by Mike Keeler
Camellia sinensis came down to humans from high above. Originally found growing on the slopes of the Himalayas, it was brought into China as a medicinal herb about 5000 years ago. Legend has it that the emperor Shen Nung was the first to realize its most potent property, when he placed some of the leaves into a pot of boiling water. The result was a delicious brew that was safer to drink than pure water, and which sharpened the mind while providing a calming break.
When the Portuguese reached the Celestial Empire in 1557, they took a liking to the stuff and brought some of the fresh, green leaves home to Europe. But it didn’t travel well, so soon after the Dutch opted to buy the “black” version of the leaves – dried and oxidized leaves pressed into a handy brick – which the Chinese were happy to sell, since it was lower quality. Within a century or two, these bricks became a kind of international currency among European trading nations.
The power of the plant was truly revealed in England and throughout its empire, when the drink replaced beer as the standard mid-afternoon break for the working class. The plant was one of the primary commodities of the world’s first publicly traded company, which was wildly profitable for over 250 years. It became such a part of the culture that when London attempted to tax sales of the plant in the New World, American colonists rebelled and dumped several tons of it into Boston Harbor.
South Carolina was the first state to grow the stuff, but consumption was limited during the oppressive heat of summer. In 1879, a publication called Housekeeping in Old Virginia suggested a cold version of the drink, made with a simple sugar syrup, poured over ice, with a slice of lemon. But ice was not widely available until the invention of refrigeration. At the 1904 World’s Fair, this cold version exploded into the national consciousness. So sweet, so simple, so good.