What is the best tea? Well, it's the tea you enjoy the most. But can there be a truly best tea, one that is resoundingly better than all of the others? How can you judge the best tea of all time? Is it taste, or awards, or success? Tastes change. Awards are subjective. Success is unique - historically, there are a few teas that have had more influence than others. Come with me as I describe the greatest teas in history, each with their own history and legends that have made them a resounding outlier.
1. Shennong's Tea, 2737 BC
Yes, this is a stretch, but bear with me for a moment. Shennong was a mythological emperor, the first of Ancient China, that decreed that his people must boil their water before they drink it for health reasons. "Mythological"? Well, China's first established writing system on a durable medium did not exist until the 13th century BC¹. Sitting under a tree and drinking his boiled water, Shennong found that a few leaves from a nearby bush blew into his cup. The story goes that the brew was so infectiously good he spread it amongst Ancient China. If the establishment of tea isn't noteworthy, I don't know what is.
2. Eisai's Tea, 1191
A bit more is known about the Buddhist priest Eisai and his journey to bring tea seeds to Japan². He is both credited with introducing Zen Buddhism and tea on the same trip. He wrote Drinking Tea for Health, in which he states, "Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one's life more full and complete." Eisai spread the gospel of tea across the warrior class in Japan as well as to high ranking member such as the Shogun. Many cultured people took notice that high ranking officials such as the Shogun were drinking tea to improve their health and tried it on themselves. As demand grew, tea became more accessible and spread to other regions of Japan. Eisai was truly a marketing genius, as tea became intertwined in both feudal diplomacy practices and Zen Buddhism.
3. Robert Fortune's Tea, 1848
"The first cup is for your enemies" could not be truer than with Robert Fortune³. Having been commissioned by the British East India Company to go to China and steal their closely guarded tea secrets, the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune set sail. Disguised in typical robes, he worked with local guides to sneak deep into the country and acquire secrets from the well-regarded Wu Yi Shan hills. Fighting off pirates and smuggling the tea out of the country while also inventing a more efficient way to transport tea across long voyages, he brought some to India where farmers went to work replicating the agricultural techniques of Chinese farmers. While several batches failed, one was a resounding success. Augmented by existing tea plantations in India, tea production shot up. India is now the largest consumer of tea in non per-capita terms, and is still the second largest producer worldwide.
4. Teavern's Tea, 2022
You never know what the future holds!
¹ Bagley, Robert (1999). "Shang Archaeology". In Loewe, Michael; Shaughnessy, Edward (eds.). The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
² Robert E. Buswell Jr. & Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2014, Princeton, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-15786-3 p. 557.
³ Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, ISBN: 0670021520