Four women drinking tea, by Kusakabe Kimbei.

The never-ending tea story

The story of tea is no less than the story of a humble shrub that changed the world. Ever since a falling tea leaf fluttered into a Chinese emperor’s cup of water some 50 centuries ago, tea has inspired greatness, nourished nations, started wars and brought people together.

In the coming months, we’ll be telling the stories of tea’s rich heritage around the globe, sharing histories and pictures of how a simple leaf has touched the lives of so many. This multi-part series will travel to all corners of the world to explore the rituals and cultures of tea that have connected people for generations upon generations.

The journey will begin, of course, in China, where traditional rituals like the gong-fu ceremony keep tea culture alive and well. In neighboring Tibet, tea has been given a local gastronomic touch, yak butter, which is added to strong black tea along with a dose of salt, then mixed until thick in a wooden churn. The reviving, high-calorie brew is an important source of nourishment in the high-altitude region. Over on the other side of China, the Japanese long ago brought home tea seeds from their neighbor, which gave rise to a deep tea tradition of their own.

From China, tea traveled by land caravan through the Silk Road, along the way converting the people of Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Today, these regions continue preparing tea in similar samovar or double boiler-style pots, the extra-strong result served with plenty of sugar. Tea’s mighty diaspora extended to the African continent as well. Throughout North Africa and as far south as Senegal, green tea simmered with fresh mint and plenty of sugar is drunk not just at mealtimes but throughout the day, every day.

Another chapter in the story is how tea swept the Indian subcontinent in the 19th and 20th centuries, making masala chai the indispensable drink it is today. And who better to tell this story than the chai wallah tea vendors who prepare this blend of spices, black tea, milk and sugar on the streets for millions of customers daily. In Great Britain, the colonizing nation that established the tea trade in India, tea has long since become an indispensable part of the day as well. And they take their tea very, very seriously: both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the British Standards Institute have published detailed treatises on the proper brewing of good, British-style tea. Directives include adding milk to the cup before the tea, using fresh water only, and avoiding “vulgar slurping.” As for that eternal dilemma, whether or not to cock one’s pinky when lifting a teacup, the experts stayed mum.

Join us on for all the upcoming installments of this global story – it’s going to be quite the ride.