History Behind Your Cuppa: Part 2


Kyle Mengwasser

   In our last post, we delved into the early history of tea. Over today’s cuppa Good Sir, we’ll find out how the tea of the time (bitter and unpleasant by today’s standards) evolved into a more palatable and revered beverage.

   Picking up where we left off, we’ll look back to China in 960 AD. Tea prior to this point was processed by charring and later moving into steaming leaves, then forming the mush into a dense, tarry brick of extremely condensed and bitter tea. The preparation and consumption of the beverage was still highly ritualistic and reserved only for royalty and the elite. Tea gardens and farms were owned by the state and highly controlled.

Tea Plantation

   The Song Dynasty brought experimentation and creativity in the production of tea. Unsavory bricks and cakes of tarry leaves evolved into a finely powdered and whipped form of tea. The preparation of tea received a revamp, with new developments in teaware and brewing methods. This combination of new, refined flavors and ease in preparation garnered attention. Before long, teahouses began popping up, preparing the latest brew to the general public. These teahouses became places for tea-lovers to socialize, work, exchange ideas and play games (much like the coffeehouses and bars of today.) Under Song rule, tea went from being a drink consumed by few to a drink made for the masses. With this mass consumption came more opportunities for innovation.

   Just as the Song were beginning to experiment with loose-leaf tea, the Mongols came. Kublai Khan’s and the Yuan dynasty seized rule of China for the next 88 years, doing away with elaborate rituals and preparations of tea. As a result, innovation and popularity waned in China. Yuan Mongols, however seized on the idea of loose-leaf tea and developed a technique of roasting their leaves, called chaoqing, a very early form of green tea. The Mongols were apparently satisfied by this process, for China would not see advances in tea for nearly 275 years.

   While tea’s growth would be stunted in China for a few centuries, it began gaining popularity in Japan. Japanese monks and priests studying in China would bring this novel beverage back to their monasteries, lauding its’ benefits. Monks especially enjoyed the clarity and serenity the brewing process and consumption brought. In Japanese teahouses powdered tea was being whipped in shallow bowls, giving rise to a beloved and enduring brew- matcha. Japanese innovation in tea would also bring us several green teas that remain popular even today, like sencha.

Matcha powder and tea with traditional utensils

    While this was all happening in Japan, The Ming dynasty was coming to save the fate of tea in China.  Next time, we’ll explore how tea made a resurgence in China, opening up trade to the west!

The history of tea cannot be truly appreciated unless it’s tasted! Check out our store, where we have both Chinese and Japanese green teas.