For many years, tea has stood as the most consumed beverage in the whole world, after water. In the United States, around 80 percent of the households serve it as the only drink either iced or hot, anywhere, anytime and for almost every occasion. Each day, around 159 million Americans drink tea. In the year 2018 alone, Americans consumed more than 84 billion servings of tea, which is equivalent to 3.8 billion gallons. Nearly 84 percent of the tea they consumed was black tea and 15 percent was Oolong, dark and white tea. Unfortunately, imports have reduced more recently but the consumption of green tea has increased. The United States is the third-largest tea importer after Russia and Pakistan. But how did the Americans learn about tea?
Tea is over 5,000 years old – discovered around 2737 BC by the Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung, referred to as “The Divine Healer.” As the Chinese legend tells us, tea leaves blew into a pot of water that the Emperor's servants were boiling accidentally, creating the first-ever brew of tea. Chinese tea scholars also claim that the Emperor Shen-Nung, a botanical explorer, poisoned himself accidentally over 85 times and each time the wonderful blew cured him.
Peter Stuyvesant introduced tea in America in 1650. Stuyvesant carried the tea from Europe to sell it to the Dutch settlement in New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the English speakers). Settlers in that area were known tea drinkers and after the English acquired the colony, they found that people in the small settlement were consuming more tea than the total amount consumed in England at that time.
The English colonists in Boston came to learn about tea in the year 1670 and for the 20 years that followed, tea was not available in public places. The first Tea Gardens were opened in New York City, situated around natural springs. The city fathers equipped the springs with pumps to alleviate the tea craze. Roosevelt and Chatham (named to Park Row Street later) are the most famous tea springs.
By the year 1720, people accepted tea as a staple of trade between the mother countries and the colony. Tea was a favourite of most colonial women and England had to base one of its key political decisions on it. Trading of tea happened in Philadelphia and Boston, New York, which later became the centres of American rebellion. The taxation of tea was very high something that led to smuggling of all forms of tea by the American merchants. Indian herbal teas were popular but the taxation reduced the profits something that made the East India Company angry. They pressurized the parliament to immediate action and a change was witnessed soon – the taxes reduced.
Perhaps, you have heard something about the Boston Tea Party. The political protest conducted by the Sons of Liberty in Boston happened on December 16th 1772. Demonstrators were objecting to the Tea Act of May 10, 1173, which they saw as a violation of their no taxation rights. It was an act passed in the British Parliament, where they did not have any representation. Some of the demonstrators, disguised as American Indians, had to destroy a whole tea shipment the East India Company had sent. That influenced the British to respond harshly and ultimately sparking the American Revolution.
The French and Indian War had just ended, which England fought to stabilize trade and free the colonies from French influence. The parliament, therefore, felt that the colonists had to shoulder a large percentage of the costs, after all, the war was for their benefit. Charles Townshend introduced the first tax measures that imposed a high tax on newspapers, tavern license, legal documents, docking papers and marriage licenses. The colonists were unhappy with taxation and rebelled. The parliament levelled new heavier taxes for the rebellion. The tea tax was among them and later influenced the desire for American freedom.
The colonists, mostly those of Dutch origin, rebelled against the taxation law and openly purchased the imported tea. The East India Company, which was already in financial troubles, saw its profits reducing further. By 1773, John Company and the East India Company merged for structural stability and pleaded for assistance from the Crown. Lord North, new Lord of the Treasury, responded to the pressure by introducing the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the new Company to sell tea directly to colonists.
Between the 1840s and 1860s, US maritime fleets dominated the trade of tea from China. The speed of the magnificent tea clippers allowed the establishment of new standards in the shipping sector, to reduce the transit time. However, that disappeared with the construction of the Suez Canal and the emergence of steam. The traders were also unable to keep up with the development of ships in France, England and Spain.
The supply of tea from China continued, with the Chinese only accepting gold and silver as payment. To solve the problem, the British flooded China with opium, which they got from India leading to the Opium Wars that destroyed both economic and social systems of China. By 1890s, China had disappeared from global tea markets as the British continued to build their huge black tea base in Sri Lankan and Indian plantations.
The first tea grown commercially was in Savannah, on Skidaway Island in 1772. The next record shows that Junius Smith grew tea on his Golden Grove plantation in Greenville South Carolina in the year 1848. Smith was more successful at the growing of tea but he was shot in 1853 leading to the death of his tea plantation. Dr Alexis Forster tried to grow tea commercially in 1879 in South Carolina but his attempt died prematurely when he died after his buggy flipped when trying to outrun bandits who tried to rob him.
The New York Times reported the discovery of indigenous plants of tea in Pennsylvania and Western Maryland in 1863. This wild tea discovery sparkled interest of the United States Department of Agriculture, who started planting experimental tea in Summerville, South Carolina. The trial program ran for around four years, between 1884 and 1888 but the report the Department released in 1877 showed that the cost of picking one pound of tea in the area was around eight times above that in Asia. After the government scrapped the tea farm, Dr Charles Shepherd was the next person who tried to grow tea commercially in the country.
Dr Charles Shepherd started a school and included the tea picking work in the curriculum. That way, he was able to benefit from free child labour while offering something that the students would not get. Pinehurst produced high-quality tea, including the loved oolong tea, which won the first prize in 1904 at the St Louis World's Fair. After the death of Shepherd in 1915, Pinehurst closed and remained unattended for many years.
Pinehurst provided the foundation for the American Tea Growing Company, launched by Colonel Augustus C Tyler and Major Roswell Trimble in 1900s. The two transplanted thousands of bushes from Pinehurst and moved them to Rantowles within the low country of South Carolina. It is believed that the venture ended after disagreements arose between Tyler’s son and Trimble but some individuals believe that Colonel Tyler’s death ended it.
In the year 1963, Thomas J. Lipton CO. moved the tea plants from Pinehurst to their research station IN Wadmalaw Island. They were worried that the supply of tea from third world countries would be unstable. The tea bushes from Pinehurst were moved to the station until 1987 when the station was sold to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall and changed into a tea garden. Unfortunately, the company faced bankruptcy in 2003 and was sold off to Bigelow Tea Company for $1.28 million.
Bigelow closed the tea plantation for several months to renovate it and opened it again in the year 2006 where it produces green, black and oolong teas. Tea was also introduced to Hawaii in the year 1887 but it was discontinued in the year 1892 for unknown reasons. It was reintroduced in 2004 by the Hawaii Tea Society, which had around 40 members in 2003. By 2010, Hawaii producers displayed their unique quality tea at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas.
When modern Americans think of the first tea to enter the United States, they might think of bagged tea – or even the English breakfast. However, all the tea supplied to the country was loose leaf – tea bags were introduced 150 years later. Moreover, all the supplied tea came from China. The full-bodied teas from Sri Lanka and India were not cultivated before the 19th century.
The tea dumped in the American harbours was very different from the one we buy from grocery stores today. The Boston Tea Party claims that the three ships brought 15 chests of Congou, 240 of Bohea and 10 of Souchong (all forms of black tea), 60 of Singlo and 15 of Hyson (both forms of green tea). All the types of tea would not pass for the modern tea drinkers and because of the excessive taxation, Great Britain had huge piles of excess tea, which remained in storage for more than 3 years.
Tea remained an important commodity throughout Europe and most colonies at that time. American colonists had more sophisticated tea palate than it is today. Amazingly, even though over a third of the tea imported from China was green tea, Hyson green tea was the favourite of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party events influenced the Americans to lose their taste of tea something that led to the dominance of coffee. Speciality tea only reached the spotlight for another time within the last few decades.