the dried leaves from a camellia bush to steep in water that was being heated for him to drink.
The leaves caught an errant gust of wind, landing by accident in his water.
But why would the emperor be drinking boiling water? Shen Nong was also a revered scholar who believed – and therefore decreed – that water should be boiled before drinking for the sake of good health. When those blowing camellia leaves took to the air and came into contact with his hot water, they released a pleasing scent. The emperor was compelled to investigate further.
He took a sip, and what Shen Nong tasted created history.
The emperor, however, did not live to see his accidental brew become China’s most favored and popular daily drink. We have to fast forward to about 300 A.D. for that – and this is mostly because the lapse in time saw the development of the growing methods and technology needed to produce tea in quantity.
By 900 A.D., tea drinking – and more importantly, tea growing – lept from China to its neighbors, most notably Japan, where the act of drinking a cup of tea was raised from enjoying a simple refreshment to the level of an artistic ceremony requiring years of study to master.
Tea came to Europe in the 1600s and found its biggest fan in England. Records show that tea was first introduced to British royalty in 1669. Alas, England’s upper crust was the only imbiber because one pound of this expensive elixir sold for the equivalent of nine months of a commoner’s wages.
Entrepreneurial British importers began bringing tea from China, and soon not only was everyone throughout England and its colonies able to afford and drink it, but tea became the top trade item between the two countries. (Tea played a key role in some of those colonies deciding they’d rather seek a route of independence – although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that a Chinese emperor’s discovery four and a half centuries earlier was responsible for the formation of the United States of America.)
Tea’s Second Great Lucky Accident
For most of its history, tea was sold loose and in metal containers. The majority of tea drinkers agree that the leaves should be steeped in hot water for only a specific time, and then either discarded or set aside for use again. So, up until nearly a century ago, tea drinkers would add the loose leaves to perforated metal infusers that could be dunked in a pot or cup with an attached chain.
In 1908, a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan was looking for ways to distribute samples of his product to the city’s restaurants. Metal tins, he knew would be too expensive – so he decided instead to distribute his samples in small silk bags.
Imagine his surprise when he saw that those restaurant owners weren’t opening the silk bags and putting the tea into metal infusers...but brewing the tea right in the silk bag instead.
Over time, Sullivan switched from silk to gauze, and in the 1920s what we now call “tea bags” began to be mass produced from paper.
There you have it: two happy accidents in history, both conspiring to bring us tea – the most popular beverage on the planet.