Tea's Steamy History

A Brief Introduction to TeaYou can’t write the history of the world without including this humble infusion

By Rosanne Dunkelberger


Tea. In the thousands of years people have been drinking it, the refreshing brew has opened trade routes, caused wars (the Boston Tea Party wasn’t even close to being the biggest tea-inspired brouhaha), driven culture and otherwise written history on its way to becoming the world’s second most popular drink. (Water is the first.)

Like gunpowder, porcelain and refined thinking, the Chinese get the credit for discovering tea. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nong, who lived around 2700 B.C., had recognized the health benefits of boiling water. While a pot was boiling, the leaves of a bush he was using for firewood blew into his water, and the rest is history.

The earliest historical references to tea appear in China in about 1000 B.C., and it was initially used for medicinal and religious purposes. Over the years, a tea-drinking culture emerged and, by about the fourth century A.D., tea bushes were cultivated. Tea actually was pressed into bricks and used as currency until modern times in some parts of Central Asia.

Tea’s introduction to the wider world would occur in fits and starts throughout the centuries. Chinese leaders eschewed the pernicious influence of “foreign devils” and, frankly, the Western world didn’t offer much of interest to trade for tea. But the brew did make its way to Europe by the 16th century, initially as an expensive luxury enjoyed by the upper classes.

As trade became easier, the price of tea dropped and the drinking habit was embraced by the masses. According to Tom Standage in his book “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” the British developed a particular fondness for the brew, which he credited with fueling the Industrial Revolution. Mill workers were offered free “tea breaks” as a perk – which, because of its caffeine, kept workers alert during long shifts.

The natural antibacterial properties of tea also reduced the prevalence of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery, allowing workers to live in close quarters and lowering infant mortality.

Standage also credits tea with creating a consumer society by creating a demand for the crockery and other implements needed to create a proper “tea service.”


Tea Bags and Ice

What we consider the classic British “tea” – with its silver pots, delicate china, fine linens and array of finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets, cookies and cakes – is a relatively recent addition to the history of tea. It was popularized in the 1840s by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, as an afternoon ritual to revive the “sinking feelings” of the afternoon before dinnertime.

America made a couple of major contributions to the world’s tea culture – and both can be traced back to 1904. In that year, it was blazing hot at the St. Louis Exposition, and a British tea merchant from Calcutta was having a hard time getting fairgoers to try his wares. He collaborated with a nearby ice seller, iced tea was born, and it was a big hit.

That same year, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan started offering small samples of his product stitched in silk bags rather than packaged in the more traditional tin. He knew he was on to something when customers began asking for more – and thus began the tea bag.



Be it black (what most Americans are used to drinking), green, oolong or white, all tea comes from one source – the evergreen leaves and buds of the camellia sinesis bush. All tea comes from this one plant, but depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed, the possibilities in taste, appearance and quality are practically endless.

To make black tea, the leaves are picked and then put through an oxidation process. Green tea is more lightly processed by steaming. Oolong is somewhere in between. White tea is rare and very refined, with a fine flavor.

“Herb” tea actually is a misnomer. If you’re having a drink brewed from chamomile, mint, verbena, ginger or other herbal sources, it’s more properly called a tisane or infusion. (And if the liquid is boiled for a time to release the active ingredients, it’s called a decoction.)

Consider tea to be like wine, with its thousands of different varieties, all coming from the grape. Like wine, it’s quite possible to develop a discriminating tea-drinking palate. Perhaps you can detect the hearty smokiness of Lapsang Souchong, the robustness of African roobios, the citrusy flavor of oil of bergamot in Earl Grey, or the slightly peachy taste of Formosa oolong.

Green tea has played a significant role in Chinese and Japanese culture for centuries. The Japanese ceremony for sharing tea – chanoyu – is performed in the simplest of surroundings but, at the same time, is so fraught with tradition and meaning that it can take a lifetime to master.

Only recently has green tea entered Americans’ consciousness, as the headlines are filled with reports of its ability to prevent second heart attacks in people who already have had one, to reduce the infectivity of viruses and bacteria, and to help protect against prostate, breast, stomach and colon cancer. So whether you are seeking to soothe your soul or boost your health, you’ll want to indulge in this simple brew.

India’s contribution to the world’s tea culture, chai, is black tea that has been sweetened, spiced and mixed with milk. The aromatic brew includes spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and pepper. According to one Web site, “Chai recipes are like Italian minestrone soup – it’s always good, but everyone’s recipe is different.” While it’s a wonderful hot drink, a cool iced version is especially light and bracing on a hot summer day.


Make Mine Sweet

According to the Tea Council of the U.S.A., Americans overwhelmingly prefer black tea (94 percent of the tea consumed) in tea bags (60 percent)  – and they drink it iced (80 percent versus 20 percent hot tea).

This is the South, so when one asks for iced tea at a restaurant – unlike points north, you can get it year-round here – the next question that invariably will follow is “Sweet or unsweet?” Those of us who have been around a while know to just ask for “swee-tee” first. Why two varieties when you can just add sugar? That’s a question asked by Yankees who never have enjoyed the regional icon that’s as syrupy as a Southern accent.

Georgia legislators even proposed a law that would require restaurants in the state that offered iced tea to serve both sweet and unsweet tea. (It was an April Fool’s joke.)

No local restaurant more identifies with Southern-style iced tea than Po Folks. Sonya Courtoy, manager of the Po Folks location in Niceville, said her restaurant serves an average of 300 gallons of tea a week, with about 85 percent of that being sweet.

“We are famous for our sweet tea, so it makes sense that it is our most popular drink choice,” she said. Po Folks’ famous sweet tea is brewed fresh daily in a five-gallon containers, with four to five 20-ounce cups of sugar added to each one.

Sandestin’s popular deli McAlister’s is known for its famous “Deli Brew” sweet tea. Brandee Barger, general manager of McAlister’s, said her restaurant starts out every day with seven gallons of sweet tea. McAlister’s famous sweet tea also is jugged and sold by the gallon.

If you are looking for more of an intimate experience with several types of tea, there is no better place than Magnolia & Ivy tea parlor in The Village of Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. With dozens of tea possibilities on the menu, owners Kay Snipes and Terri Eager are happy to help you find your perfect cup.

“All the tea we serve is loose-leaf tea, and I would say our most popular tea is the peaches and cream,” Snipes said.

Most of the tea brewed at Magnolia & Ivy is unsweetened, but there are two choices of sugar – fine-grained, processed white and raw, unprocessed lump sugar.

“Most of the samples we have here in the shop are already sweetened, because people – especially here in the South – want to know what the final product is going to taste like, so we go ahead and sweeten it for the sampling,” Snipes said.

Hot or iced, green or black, milk or no, flavored or fragranced, it’s up to you to find your perfect cup.

-Erica Spivey contributed to this story.