Blog 49: A Brief History of Tea-Drinking

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

This tea blog started with introductions to many details about tea-making. While these details are interesting, they don’t necessarily help new tea lovers understand the tea-drinking experience. The tea culture that we have today, including teas and ways to enjoy tea, is the result of an ever-changing and dynamic evolution. To understand tea better, we need to understand how tea and tea-drinking have progressed. Today, let’s talk about the history of tea-drinking.


The way we drink tea is different than that of the past.

The discovery of tea can be traced back to the primitive period. The very first use of tea considered tea as an herbal medicine. In the book Shennong Bencaojing (written in 200-250 CE), tea was described as an herb that can relieve food poisoning and inflammation. With its medical use widely recognized, tea became an eatable food. In some small parts of China, there are still traditional foods such as congee that’s cooked with tea leaves. Finally, people learned how to process fresh leaves into a preservable state, and this evolves into the tea culture we have today.


Tea-drinking is different in different eras. The way we enjoy tea today would be impossible a couple hundred years ago. Compared to our ancestors, we enjoy a much larger variety of teas and a greater selection of teawares. However, to tea drinkers thousands of years ago, or even just hundreds of years ago, the only tea they had was green tea, and the way to drink green tea was also limited.


In Tang Dynasty(618-907), tea was brewed. Different from how we brew tea leaves today, during the Tang era, tea leaves were pulverized into fine powder. Then, the tea powder was brewed in a pot. People drank the hot tea soup. This was also called “eating tea” instead of “drinking tea”. During the early Tang, tea brewing was often mixed with ingredients, including salt, scallion, ginger and orange peel. This practice was changed during mid Tang with Mr. Lu Yu’s book, the classic of tea. Mr. Lu Yu strongly opposed adding extra flavors and ingredients into the tea soup. Mr. Lu Yu’s pioneer view laid the groundwork for future tea culture that focuses primarily on the original and the authentic flavor of tea leaves.


An ancient painting by Yan Liben showing tea brewing during Tang. (name of the painting: 萧翼赚兰亭图)

In Song Dynasty(960-1279), tea drinking reached a new high. Compared to that of Tang, tea drinking during the Song era addressed more on the aesthetics of the experience. Some of the most famous teaware were originally from this period of time. For example, our Ru Yao tea sets are the direct descendent of one of the five “royal kilns” in Song Dynasty. The china-making techniques, particularly the china-making for teaware, were significantly improved during this time. The tea-drinking was also improved and further evolved. During Song, “Dian Cha”(Chinese: 点茶, meaning: point tea) was developed. Instead of brewing tea powder or tea leaves, people put pulverized fine tea powder in a bowl then poured hot water into it. To blend powder and water better, a bamboo brush was used to quickly swipe the mixture. During the swiping, a white foam would appear on the surface of the tea soup. If you think matcha sounds like it, you are right. Dian Cha is the origin of modern matcha.


Ru Yao is one of the five "royal kilns" in Song Dynasty

Ming Dynasty(1368-1644) is another important period time for tea. During this time, emperors of Ming preferred loose leaf teas over tea bricks. The personal preference of emperors led to the diversity of tea varieties. Techniques for making oolong tea and black tea were also developed during the Ming era. The more developed tea-making skills also allowed simpler and more direct enjoyment of tea. Our way of drinking tea today is similar to that of the Ming era. Ming’s advancement in tea-making also enabled a larger production of which made tea export possible. Since Ming Dynasty, tea became a true global drink. And the tea culture, along with tea, got spread to the world.


A painting by Wen Zhengming showing tea drinking in Ming Dynasty

Tea has evolved and transformed for thousands of years. The culture and the experience of it have infiltrated into every aspect of a tea drinker’s life. To us serious tea lovers, tea is more than a beverage. It is our spiritual ballast.


Hopefully, today’s blog can provide you a little bit more insight into the history and the transformation of tea-drinking.


I hope you enjoyed today’s blog. As always, if you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment, tweet us @valleybrooktea or email the author directly at zhang@valleybrooktea.com. Please also follow us on Instagram @valleybrooktea and join our mail list to get our daily tea updates and our latest promotions!