According to legend, tea has been known in China since about 2700 bce. For millennia it was a medicinal beverage obtained by boiling fresh leaves in water, but around the 3rd century it became a daily drink, and tea cultivation and processing began. In 1669 the English East India Company brought China tea from ports in Java to the London market and English merchants introduced it into Ireland in the 1800s, writes Martyn Baguley

It may come as no surprise to readers that, by consuming up to six cups a day, the Irish are said to be the biggest tea drinkers in the world. So, with International Tea Day being on 21st May, it is appropriate for Ireland’s Own to dedicate some space this month to the plant, Camellia sinensis.

Life without a cuppa! It’s inconceivable, isn’t it? But it wasn’t for most of our ancestors who had never heard of a drink made from the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis (generic name ‘Camelia’, given by Linnaeus after the Moravian botanist Joseph Kamel (1661–1706); specific name ‘sinensis’ a Latin word meaning ‘from China’).

When it began to appear in London coffee houses in 1657 it couldn’t have been very popular because one coffee house owner felt it necessary to explain in an advert that the new beverage was an ‘‘Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chinese, ‘Tcha’.”

A year later ‘tee’ was being sold in many of the London coffee houses and, growing in popularity, it became a drink for the wealthy and fashionable set. After sampling it in 1660 the diarist Samuel Pepys, always willing to try something new, wrote in his diary, “I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I never had drunk before.”

Tea wasn’t an Irish drink until the early 1800s when it was bought from English merchants. The initial cheaper varieties that were imported were less tasty, so it was customary to add plenty of milk to mask the taste. This meant that tea was brewed stronger in Ireland than in England, a tradition which still endures.

Camellia sinensis is a small tree which is native to an area which stretches from India to China. The leaves and shoots have been used to make a drink for at least 4500 years: legend says that the drink was first discovered by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC when some leaves blew into hot water (that takes a bit of swallowing). The beverage was certainly known in the time of the Chinese polymath Confucius (551–479 BC), and by the seventh century AD it had become the national drink of China.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own