China: the source
For some foods and it’s difficult to determine where the first development and consumption took place. It is known that the tea plant originates in the south-eastern part of Asia. It is generally assumed that tea was discovered and first cultivated in China to prepare the beverage that we nowadays still enjoy. According to the best known legend emperor Shen Nong accidently “discovered” tea when leaves of the tea plant whirled into a pan of boiling water, after which a very pleasant fragrance was spread. The first written Chinese mentioning of tea dates from about 300 A.D., in which tea is mainly described as a medicine and mind-enlightening beverage.
Japan: the first expansion
After its discovery and the start of cultivation the number of plantations exponentially grew in a large part of Southern China. During the T’ang dynasty (620-902 a.D.) tea rapidly became one of the main export products. During that period the plant was exported to Japan where drinking tea was introduced (probably) by travelling Buddhist priests. Plantations started to develop after they found out that the Japanese climate is also fit for cultivating tea.
India: the third largest tea country
Tea plants also originate from the Northern and Eastern part of India and it is assumed that the plant was cultivated on a smaller scale for medicinal use. When losing the Chinese tea trade at the start of the 1800s, the Brits lost their beloved beverage. During that time they started to investigate the possibilities to cultivate teas in their own colony: India. The commercial cultivation started around 1835 after an indigenous wild Assam-variety was discovered in the jungles of India. The first tea plantation in India was called ‘Chabuwa’ (or: Cha-Buwa: Cultivation of Tea). Cultivation on a larger scale developed in the decades after that; around the 1900s the whole Assam-area was covered with tea plantations. Later the tea culture also spread to the hilly area of Darjeeling (Northern India).
Nowadays India has over 12,500 tea plantations (spread over a number of regions), of which about 45% produces the well-known Assam-tea. (Still a popular beverage in the United Kingdom).
Sri Lanka, Indonesia and others
With an increase in the popularity of drinking tea in Europe (and later on also in the United States) both the demand and production of tea exploded. The Dutch and the Brits were using own colonies to increase the cultivation of tea. Large plantations were founded in Indonesia, colonised by the Dutch and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon, colonised by the United Kingdom). The constant growth made that tea at present time still is being produced in almost all countries in the South-Eastern part of Asia. Eventually, production also moved towards the West of Africa (in particular Kenya), but also to Argentina where the climate for tea production is just right.