You might remember that, about a year and a half ago, I traveled through New Zealand to piece together its historical involvement with tea. My research resulted in an article that was published in the May 2012 issue of New Zealand Geographic.* Since the full article is not freely available and some of you might be interested to read about our country’s history with our favourite drink, I decided to publish it here on our blog in 2 parts. The first part covers New Zealand’s illustrious tea culture, while the second part will cover Aotearoa’s long history of attempting to grow tea.
A look into the cups and the heady smell lingering in cafes around New Zealand leave little doubt about the dominating hot drink in this country: Coffee is king. And good coffee at that. But this hasn’t always been that way. Until the introduction of specialty coffee into New Zealand in the late 1980s, tea was the Kiwi’s favourite drink and it is this ancient drink that currently experiences a renaissance of sorts. Increasing demand in high-quality tea and recent success in producing world-class tea in New Zealand are reason enough to look at the history of tea in New Zealand – both as a consuming and a producing nation.
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.
New Zealand’s own tea culture
Compared to tea’s history of some 5000 years in its birthplace China, New Zealand’s own history with the world’s second-most consumed drink (after water) with a little over 200 years seems quite modest. But the ‘Kiwi spirit’ has left its imprint on the world of tea through innovations such as John Hart’s 1929 invention of the ‘Thermette’ and ultimately led to a unique tea culture in this country. By the 1870s, New Zealand – together with Australia – had become the nation with the highest tea consumption in the world and by the turn of the century imported 3.1kg of tea per capita per annum (compared to 1.2kg imported by England at the same time). Today, New Zealand has an annual per capita consumption of about 0.65kg (and resides in 45st place regarding consumption worldwide), a far cry from its heyday in the late 19th century!
The first black tea probably came to New Zealand with the sealers in the late 18th century, a time when the trade of New Zealand sealskins for Chinese tea that was sold in Britain flourished. But it wasn’t until the arrival of British missionaries in the first half of the 19th century that a tea culture became established in New Zealand. By 1850, tea had become the beverage of choice throughout all classes of society. And, 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 advertised as a drink that “refreshes but does not intoxicate” and comes with a raft of health benefits. While many of these health claims were of 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 of 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 the company-controlled territory in the Indian Himalayas and therefore being freed from the 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, which, in turn, fueled an increase in tea consumption throughout the entire British Empire. By 1906, less than 1% of tea imported to New Zealand was of Chinese origin – nearly all tea now came from the British colonies in India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).
Tea’s meteoric rise in popularity after its introduction to New Zealand has a multitude of reasons. The rapid change of society between 1850 and 1950 can be partly correlated with the growing importance of tea during that period. While tea inspired and aided change in social behaviour, new cultural developments caused changes in the way tea was consumed. The great success of tea gardens in New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century is a good example for this. Until the introduction of tea gardens, women were limited to socializing with their female friends in private homes. The establishment of tea gardens suddenly allowed women and men to promenade and to attend a variety of entertainment – all in the beloved outdoors. Between 1850 and 1880, numerous tea gardens like Dunedin’s Vauxhall Gardens, Christchurch’s Cremorne and Cokers’s Gardens, Wellington’s Wilkinson Tea Garden and Auckland’s Waiata Tropical Gardens were established and attracted large crowds. While the actual taking of tea was only a small part of this culture, it is doubtful that it would have ever developed without it. The establishment of the fist tearooms, which were to become such an iconic part of New Zealand’s culture throughout the 20th century, did even more for the liberation of women. While men were usually tolerated in the tearooms, it was essentially women’s territory – with its afternoon tea including cakes and sandwiches – and enabled women to socialize outside the confines of their homes.
But even after the decline in popularity of the tea gardens, Kiwis enjoyed drinking their cuppa in nature. One of the best examples of New Zealand’s obsession with taking tea in the outdoors is surely Harry Ell’s only partially realised project of creating a network of walkways with conveniently spaced teahouses for resting along the Port Hills at the outskirts of Christchurch. The work on the project started in 1914, but of the 14 planned tea houses, only 4 were actually built. The iconic “Sign of the Kiwi” on Dyers Pass still serves its original purpose to this day.
* The text published here is my original article, which differs slightly from the one published in NZ Geographic.