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Europe Discovers Tea

While the Chinese arguably perfected the art of tea almost 500 years before, Europeans did not learn of the drink's existence until 1271 A.D., when a young Marco Polo convinced his father and uncle to allow him to accompany them on a return trip to the strange land of "Cathay" (China). After an arduous journey into territory unknown to their contemporary Europeans, the Polos reached the grand palace of the Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan where they would remain for over twenty years as trusted court messengers and advisors. From Marco Polo's memoirs, historians have learned that he tasted tea, but he seems to have placed little emphasis on its uniqueness -- possibly because the Mongols did not value the customs of their conquered people.

Once back home, Polo embellished the tales of his experiences with lavish details that added to the already fantastical image of China that would captivate the imagination of Europe for the next 700 years. As an integral part of Eastern culture, tea would forever after be associated with romantic mystery in the Western mind.

As the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries dawned, Europeans became increasingly exposed to the world through the variety of foreign wonders that trickled into their marketplaces. Imported from China, sheer silk cloth from "magical" worms and mysteriously hard porcelains which no European could replicate dazzled the population as they became growingly convinced of the East's mysticism. In a Europe which hungered for exotic sensations, the arrival of tea, an integral aspect of Chinese life, was inevitable.

Yet, it was coffee, not tea, that would first thrill these eager Western palates. Coffee's arrival in advance of tea can be ascribed to several factors -- the simplest of which was the close geographic location of its source; transported overland from the Near East, coffee was grown thousands of miles closer to Europe than the tea of China. Because Europeans were already familiar with the dark browns and rich ambers of beer and ale, coffee seemed a familiar and natural addition to their beverage options when most of the tea to first reach Europe was green and strange-tasting.

Tea, especially the black variety, needed extensive and skillful processing, but the Chinese were determined to protect their monopoly on tea. Refusing to divulge the secrets of tea's preparation and seldom allowing Westerners to venture onto the mainland, the Chinese rulers insisted that all business be conducted either offshore or at the port of Amoy; the result was a complex and cumbersome system of trade that discouraged many Europeans from importing tea.

It was not until 1610 that tea gained a presence in Europe, and by that time, sea trade routes to the Far East were firmly established -- mainly through the efforts of the Portuguese and the Dutch (through the Dutch East India Company). From the Chinese, the Dutch bought small quantities of green tea and likely traded this for small amounts of Japanese tea as well. In Holland, tea rapidly gained popularity among wealthy women who were generally barred from the male-only coffee and ale houses. These affluent ladies sponsored lavish tea parties where they conversed, ate, and drank tea from thimble-sized cups or shallow saucers. Still, tea was prohibitively expensive and several decades away from being affordable to the masses.

Although rival England had repeatedly proven herself the naval power of the day, the English merchants lagged far behind their Dutch and Portuguese counterparts in the Far East trade, and while some English merchants undoubtedly knew of tea as part of this burgeoning trade, they could obtain it and other potentially lucrative treasures only at the inflated costs charged by middlemen. To remedy this deficiency, Queen Elizabeth I. created the British East India Company in 1600 to establish trade routes, ports, and trading relationships with the Middle and Far East, but due to political and other factors, tea was relatively slow to reach the English market.

The English were first introduced to tea through early shipments that were often stale and incorrectly infused because the small coffee house owners were familiar only with coffee preparation. While they knew that tea should be steeped in hot water, they did not know the quality of water to use, the steeping time, or the amount of tea leaf per cup. Even when instruction became more readily available, the proprietors did not always heed the advice.

Some, such as London's Thomas Garway, simply treated tea as they would ale -- that is, they brewed it and then stored the infusion in wooden barrels with taps. Often times, these barrels formerly held beer or other concoctions, so it is easy to understand the diversity of popular reaction to tea.

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