The importance of the hidden history of tea
The hidden history of tea shows us that little things can have a huge impact. Where did your morning cup of tea come from? If you said “the grocery store,” you’re missing a big part of the story.
It’s easy to forget the tea you enjoy actually began its journey thousands of miles away. It comes from lush tea farms up in the mountains of places like Sri Lanka or Kenya, where women carefully pick the leaves by hand. Those leaves then make their way to a local factory, where they’re dried from a bright green shade to a rich, earthy brown.
All of this happens before they even cross the ocean, and long before they ever arrive at your local grocery store.
Yes, even the most ordinary household staples can have extraordinary histories, with stories that span the globe. These surprising facts are just a glimpse into the rich history and impact of the tea you enjoy:
1. Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world.
It’s second only to water. Seriously. Global tea consumption is forecasted to reach 3.3 million tons by 2021, with more than half of that consumption coming from Asia. In fact, on any given morning, more than 50% of Americans are drinking it — around 158 million people.
2. It’s also a plant that grows in very specific regions of the world.
Most of the world’s tea grows in mountainous areas, thousands of feet above sea level, in rich but acidic soil, typically with heavy rainfall. Tea plants are especially vulnerable to extended periods of cold temperatures, which is why they do better in climates that are warm year round.
Under subtropical or temperate climates — like in Kenya — the higher altitude and humidity contributes to distinct wet and dry seasons. This is key to tea plant survival and also influences the variety of teas found in these types of areas.
As such, countries that produce the most tea include Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Taiwan, and Vietnam, all of which have these distinct seasons without getting too cold.
3. Legend has it, though, the first cup of tea was totally an accident.
The earliest accounts we have of drinking tea come from China. Apparently a leaf fell into boiling water that was being prepared for Emperor Shen Nung — and he enjoyed the taste. He didn’t know it then, but he would be the first to enjoy what we now call tea.
4. While tea may have originated in China, it quickly spread around the world.
Japanese Buddhist scholars visiting China brought tea seeds with them when they returned home, popularizing tea in Japan. But that was only the beginning.
While we know the Brits today love a good cuppa, it was actually the Portuguese missionaries that brought tea to Europe. The British initially favored coffee, making the switch only when fashionable tea-lover Catherine of Braganza (who hailed from Portugal) became queen upon marrying Charles II.
And while tea surged in popularity worldwide, its identity (and of course, taste) varied from place to place.
5. Many regions of the world have their own unique take on tea.
It’s true that the English are largely responsible for introducing tea to other regions in the world, including Africa and India. But plenty of cultures had their own spin on it, both before and after they arrived.
India, for example, specializes in its national drink, chai, which is more of a spiced milk-tea. Meanwhile, Morocco has a mint tea called touareg tea, which is a drink of cultural significance. It symbolizes hospitality and is served three times daily to guests.
You can find unique teas as far as South Africa. Indigenous people there — the Khoisans — have their own tea, too. It’s called rooibos tea, and originated over 300 years ago. It doesn’t derive from the same plant as your typical black or green tea, though; its plant base is unique to that region of the world.
6. Tea is also partly responsible for the United States as we know it.
Tea began making its way to the American colonies as early as 1650, by colonists who needed their fix as they journeyed west. The British then began importing tea to the American colonies starting in 1720 to sell overseas en masse.
Forty years later, they would begin taxing it — creating tension between the colonies and the British government. This led to numerous demonstrations, one of which — the Boston Tea Party — would be a catalyst for the American Revolution.
7. Even today, most tea comes from a farm and has to be hand-picked.
Traditional machinery has been found to be a little too rough, damaging many of the leaves in the harvesting process — so hand-picking is the universally preferred method.
Once harvested by farmhands, the leaves are transported to a factory nearby, where they’re processed. This involves drying them out, keeping a close eye on them as they react to oxygen in the air, and then sorting them by size and grade.
8. There are some great organizations working to make tea more sustainable.
The Rainforest Alliance and Sustainable Trade Initiative were created to call on businesses to do better and invest in sustainability — not just for the environment, but for the farmers whose health and livelihood could be impacted by pesticide use, water pollution, and more.
In fact, the Rainforest Alliance created its own certification to measure the sustainability of a particular farm’s practices.
And that certification isn’t so easy to attain. It includes great attention to energy and water usage, commitment to biodiversity and conservation efforts, and fair and ethical labor practices (including access to safe drinking water, health care, and education). It also requires fully respecting the rights of people indigenous to the land where that tea is grown.
9. Those efforts have caught on — today, some of the most popular tea brands are making a concerted effort to promote sustainability.
10 years ago, Unilever — Lipton’s parent company — became the first major tea company to announce their commitment to sustainable sourcing of tea across their farms. And by the end of 2015, they had kept that promise: 100% of Lipton’s Black and Green tea bags are Rainforest Alliance Certified™.
10. In fact, one of the largest tea estates in Kenya has made incredible strides.
In Kericho, Kenya — Lipton’s largest tea estate and the first to be certified — substantial efforts have been made to improve biodiversity through reforesting, addressing water and energy use, and reducing carbon emissions.
In fact, more than 1.3 million trees (yes, million!) have been planted in Kericho in the last eighteen years, ensuring a balanced ecosystem within the farm. Kericho is also making use of hydropower — amazingly, something they’ve done since the 1920s — thanks to a river running through the region.
11. The majority of tea farmers today are smallholder farmers — making tea a family affair.
Smallholder farmers own the plots of land where their crops are grown, and get the majority of their income from working that land. It’s estimated that a whopping 70% of global tea production comes from smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia.
In Kenya, those farmers are responsible for 60% of the tea that’s produced.
That’s why, in 2006, Lipton joined a partnership with the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and the Sustainable Trade Initiative, leading to the creation of Farmer Field Schools for locals to increase access to the best resources for farmers.
At these schools, tea-growers in Kenya can share best agricultural practices, as well as improve the quality of their crops as well as yields. They can also discuss issues around nutrition and health in their communities, as well as the impact of climate change on their work.
12. Making tea farming sustainable can empower women and their families, too.
Many of the farmers that benefit from programs like the Farmer Field Schools are women. In Kenya, for example, there are 42,000 women farmers who have benefited from the Farm Field Schools run by KTDA.
When farmers learn to increase their yields and tea quality, their income is boosted, too. That buying power allows them to improve the health and nutrition of their families, and increases access to education for themselves and their children.
13. And that means your humble cup of tea could transform communities thousands of miles away.
Organizations like WE Charity — a non-profit offering resources to communities in need internationally — have been supporting rural communities in Kenya for the last 20 years. WE’s commitment to education, health, clean water, food, and financial programming has been transformative for those communities.
That’s why Lipton recently partnered with WE in an effort to further empower a new demographic of farmers — those that pick our morning cup.
Most notable to come out of Lipton’s partnership with WE are the new opportunities for women harvesting tea.
This program will give women farmers the tools to increase their earnings and the guidance to leverage those profits; 80,000 women will receive small business and leadership training.
The result? The ability to purchase more livestock, grow their farms, send their kids to college, and start their own businesses.
So as it turns out, the story behind where your tea came from is a lot more significant than you may’ve realized.
Sometimes it really is the journey — not just the destination — that makes a difference. Article by Sam Dylan Finch | upworthy