Time For Tea

Time For Tea Ethan Knight
New Zealanders once consumed more tea per capita than any other nation in the world. A resurgence in the popularity of boutique varieties, and - for the first time - locally grown tea, may make it time for tea once again.

While New Zealand has its own native tea tree — manuka, or Leptospermum scoparium — this article focuses on real tea, that is, the leaves from the tea plant Camellia sinensis.

Compared with the 5000-year-old tradition of tea consumption in China, New Zealand's own 200-year history seems quite modest. However, the Kiwi spirit has left its imprint on the world of tea through innovations such as John Hart's 1929 invention of the 'Thermette', a lightweight outdoor cooker to rapidly heat water. This spirit also led to a unique tea culture in this country.

The first black tea probably came to New Zealand with sealers in the late 18th century—a time when the British trading of New Zealand sealskins for Chinese tea flourished—but it was not until the arrival of British missionaries in the first half of the 19th century that a tea culture became established here. By 1850, tea had become the beverage of choice in all classes of society. As it had done in Britain before, tea slowly replaced the traditional ale for breakfast during the second half of the 19th century. It was strongly promoted by the temperance movement and was advertised as a drink that "refreshes but does not intoxicate", possessing a wealth of health benefits. While many of these health claims were of a dubious nature (mainly due to adulteration through added 'filler' materials such as ash, other leaves, colouring minerals and even ore), the simple fact that the water had to be boiled to prepare tea brought with it a substantial improvement in public health.

Around 1850, the British East India Company had engaged a Scottish botanist by the name of Robert Fortune to commit one of the biggest corporate thefts in history. His mission was to steal tea plants and seeds from China to be planted in company-controlled territory in the Indian Himalayas. The coup was designed to free Britain from dependency on China as a monopolistic trading partner. By 1900, the success of Fortune's mission led to substantially lower tea prices by supplementing and eventually replacing the expensive Chinese black tea with cheaper tea produced in India.This increased tea consumption throughout the entire British Empire. By 1906, less than one per cent of tea imported into New Zealand was of Chinese origin, and from then on, nearly all tea came from the British colonies in India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).

There were a number of reasons for the meteoric rise in the popularity of tea. Rapid social change between 1850 and 1950 can be partly correlated with the growing importance of tea during that period. While tea changed social behaviour, in turn new cultural developments changed the way tea was consumed.

Until the introduction of tea gardens in New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century, women were limited to socialising with female friends in private homes. The establishment of tea gardens allowed women and men to promenade and attend a variety of entertainment together, in the outdoors. Between 1850 and 1880, numerous tea gardens—including Dunedin's Vauxhall Gardens, Christchurch's Cremorne and Cokers' Gardens, Wellington's Wilkinson Tea Garden and Auckland's Waiata Tropical Gardens—were established and attracted large crowds. While the actual tea drinking was only a small part of this culture, it is doubtful that this would have ever developed in the absence of tea.

Article continued in issue 115

Additional Info

  • Author: Jo Bind
  • Start page: 66