Tea has a long and interesting history. According to popular legend it was discovered (or invented) over four thousand years ago by Chinese Emperor Shan Nong. His majesty liked to boil his drinking water, and one day while he was in his garden some tea leaves fell into his cup or pot and steeped in the hot water. The adventurous emperor tried the brew, loved it and had his gardener plant more tea so he could have a ready supply.
For many centuries in Asia tea was used for medicinal purposes as well as to show social status. The upper class loved tea, and as an extension of that love tea preparation evolved into beautiful if rather complicated social ceremonies. Tea spread east from China to Japan, and then traveled west with Dutch and Portuguese sailors at the turn of the seventeenth century. Europeans adored tea, but at first it was very scarce and therefore expensive, so only the very wealthy could afford it. It would take another hundred years before tea cultivation, shipping and trade improved enough to provide a steady, affordable supply for everyone . . . unless you were a colonist in America.
Yes, tea played an important role in the lives of early Americans, too. They wanted it, but the British Empire elected to tax their tea shipments, which made the colonist angry. This in turn instigated protests, boycotts, and a lot of tea being dumped off British ships into the ocean. After one especially infamous "tea party" in Boston the Empire responded by sending in their military to shut down the port. Things then got very ugly, instigated the War of Independence, and the rest is history.
We Americans did contribute one positive note to the history of tea. A merchant in New York named Thomas Sullivan decided to save some money on packaging and sent samples of tea sewn in little silk sachets to his customers. The customers wrongly assumed the tea was supposed to be brewed in the little silk bags, and discovered they worked great; all they needed to make tea was boiling water and a cup. Thus the tea bag was born.
Presently over forty different countries grow and produce two and a half million tons of tea every year, which generates over three billion dollars in revenue. I wonder if the emperor ever imagined that the accidental brew he enjoyed in his garden would become the most popular hot beverage on the planet, as tea is today.
Oddly enough tea isn't a beverage commonly associated with the U.S. I think this is in part because we're known as a nation of coffee drinkers, and this is somewhat justified. You can spit pretty much anywhere in America and hit a coffee shop, but tea shops -- which we generally call tea rooms -- are extremely scarce. Practically every American home has a Mr. Coffee but not a Mr. Tea or even a kettle -- unless you live in the south.
Like most southern Americans tea is a daily part of my life. I can't remember a time from childhood when I didn't drink sweet tea (which is iced tea with lemon and lots of sugar, also known as the house wine of the South.) I'm not alone in that; of the some fifty million cups of tea Americans drink every year, forty million are iced. Proper tea, which we called hot tea, was what my half-English grandmother brewed for herself every morning and for the rest of the family to drink with dinner during winter (the only time Mom would part with her sweet tea.) After my grandmother passed I began drinking hot tea every morning as an act of remembrance, and from there it simply became habit (one I cannot shake, as you see here from this a photo of my current tea stock, along with my favorite pot.)
My love of this beverage has definitely worked its way into my fiction; tea has played an important element in several of my novels (once I even used it as a weapon.) When I decided to rewrite the history of America by creating Toriana I had the chance to rework a little of tea's notorious past as well. The Boston Tea Party still took place, but my colonists didn't win the War of Independence. During the era of rebuilding and settling Toriana after the war, however, the British Empire lifts taxation on tea and instead uses it like an olive branch (or more precisely, a dangling carrot) to facilitate some reconciliation. So in my universe tea remains the national drink, but with some interesting additions and variations, and is regularly custom-blended with herbs and other additions. You'll also find it playing a minor but intriguing role in the second book of the series.
When you writers are world-building and want to put your own spin on something common or ordinary, it can be good to first learn about its origins and history. You don't have to become an absolute expert on something like tea to make it an effective story element, but the more you know the better you can tailor and use it to give your fiction that much more realism.
My love of this subject has also led to making this post extremely lengthy, sorry. Wrestling with the blog renovations also prevented me from putting together some recipes to share, so I think I'll wrap it up here and save the rest for another post.