Black tea is by far the most popular tea type in the West, especially the English where the word ‘tea’ has evolved beyond a beverage to an activity, a ritual even. Afternoon tea has become a fixture in English households and part of the arsenal of an English socialite.
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Not surprisingly, England is the biggest importer of black tea leaves worldwide, importing mainly from India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and of course China.
Unbeknownst to many people however, is that black tea originated from China; more precisely the province of Fujian, near to Mt Wuyi- home to many beloved types of tea. During the Ming Dynasty, around 16th to 17th century, black tea first appeared in the annals of Chinese history. The first black tea is the blend we know today as lapsang souchong (正山小种).
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company commenced trading in black tea leaves, exporting them from China to Europe via the port of Amsterdam. England in particular was smitten. It was estimated that import duties of tea leaves contributed to 10% of the English government’s revenue at one stage!
By the 18th century, black tea had become the world’s drink- spreading from Europe to America, Canada and Australia.
The fast growing demand was driving up tea prices, especially since China was a monopsony then- exporting only leaves but not the seeds. However in the mid-18th century, a rather aptly horticulturalist by the name of Robert Fortune ‘exported’ a sizeable number of tea shoots and buds as well as several Chinese tea planters to Europe. Subsequently they planted more than 100,000 tea trees in India which was a British colony then and India became the second major tea producer in the world.
The business model worked well enough and from India, tea shoots were grown in Sri Lanka and Indonesia- reducing the reliance on China. Today, Darjeeling and Assam tea from India, Ceylon tea joins the Keemun Gongfu as the ‘4 best black tea of the world’.
However, the biggest difference between the ‘Western way’ of drinking black tea and the Chinese way is that while their Western counterparts take their tea with milk and sugar, the Chinese consume it on its own- free of additional calories.
This love affair has an interesting development now as China are importing branded tea leaves from England, albeit in small quantities given the market size of China.
Who knows, we might even see the day when scones and biscuits are part of Chinese tea rituals!