15 Simmering Facts About Tea
Love a strong cup of tea? You’re not alone. Tea plays an important role in many world cultures, from the centuries-old rituals of Japanese tea ceremonies to the popularity of afternoon tea in London. While your tea brews, sip on these 15 facts about that cuppa in honor of National Tea Month.
1. TEA IS REALLY, REALLY POPULAR.
It’s the most popular beverage in the world after plain water. The world’s tea market was worth $38.8 billion in 2013.
2. GREEN AND BLACK TEA ARE MADE FROM THE SAME PLANT.
Tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a small tree native to Asia. (Confusingly, this is not the plant used to make tea tree oil.) The difference between green tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, and oolong tea comes from how the leaves are processed. After the leaves are picked, they begin to oxidize—the same chemical reaction that makes your apple, avocado, or banana peel go brown. White tea is the least oxidized tea, followed by green tea and Oolong tea. Black tea undergoes the most oxidization.
3. THE CHINESE HAVE BEEN DRINKING IT FOR MORE THAN 2000 YEARS …
Around 141 BCE, Han Dynasty Emperor Jing Di was buried with a wooden box containing important treasures he would need in the afterlife, including high-quality tea leaves. But his ancestors may have been enjoying tea for even longer than that. Chinese legend holds that the emperor Shen Nong first drank hot water accidentally infused with tea leaves way back in 2737 BCE. Regardless, until around 300 CE, it was considered a medicinal draught rather than a casual beverage.
4. … BUT IT WASN’T A BRITISH STAPLE UNTIL THE 19TH CENTURY.
We may associate afternoon tea with the British, but tea hasn’t had that long of a history in the UK. Tea became fashionable to drink among English aristocrats in the 17th century, but it was relatively expensive and subject to government taxes. During the 18th century, tea smugglers brought supplies of tea into the country without paying any duties, selling it for cheaper prices. In 1785, tea taxes were lowered to stamp out smuggling, and tea became affordable. In the 1800s, the temperance movement began encouraging working class Britons to sip tea rather than liquor, and the first tea shops opened up. By the late 1800s, tea was popular across all social classes.
5. TURKISH PEOPLE CONSUME THE MOST TEA.
Turks consume an average of almost seven pounds of tea per person annually. The Irish, in comparison, the world’s second-biggest tea drinkers, consume less than five pounds per person a year. To keep up with its citizens’ insatiable demand for tea, Turkey grows one-fifth of the world’s supply.
6. TEA WAS ONCE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS.
Some 17th century thinkers preached that too much tea could cause health problems. In 1706, a French doctor published a treatise called “Wholesome advice against the abuse of hot liquors, particularly of coffee, chocolate, tea, brandy, and strong-waters,” urging moderation in drinking tea on the grounds that it heated up the inside of the body, causing sickness and death. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, argued that tea caused nervous disorders, and advocated for complete tea abstinence.
7. YOU CAN, IN FACT, DRINK TOO MUCH OF IT.
In 2014, a 56-year-old man encountered kidney trouble after drinking some 16 glasses of tea a day. High concentrations of oxalate, as found in black tea, can lead to renal failure, so don’t go overboard with your tea habit.
8. TECHNICALLY, HERBAL TEA ISN’T TEA.
Herbal tea blends don’t contain any actual tea leaves, which is why they’re usually caffeine-free. They’re concoctions of different herbs, spices, and other plants, like chamomile, hibiscus, and mint.
9. AMERICANS PREFER THEIR TEA COLD.
About 85 percent of tea sales in the U.S. are from iced tea.
10. SOME CULTURES ADD BUTTER.
In the Himalayas, it’s traditional to add butter (usually from a yak) to milky black tea. The salt helps people living at high altitudes stay hydrated. It’s called po cha in Tibet, and it’s the country’s unofficial national beverage.
11. THE TEABAG WAS REVOLUTIONARY.
Prior to individual tea bags, enjoying a cup of tea required brewing a whole pot. And since no one wants to reheat a cold, stale cup, that led to a lot of waste. In 1908, a tea importer began sending tea samples out in little silk bags. Instead of taking the tea out and discarding the bag, people put the whole bag in and used it to brew a single cup. Eventually the importer replaced the silk with gauze, or at least that’s how the legend of tea bags goes. However it happened, World War I soldiers were given tea bags as part of their rations, helping the convenient packets become a normal part of the tea drinking routine.
12. IT’S NOT DEHYDRATING.
Common wisdom suggests that drinking water is more beneficial to hydration than caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea, but recent research says otherwise. One study asked participants to only drink tea for 12 hours, and compared their hydration levels to those of people who only drank boiled water. They were about the same. Other studies have found that caffeine itself isn’t dehydrating, suggesting that coffees and teas don’t make you thirstier.
13. DIFFERENT TEAS HAVE DIFFERENT BREWING REQUIREMENTS.
You may think any old cup of boiled water will do the trick, but different varieties of teas need to be brewed at different temperatures for different amounts of time. Herbal and black teas need to be heated for several minutes at high temperatures (203° F for black tea; 212° F for herbal tea) while green and white teas need to be handled a little more delicately, steeped at temperatures of roughly 176° F to 185° F. (The boiling point of water is 212° F, for reference.)
14. THE BRITISH CREATED INDIA’S TEA MARKET.
India is one of the world’s biggest tea producers, and the vast majority of the tea it grows is consumed within the country’s borders. One of the two varieties of tea plant, Camillia sinensis assamica, is native to the Assam region. However, tea didn’t gain mass popularity as a daily beverage in India until Britain decided it needed an alternative to China’s monopoly. A botanist working for the British East India Company introduced some of China’s finest tea plants to the high-altitude province of Darjeeling in 1848, laying the groundwork for what is now the region’s largest industry besides tourism. (The unique Darjeeling tea is basically the Champagne of teas, as it can only be called that if it’s produced in that area of India.) The British East India Company also set up the Tea Board, a government organization tasked with popularizing tea throughout the country, ensuring that tea became Indians’ beverage of choice by the early 20th century.
15. TEA IS ASSOCIATED WITH GOOD HEALTH.
Though it’s hard to prove that tea directly influences health, many studies have found that it’s associated with several benefits, at least in the populations that are often the subjects of such research. Drinking several cups of tea per day has been associated with lower risks of liver disease, depression, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. However, some of the myths about tea’s prowess as a health supplement have been overblown. For instance, green tea doesn’t seem to help people lose weight, are there are conflicting reports about its link to lower cancer risks.
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