When you steep a cup of tea, imagine as you sip that empires have risen and fallen because of that warm familiar brew. As rich as your favorite cup may taste, it’s history is much richer.
Consider the American Revolution. We were all taught about the Boston Tea Party in school. It was a political protest by the Sons of Liberty in Boston, on December 16, 1773. The demonstrators objected to the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, claiming that it violated their rights to no taxation without representation, as it was a tax from British Parliament, in which they were not represented. The demonstrators, some disguised as American Indians, destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company. The British responded harshly and ultimately sparked the American Revolution.
American tea drinking habits at the time
When the modern American thinks of tea dumped in the harbor, they might think piles of bagged tea, perhaps English Breakfast. However, tea bags were 150 years in the future, all the tea was loose leaf. Also, at the time, all tea came from China. The familiar full-bodied teas from India and Sri Lanka weren’t cultivated until the 19th century.
So what tea was dumped in the harbor? Not the bagged tea you buy at the grocery store! This was the good stuff. Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says the three tea ships contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas). However, this tea would not pass for modern tea drinkers. Due to excessive taxation, Great Britain had great piles of surplus tea, and had the tea in question in storage for over 3 years.
Tea was a very important commodity in both Europe and the colonies at the time. In particular, American colonists had a much more sophisticated tea palate than they do today. Surprisingly, over a third of tea exported from China was green tea, with spring picked Hyson among the favorites. In fact, Hyson green tea was a tea favorite of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Unfortunately, due to the events of the Boston Tea Party and the Tea Act, Americans lost a taste for tea, resulting in the dominance of coffee. Only within the past few decades has specialty tea reached the spotlight again, with more than quadruple growth rates.
To find out more about the history of tea, check out this excellent blog by Bruce Richardson, Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum: http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/tea-blog