This week, Gastropod tells the story of two countries and their shared obsession with a plant: Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea bush. The Chinese domesticated tea over thousands of years, but they lost their near monopoly on international trade when a Scottish botanist, disguised as a Chinese nobleman, smuggled it out of China in the 1800s, in order to secure Britain's favorite beverage and prop up its empire for another century. The story involves pirates, ponytails, and hard drugs—and, to help tell the tale, Cynthia and Nicky visit Britain’s one and only commercial tea plantation, tucked away in a secret garden on an aristocratic estate on the Cornish coast. While harvesting and processing tea leaves, we learn the difference between green and black tea, as well as which is better for your health. Put the kettle on, and settle in for the science and history of tea!

It seemed so simple in the mid-1700s: China had tea, Britain wanted tea. First introduced by Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza in 1662, tea soon overtook beer as Britain’s favorite brew. The only problem, according to Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, was that the Chinese weren’t purchasing any British goods in return. Britain was simply dumping its silver into China, creating a serious balance of payments problem. Britain’s solution? Trade drugs for drugs—specifically, the caffeine fix in tea for the poppies that grow abundantly on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which at the time was part of the British empire. “They just start dumping opium into China,” explained Rose. But drug dealing proved to be an expensive headache, and so, in 1848, Britain embarked on the biggest botanical heist in history, as well as one of the biggest thefts of intellectual property to date: stealing Chinese tea plants, as well as Chinese tea-processing expertise, in order to create a tea industry in India.

Today, the 700-year-old family estate of Tregothnan, Cornwall, is actually selling tea back to China. And after Cynthia and Nicky pluck, process, and slurp the estate’s delicious teas, we talk to scientist Jeffrey Blumberg at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy to get to the bottom of the hype surrounding tea's health benefits. Listen in now for a swashbuckling tale of pirates and polyphenols!


This article appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast co-hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.