The Legend Behind Britain’s Favourite Drink

The following is a guest post.

On the first of these chilly September nights when you can feel fall creeping in, I warmed my fingers on my steaming cup of tea and realized, without disappointment, that it wouldn’t be too hot for tea again for a while. Despite the colder weather coming, I was glad for an excuse to increase my intake (and stock) of a drink that warms you inside and out.

Looking into my cup of Twinings orange, mango and cinnamon with a teaspoon of honey, I wondered how this little bag of magic came to be steeping in my cup. Who was it and when was it that someone first put leaves in hot water and agreed to drink it?

The more I thought about it, the more curious I became, as I would never drink water with so much as a speck of dirt in it, let alone allow my drinking water to be infused with the leaves of a plant I knew nothing about. Who was that brave soul? Whoever it was, he or she deserves at least a trophy if not a Nobel peace prize.

Despite the popular belief that tea is inherently British, which no doubt comes from Britain’s love of the bevvy, the legend behind the brew is deeply rooted in Chinese history.

Legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (Shennong), renowned for his strong beliefs in agriculture and herbal medicine, discovered our beloved cuppa by accident.

The emperor believed that water should be consumed hot, which he was drinking when leaves fell into his cup. Rather than dumping his hot water out and trading it in for a new one, as I would have done, his curiosity lead him to taste the infusion.

To his surprise and our delight, he liked the mixture so much that he began brewing it for himself and sharing it with others, providing the planet with one of it’s most popular drinks.

Although the legend of Shen Nung’s coincidental curiosity has not been proven true, the Chinese origin of tea is undisputed and dates back to around 5,000 years ago. Whether the legend is true or not, the world, especially Great Britain, owes that Chinese citizen a lot of credit.

The gust of wind that blew those leaves into Shen Nungs cup has lead to the worldwide appreciation of the drink and endless varieties. Today, tea is celebrated around the world but has a special place in the hearts of Britophiles and the history of Great Britain.

The nation has adopted the drink as a favorite pastime, culinary signature, and icon. Plucked from the Camellia sinensis bush, the leaves are used to create four main types of tea, differentiated by their levels of fermentation.

Black teas are created as the leaves are fermented and then dried, while Green Tea leaves are heated and then dried to avoid the fermentation of the leaf, allowing the leaves to retain their green color. Oolong teas are in between Black and Green tea, as the leaves are only partially fermented.

White teas are the rarest variation, and surprisingly can only be harvested once a year! White tea is made from the first bud and top leaf of a young bush that are unfermented, like green teas, before drying.

In addition to these four types, there are also chai teas, herbal teas, and fruit infusions, making the selection so large as to accommodate the tastes of our planet’s population.

Whatever you prefer in your cup, tea drinkers worldwide can all appreciate the chance that Shen Nung took that allows us to fill our cups with our favorite variety morning, noon, or night.

May the legend be a reminder to all of us that sip and slurp to be risk-takers and mistake-makers. Just when you think your cup may be spoiled, have the courage to take a taste – a coincidental concoction may turn out to be the best thing you’ve ever tried.

Devin Smith is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in English and working in the bridal industry. She became smitten by Britain as a result of her semester abroad in London, where she developed a fancy for tea, Strongbow and Primark, among all things British. She particularly enjoys a fruit infusion after work or before bed (or both!) and Cadbury chocolate bars from her hometown in rural Connecticut.


  1. Jean | says

    Devin, Devin, Devin – my dear, it is *never* too hot to drink tea! A nice blistering hot cup of tea warms you when the weather is cold and cools you when it’s hot, as the oft-quoted saying goes. ;-) Lovely post!

  2. Jose Carlos Brazinha Alves says

    After read your article my idea is that you’ve donne a nice work. But… There is always a «but». You didn’t read all the history.
    So, if you alow me a little advise, please read all you can about the magnificent and portuguese wife of the King Charles II, D. Catarina de Bragança.
    You will love it. An amazing woman who had truly bring the tea habit to UK. Nomather if she starts with the 5 o’clock tea…
    It was the portuguese of the XVI century who brings the tea, spices, silks, rare jewels, etc, to Europe.
    Please note: portuguese people are now a little country diving in the european crisis, but we are rich in history and traditions.
    When you have a little time, please read about it an you will find that there are a diference between the lengend..and the true History.

    • Melissa says

      This post was not about the entire history of tea and how tea came to Britain. It is about how tea was discovered as a drink which is different than writing about Catarina de Braganca who is credited with bringing it to Britain or Europe.

    • Devin Smith says

      Jose, thank you for reading and for your kind compliment! While the Chinese are credited with the discovery of tea as a drink, which was the focus of my post, I am very intrigued by Catarina and am curious to read about her contribution to tea’s popularity within the UK!

  3. Sue Hickey says

    we in Newfoundland (Canada, Britain’s first overseas colony, take that America!), have always loved our tea and have many traditions and expressions because of it. Unfortunately America is stepping in. People now line up on their cars for their Tim Hortons (like Starbucks), go for “coffee” instead of tea, and so on…because that is a sad part of American mass market “culture.” I have traveled in the States. They don’t know how to make tea. My dad always said that Americans were half nuts because they drink too much coffee. Thankfully we have a growing Muslim population and all of them love their tea and don’t drink coffee.

    • Judith says

      Sue, a misfit American here. Over the years, I taught (ESL) and knew lots of Muslims from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, etc. There were variations by country of origin and from family to family, but they generally drank both coffee and tea(s), especially with mint if they were from the Middle East or northern Africa. Some of them served me coffee made from the green, unroasted beans, which was new to me and quite strong in terms of caffeine. All told, they drank a lot of coffee, noticeably so, although Pakistanis, for instance, were primarily tea drinkers as opposed to most Saudis.
      I’m just curious as to where the Muslims you wrote of come from, if you know.

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