Today, the British are almost synonymous with tea, but how did the stiff upper-lipped upper crust of the UK start downing cups of this hot stuff? As with many other "innovations," it started with colonialism and trade.

The first recorded tea salesman in Britain was a seventeenth-century coffee shop owner named Thomas Garway, who operated out of Exchange Alley in London. The beverage soon became a favorite amongst the upper classes of British society, popularized by the Portuguese-born Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of playboy King Charles II. Soon, tea became doctors' latest cure du jour for every ailment under the sun, and once-maligned sugar was paired with it to cheer up consumers (literally). As a result, sales of the ingredients in this delicious combination exploded.

In the eighteenth century, the tea industry exploded. The Brits imported 15 million pounds of tea per year, and the taxing of tea was a major source of conflict (Boston Tea Party, anyone?). Their longtime rivalry with the Netherlands, the second-biggest tea consumer, was also heightened as both countries tried to buy as much tea as humanly possible from China. The Dutch and English imported tea via trade companies (like the Dutch East India Tea Company, among others) who made a lot of product available at relatively affordable prices, making tea popular amongst not just the upper classes. Talk about a tea trickle-down economy!

Women in Assam, India, gathering tea on a plantation in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Image via Bourne & Shepherd/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain. 

Both countries eventually decided to try to grow the goods at home - and by "home," we don't mean in Western Europe, but in their already exploited colonies. In the mid-ninteenth century, the British began to organize cultivation of tea in colonial India, in particular the Assam Valley (which gave its name to a particularly potent brew) and Darjeeling. The Dutch began to grow tea in their colony of Indonesia, primarily in Java.

And of course the tea plantations were primarily owned by the foreigners, rather than indigenous merchants, and the most of the profits went to the colonizers. Some Indian entrepreneurs did run their own tea gardens (the first was leased to an Indian merchant in 1881, decades after the Brits started this enterprise), they were few and far between.

Feature image via Jozef van Aken/Wikimedia Commons.