In one popular Chinese legend, Shennong, the legendary Emperor of China and inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine was drinking a bowl of just boiled water due to a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it  some time around 2737 BC when a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the color. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote.
The Chinese have consumed tea for thousands of years. People of the Han Dynasty used tea as medicine (though the first use of tea as a stimulant is unknown). China is considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption, with records dating back to the 10th century BC. The earliest credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text by Hua T'o, who stated that "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better."
Tea use spread to Japan about the sixth century. Tea became a drink of the religious classes in Japan when Japanese priests and envoys, sent to China to learn about its culture, brought tea to Japan. Ancient recordings indicate the first batch of tea seeds were brought by a priest named Saichō in 805 and then by another named Kūkai in 806. It became a drink of the royal classes when Emperor Saga, the Japanese emperor, encouraged the growth of tea plants. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan began.
Tea was first introduced into India by the British in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. The British, "using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese planting and cultivating techniques, launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export." Tea was originally only consumed by Anglicized Indians. It was not until the 1950s that tea grew widely popular in India through a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board.
Prior to the British, the plant may have been used for medicinal purposes. The importing of tea into Britain began in the 1660s with the marriage of King Charles II to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who brought to the court the habit of drinking tea. On 25 September 1660 Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: "I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before." Regular trade began in Guangzhou (Canton). Trade was controlled by two monopolies: the Chinese Hongs (trading companies) and the British East India Company. The Hongs acquired tea from 'the tea men' who had an elaborate supply chain into the mountains and provinces where the tea was grown. The East India Company brought back many products, of which tea was just one, but it was to prove one of the most successful. It was initially promoted as a medicinal beverage or tonic. By the end of the seventeenth century tea was taken as a drink, albeit mainly by the aristocracy. In 1690 nobody would have predicted that by 1750 tea would be the national drink. The origin of large trade in tea was the need for a return cargo from the East Indies. Merchantmen ships delivered fabrics manufactured in Britain to India and China but would return empty or partially full. To solve this problem the East India Company began a vigorous public relations campaign in England to popularize tea among the common people in Britain and develop it as a viable return cargo. Ceylon's coffee production was reduced by 95% in the 19th century by a fungus, cementing tea's popularity.
While coffee is by far more popular, hot brewed black tea is enjoyed both with meals and as a refreshment by much of the population. Similarly, iced tea is consumed throughout. In the Southern states sweet tea, sweetened with large amounts of sugar or an artificial sweetener and chilled, is the fashion. Outside the South, sweet tea is sometimes found, but primarily because of cultural migration and commercialization.
Tea also played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. The colonists lived very much as the British did and consumed large quantities of Tea, and when the crown put a tax on the transportation and sale of tea, it was a factor in the revolution. It proved a major tipping point in the form of the Boston Tea Party. Tea consumption decreased in America sharply after the American Revolution, as "The Americans love it very much, but they had resolved to drink it no longer, as the famous duty on the tea had occasioned the war." The American specialty tea market quadrupled in the years from 1993–2008, now being worth $6.8 billion a year. Similar to the trend of better coffee and better wines, this tremendous increase was partly due to consumers who choose to trade up. Specialty tea houses and retailers also started to pop up during this period.
The ever-increasing popularity of tea—particularly green tea—and the growing number of published health studies are fueling a unique healthy tea market that is not just growing, it is thriving.
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