The History of Tea: Origins in China to Modern Day

By Bridget Reed
Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Wright, BSN, RN, PCCN, and Certified Master Herbalist

The History of Tea: Origins in China to Modern Day

January 13, 2024

Welcome to a warm cup of history — the story of tea. Tea has been a constant in our lives, from ancient rituals to modern-day comfort. It's fascinating how a simple leaf can tell us so much about our past and present. 

Let’s dive into tea culture, understand the nuances of tea consumption, and explore the rich history of tea production. Join us as we travel from the misty hills of ancient China to the tranquil tea gardens of Japan, sipping our way through centuries of tradition and transformation.

1. Ancient Beginnings in China

The story of tea begins in ancient China. It's said that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, a skilled herbalist, discovered tea around 2737 BC. While boiling water beneath a tree, a few tea leaves drifted into his pot, creating the first tea brew. 

This happy accident marked the dawn of the tea era:

  • Tang Dynasty's Tea Evolution: During the Tang Dynasty, tea culture truly blossomed. Lu Yu, the “Sage of Tea”, wrote the “Cha Jing”, a comprehensive tea cultivation and etiquette guide. This period saw the rise of tea from an herbal remedy to a cultural staple.
  • Buddhist Monks' Influence: Buddhist monks played an important role in spreading tea into Buddhism. They used it as a soothing agent during meditation, integrating it into spiritual practices.
  • The Birth of Tea Varieties: This era witnessed the development of different tea types, like green and black tea, derived from the tea plant Camellia sinensis.

2. Tea Spreads Across Asia

From China, the love for tea spread to neighboring regions, each adopting and adapting it into their own cultures:

  • Japan's Embrace of Tea: The introduction of tea seeds by Buddhist monks to Japan led to the development of the Japanese tea ceremony, a meditative practice symbolizing purity and harmony.
  • Tea's Role in Japanese Daily Life: Tea became more than a drink in Japan. It was a part of daily and religious life, offering a moment of calm.
  • Unique Tibetan Tea Practices: In Tibet, tea culture took a unique turn with the addition of local ingredients like butter and salt, showcasing the adaptability of tea.

3. Tea's Journey to the West

The journey of tea is not just an Eastern story. By the 17th century, it had found its way to Europe, reshaping social customs and trade routes:

  • The Dutch and Portuguese Introduction: European traders, particularly the Dutch and Portuguese, were instrumental in introducing tea to the West. They brought back this exotic beverage from their Eastern travels, sparking a new trend in Europe.
  • Tea in Britain: Tea's arrival in Britain, particularly following its promotion by Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, turned it into a national drink. The English developed their own tea traditions, like afternoon tea, making it a symbol of sophistication and leisure.
  • The East India Company: The British East India Company played a role in the tea trade, establishing tea plantations in India and Assam to meet the growing demand back home. The Indian integration into the global tea industry marked the beginning of tea's industrialization.

4. The American Tea Story

The tale of tea took a dramatic turn with its introduction to America. While initially following British tea traditions, America's relationship with tea would soon carve its own unique path in history:

  • The Boston Tea Party: The most famous event in American tea history, the Boston Tea Party of 1773, was a pivotal moment in the American Revolution. This act of defiance against the British tea tax forever changed American tea culture and political landscape.
  • A Shift in Preferences: Over time, America developed its own tea traditions that are distinct from its British roots. The 19th century gradually shifted from tea to coffee, particularly in coffee houses, reflecting the nation's evolving tastes and social habits.
  • Innovation of Iced Tea: America's contribution to tea culture includes the popularization of iced tea, a refreshing twist on the traditional hot brew. The warmer southern states typically embrace this type of tea.

5. Global Expansion in the 18th and 19th Centuries

As the 18th and 19th centuries rolled in, tea had firmly established itself as a global commodity, influencing cultures far and wide:

  • Russian Tea Traditions: Tea became a staple in Russia, with the samovar (a large tea urn) symbolizing hospitality and community. The Russian tea culture, with its strong, sweet tea often served with jam, reflected the nation's hearty approach to this ancient brew.
  • Tea's Reach into Africa: The tea trade also expanded into Africa, with countries like Kenya beginning to grow tea. This added to the diversity of flavors and styles available on the global market.
  • The Dutch Influence: The Dutch, who were among the first Europeans to engage in the tea trade, played a key role in spreading tea to the West, influencing tea culture in countries like Indonesia and Suriname.

What Are Some Modern Innovations in Tea Culture?

Tea culture continued to evolve in the modern era, embracing both innovation and tradition:

  • The Invention of Tea Bags: A significant 20th-century innovation was the invention of tea bags, which revolutionized tea consumption by offering convenience and accessibility. This invention made tea brewing simpler and quicker, fitting perfectly with the fast-paced modern lifestyle.
  • Diversification in Tea Culture: Today, tea culture is as diverse as ever. From traditional tea ceremonies that preserve ancient rituals to trendy tea cafes experimenting with new flavors and brewing techniques, tea continues to adapt and thrive in various forms.
  • Tea and Wellness: In contemporary times, the focus has shifted towards tea's role in health and wellness. Recognized for its soothing properties, tea is often recommended to support various aspects of health, including cognitive function and heart health, as well as supporting immune health.

As we have traced the journey of tea from its ancient origins to its modern-day incarnations, it's clear that tea is more than just a beverage. It's a symbol of cultural exchange and a testament to human ingenuity. This beloved beverage continues to offer comfort and a sense of connection across the globe.

How Can You Enhance Your Tea Experience?

After exploring tea's rich and varied history, it's time to bring that knowledge into your daily tea rituals. 

At Herbaly, we understand the importance of a great cup of tea, and we're here to share some tips on how to make the most of your tea-drinking experience:

  • Trying Different Varieties: Each type of tea has its unique character and benefits. From the robust black teas to the subtle green teas, there's a whole world of flavors to explore. And if you're looking for something refreshing, why not try an iced version? Our Wellness Iced Tea, for instance, combines the benefits of lightly caffeinated tea with eight natural ingredients.
  • Mastering the Brew: The perfect cup of tea is about getting the basics right — the water temperature, steeping time, and even the vessel can influence the taste. For example, green teas often require cooler water and a shorter steep time than black teas. 
  • Sweetening the Natural Way: If you like your tea sweet, consider natural sweeteners. They can enhance the tea's flavor without overwhelming it. Our Organic Stevia Leaf Sweetener is an excellent choice. It's a zero-calorie, non-glycemic sweetener that comes in a convenient dropper bottle, perfect for adding a touch of sweetness to your tea.
  • Food Pairings: Tea and food pairings can elevate the drink and the meal. For instance, a delicate green tea can perfectly complement seafood, while a hearty black tea might pair well with a decadent dessert. 

A Final Word

As we wrap up our journey through the history of tea, we're reminded of how this ancient beverage, once discovered in the serene landscapes of China, has become a popular drink that transcends borders and cultures. 

Drinking tea has evolved from a royal tradition in England to a daily ritual in Western households, symbolizing a connection to the past and embracing the present. Whether in the heart of London, the serene landscapes of India, or the comfort of your home, tea remains a testament to the enduring power of simple pleasures in our lives.

At Herbaly, we appreciate that every cup of tea is a blend of history and tradition, from the bustling streets of London to the tranquil tea gardens of India. Check out our product collection to get your hands on some of our delectable blends.


Shennong | Herbal Medicine, Agriculture & Divine Farmer | Britannica

Camellia sinensis (Assam Tea, Tea Camellia, Tea Plant, Tea Tree Camellia) | North Carolina 

Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox

Boston Tea Party - Definition, Dates & Facts | HISTORY

The Evolution of the Tea Ceremony | Japan Society

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