There are many things that naturally come to mind when one thinks about loose leaf tea and its long history. First and foremost is the Chinese influence on tea. China has long been associated as the birth place of green tea as a beverage. Second is the ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony and finally, the topic of the day, English teas and the birth of traditions such as high tea and scones.
Tea was isolated and regional for many centuries. It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe with regular shipments in the early 17th century. England was a latecomer to the tea trade, as the East India Company did not capitalize on tea's popularity until the mid-18th century. But none the less, England will be forever steeped in tea lore and history.
Taxation on Tea
Taxes are sometimes used as the carrot and often the stick. Charles II (king of England during the mid 1600's) stemmed the growth of tea, with several acts forbidding its sale in private homes. The measures were designed to counter sedition, but were so unpopular and impossible to enforce that it added fuel an already tumultuous situation. A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a license. This was just the start of attempts to control, or at least profit from the popularity of tea in Britain. By the mid 18th century the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry - tea smuggling. Ships from Holland and Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, then waited offshore while smugglers unloaded the precious cargo in smaller vessels. Finally, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. The race was on to supply the ever increasing thirst for tea in England, Ireland and Scotland.
In the early 1800's ships carrying tea from the Far East to Britain could take over a year to bring home their precious cargo. When the East India Company was given a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832, they realized the need to cut the time of this journey to maximize profits. The Americans actually designed the first "clippers", or streamlined, tall-masted vessels, but the British were close behind. These clippers sped along at nearly 18 knots by contemporary accounts - nearly as fast as a modern ocean liner. So great was the race for speed that an annual competition was begun for clippers to race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus.
Afternoon tea is said to have originated with one person; Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. In the early 1800's she launched the idea of having tea in the late afternoon to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, which in fashionable circles might not be served until 8 o'clock at night. This fashionable custom soon evolved into high tea among the working classes, where this late afternoon repast became the main meal of the day.
Two teas that have survived excessive taxation and the test of time are English Breakfast Tea and Earl Grey. Both teas originated with black tea from China but were later used from colonial tea planted in India.
Shop online at Imperial Tea Garden to find your favorite loose leaf teas, tea bags and accessories or try your hand at baking some fresh scones for your next tea party.
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