Tea History, a potted history of the leaf
The Chinese have been drinking tea for a long time. Legend tells us that tea the drink, was discovered accidentally around 2700 BC by the mythical Emperor known as the Divine Cultivator, Shen Nong. Tea has been cultivated in China for at least eighteen hundred years.
Tea drinking began in Japan during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–807).
In the early days of importation, tea in Europe was a luxury, sold largely on the basis of its supposed medicinal properties. The rich had it, everyone else wanted it, and within a century, they got it.
The British tea trade was lucrative enough to inadvertently spur the development of shipping technology: the clipper ship that arrived early in a British port with a fresh, and dry cargo, had a market advantage over its slower, leakier rivals.
Originally, green tea was imported to Europe, but it was easy to adulterate with cheaper, look-alike plants. The market eventually switched to black tea.
Americans were keen tea drinkers early on but the events leading up to and including the Boston Tea Party in 1773 changed all that. Today they remain staunch coffee drinkers.
The Opium Wars grew out of the British public's love affair with tea. British coffers were draining away to China to pay for imported tea leaf, but the British had nothing compelling to offer to the Chinese in return. The Brits, wanting to even up the trade imbalance, sold the Chinese opium from British India. With some two million people addicted to "foreign mud", Chinese outrage resulted in attempts to restrict the import of opium, and the Opium Wars resulted.
The China tea trade reached its zenith in 1886. The Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, combined with a general decline in Ching Dynasty fortunes, resulted in a drastic decline of exports. By the 1940s India and Japan were the leading tea merchants to the world.