How do you take your tea? One sugar? Two? If you’ve ever drank tea at one point or another in your life - and we’re wondering why you’re here if you haven’t - then you’ve probably got a way you prefer to drink it. Whether it’s an afternoon pick-me up, or you’re cuddling up with a hot cup and a good book, there’s endless ways to enjoy your cuppa.
You do your own thing, which means everyone around the world is doing their own thing, too. And their own things are pretty different from yours. The culture of tea around the world vastly differs from country to country, and you might never have even thought about it. So sit down, pour yourself a cup, and commit some time to other culture’s tea ceremonies.
Boston tea party, anyone? While it’s true that the history of tea in America is rich and exhaustive, we actually don’t drink as much tea as the other guys. In fact, American tea consumption per capita doesn’t even break into the top ten of all the countries in the world.
Even so, Americans do love their tea. 158 million Americans drink tea, every single day. When it comes to take it or leaf it - pun intended - they take it.
So what’s brewing in the states?
Sweet tea. Everything’s bigger in Texas, and there’s no exception with how big sweet tea is there. It started out as a luxury - in the 1800’s, sugar and ice were difficult to come by, and considered a commodity. In 1879, the first recipe for sweet tea was published in Texas. During World War II, acquiring green tea became an increasingly tough job because of anti-Japanese sentiments. With black tea in abundance from Britain, controlled by India, sweet tea became overwhelmingly popular.
Popular it remains, but the industry is predicting to be growing at a rate of 5% per year, with ready to drink teas - like sweet tea - at the forefront. Watch out, UK. American tea drinkers are coming for you.
Culture Takeaways: none. Is America just full of uncultured swine? Possibly - but let’s chalk this one up to the melting pot. If people have any particular tea ceremonies, they’re fairly unique to themselves and their culture. Essentially, it’s tea-time anytime, and everyone has their own customs on how to enjoy the beverage.
The overwhelming go-to tea of Japan? Green tea. It’s said that in the 11th century, a Japanese priest brought tea seeds from China and planted them all over the hillsides in Suruga, Japan.
As tea culture developed, it was viewed as a ritual reserved for the religious or royals. Then another priest came along and opened a tea shop in Kyoto for the common people, because he believed drinking green tea should be open to the common people, as well. Since then, green tea has been a staple in Japanese culture.
Today in Japan, it’s not offensive to add milk or sugar to your tea - but it is if you don’t taste it before doing so. It’s customary to drink the tea to taste it in its purest form before you go putting all sorts of sweeteners in it.
In the business world, if you’re not a big shot executive, at some point or another you’re probably going to be brewing green tea for any guests to the office. As a guest, drinking your tea before your host does is a big no-no, because it says that you’re not as interested in what your host has to say as you are in guzzling down your tea. Wait until they drink first, then it’s safe to take your turn.
It’s also common to host Japanese Tea Ceremonies, which hold an entire set of rules all their own. Just a few from among the crowd: drink all of the tea, eat everything served, and don’t drink the tea from the front side - turn the bowl slightly to avoid drinking directly from the front. And as with most Japanese households, don’t forget to remove your shoes. Many important feudal arguments were carried out, ironically, in the serene setting of these tea ceremonies.
Culture Takeaways: always drink all of your tea, and if it’s going to be any kind, it’s probably going to be green. Don’t drink before your host - but always drink before you’ve added any cream or sugar. And, should you get lucky, you might find yourself participating in a tea ceremony.
Legend has it that tea was invented in China. In 2737 B.C., Emperor Shen Nung was enjoying a nice meal and drinking his water at a boiling temperature - just how he liked it, to make sure it was clean. Some stray leaves found their way in - which we’d like to argue isn’t particularly clean - and viola, tea was born.
In China tea was highly renowned for its medicinal properties and, again, almost exclusively used by the upper class. It was seen as a way to improve relaxation and focus while meditating, and Buddhist priests ran it through noble circles. Tea gained popularity increasingly into everyday life when the common folk thought hey, we’d like some of those health benefits too, thank you very much. It’s highly ingrained into the fabric of the society, and no meal is served without it. Even if someone was too poor to afford it, tea was so important that they would serve a cup of hot water and make do.
Tea is on the list of the “Seven Household Necessities,” an idea first submitted in the Song Dynasty from a saying: “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea are the seven necessities to begin a day.” Rumor has it that alcohol was once on this list - but China seems to have nixed that one.
Like Japan, China has its own tea ceremony which primarily uses Oolong tea, whose leaves have a very short brewing time. Only the purest water is used, and elaborate pouring techniques are often displayed. Many steps need to be completed before actually drinking the tea - like passing it around to admire the quality.
In Tibet specifically, a creamy concoction called yak butter tea is served every morning. Why’s it called yak butter tea? Because there’s yak butter in it. The mixture begins with black pu’erh tea, and then combined with milk curds, barley powder, and of course yak butter. It’s a testament to their climate - where brutal temperatures abound, the tea gives them energy and substance to go about their day.
Culture Takeaways: you’ll never go without your cup of tea, even if it’s actually a cup of hot water. You’re bound to impress your friends if you learn some fancy pouring techniques, and don’t skip out on getting yourself a taste of yak butter.
A lot of credit for the commercialization of tea in India goes to the British, and we thank them for it because India is now the world’s second largest producer of tea next to China. In fact, they were trying to break up the monopoly China held on the industry, and in the 1920’s the British East India Company launched heavy tea advertising campaign throughout the country, which took off as a success.
The tea that the campaigns promoted, however, was lower grade tea. The company was out to make a profit, and they did. Indians added milk and sugar to the potent tea, which upped the taste and carried on into the way tea is consumed there today. It was also popular to adds spices to the mix, such as masala, which introduced chai to the culture.
Assam is the most heavily produced tea throughout the region. It was brought to India by the Chinese, who couldn’t cultivate it in the cold weather of their climate. The plants thrived in the hot environment of India, making way for the popularity of the intensely flavored tea. So once you’re offered it, it’s thought to be polite to turn down an offer for a cup at first. Your host with then insist, and you’ll oblige the next time.
The Assam tea gardens in India step out of time. The tea garden zones are an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time, to keep in accordance with the early sunrise in that part of the country. Tea workers days start early to preserve daylight.
Culture Takeaways: your tea’s going to be strong, but it’s going to be good. It’s also likely to be Assam tea because of its vast popularity in the area. Deny your chai at first, but then willingly accept.
If you were asked which country drinks - by far - the most tea in the world, your mind might first jump to the good ol’ British. But, surprise, Turkey’s got them beat, drinking almost seven pounds a year per person to their measly four pounds. There’s an old folk saying that goes, “Conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon.” Both poetic and an insight into just how important tea is to the Turkish.
Tea passed through Turkey on the silk road in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until around the 1900s that they began to get serious about their tea production. Their previous addiction, coffee, became more and more expensive to import, so they turned to tea. The climate of the Black Sea Eastern Province, Riza, had fertile soil and was perfect for production. Here, cay was born.
Cay is a kind of Turkish black tea brewed in a double teapot called a caydanlik. Water boils on the bottom while the leaves remain at the top, and once it’s finished the two are blended together. Milk is rarely added, but sugar cubes often accompany the beverage. The tea is traditionally served in small, tulip-shaped glasses. In fact, nearly 400 million of these glasses are sold per year. That’s six per person.
The culture is so tea obsessed that gathering around tea gardens is a popular social activity. And if you run out tea while serving a guest? Might as well move to another country. Guests are always served their tea first, and if they truly cannot take another sip, they signal their satisfaction by placing their tea spoon inside the glass or turning the glass on it’s side. Don’t turn it upside down, though - you’re telling your hosts that their tea was bad.
Culture Takeaways: before you come to Istanbul not Constantinople, make sure you come thirsty, because you’re going to drink a lot. Don’t turn it down - you might have to take a lot of bathroom breaks, but refusing a cup makes you seem impolite.
It’s hard to think of tea without thinking of England and their famous afternoon cup of it. Britain got green tea from China in the 1600s, and there was no going back. Except for when they took to pouring milk and sugar into their drinks, which is much more suited for black tea.
Afternoon tea is newer than you’d think - it started in the 19th century with Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who got hungry at four in the afternoon. Which we can all sympathize with. She would often ask for tea and bread around this time, and began inviting her friends to eat with her. Since people love to eat, the tradition caught on.
A longstanding British quarrel has been whether you should put your tea in the cup before or after milk. Some people think “milk in first” people are lower class. This originated from the idea that less expensive cups could crack when hot tea was poured in, and milk first helped cool down the mixture. But the other camp thinks exactly the opposite - milk first emulsifies the tea and makes it creamier. The last time there was such a great divide was between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Contrary to popular belief, if you stick your pinky finger out while drinking, it actually makes you seem like a snob. It comes from the idea that cultured people would eat their finger foods with three fingers, while the rest of the commoners would eat by grabbing with all five. The pinky finger was then inevitably raised - but tuck it in unless you want people to think you think you’re better than them. Dunking biscuits is also seen as primitive behavior. They’re to be nibbled on while sipping - never slurping - the tea.
Be careful not to say “high tea’ when referring to your afternoon tea. Unlike how it sounds, high tea was actually for servants when they were done with work, served at high tables instead of couches or recliners.
Culture Takeaways: put your pinky finger away, and get ready for a tea-filled afternoon - but don’t call it high tea. Put your milk in first or last, but be prepared to defend your position. Also be prepared to eat some delicious finger foods, just not with all five fingers.
Other Fun Facts:
In Morocco, it’s traditionally the man’s job to pour the tea.
Yerba Mate tea is so popular in Uruguay that people say “you can’t be elected to office unless you have been seen drinking yerba mate.”
The national drink of Iran and Afghanistan is tea.
In Siberia, up until the 19th century, blocks of solid tea were used as currency.
In Russia the traditional tea glass holder is called a Podstakannik.