For centuries, Chinese farmers and merchants held a near monopoly on the production and sale of tea. It had taken them nearly 4000 years of trial and error to process the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis and make a beverage out of it, experimenting with fermentation, oxidation, soil, light, and topography to find the perfect balance needed to make a satisfying cup of tea. In the process, numerous invented varieties of tea, based on different production methods and growing regions, contributed to a sophisticated culture of connoisseurship that raised the simple drink from a mere commodity to a cultural phenomenon.
Tea first appeared in England during the 17th century as an exotic luxury to be enjoyed by the very wealthy, but by the turn of the 19th century, tea had become an economic staple. The British East India Company, founded in 1600, began to rely upon tea as its main source of revenue. Increased demand led to a growing trade deficit with China. Even pivoting the venerable joint-stock company into the world’s largest drug cartel had failed to calm shareholders. Opium helped balance the trade in the short term, but many worried Chinese domestic production of poppies would eventually undercut the competitiveness of opium imported from what Company traders and their allies back in London cheerfully referred to as “Our Indian Possessions.”
The company’s solution? Break the Chinese monopoly on tea. This was a delicate job requiring a very special skillset.