According to Gail Schumann, author of the book Plant Diseases: Their Biology and Social Impact, coffee, not tea, was the popular drink in England in the mid-1600s. The Dutch imported the coffee from colonial plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Java, and Sumatra.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the French forced the Dutch out of Ceylon but then gave the island to Britain as part of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens between France and Britain. In 1825, the British began planting coffee, and by 1870, Ceylon was the world’s greatest producer. Now, however, Sri Lanka is best known for its tea, and it is tea, not coffee, that helps define the culture of Britain. What happened? The answer is Coffee Rust Fungus, or Hemileia vastatrix.
As Schumann reports:
“When the coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, reached Ceylon in 1875, nearly 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) were covered with coffee trees. No effective chemical fungicides were available to protect the foliage, so the fungus was able to colonize the leaves until nearly all the trees were defoliated.”
The result was pretty much complete devastation of the coffee plants. While in 1870, Ceylon was exporting 100 million pounds of coffee per year, by 1889, production was down to 5 million pounds.
Meanwhile, in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds, on 19 acres of land. Between 1873 and 1880, the Ceylon Tea Museum tells us, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons. [To get an idea of how much tea that is, as many as 375 to 425 cups of tea can be prepared from one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tea.] Four estates were purchased by the grocer Thomas J. Lipton. He came up with the idea of putting tea in packets instead of selling it loose from the chest. The Museum reports that Lipton’s 300 grocery shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain.
Today Ceylon is one of the largest producers of tea and the industry is one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange and a significant source of income for laborers. (Everyday around 300,000 estate workers pluck several million tea leaves by hand!)
Ceylon teas are graded by size and appearance. (Although the country has changed its name to Sri Lanka, the name Ceylon still applies to its tea.)
On a personal note, the best tea I ever had was in Russia. It was brewed in a samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) and served in a glass placed in an ornate holder. You are supposed to hold a sugar cube in your teeth as your drink. I brought some Russian tea (“chai”) back to the U.S. with me and tried to replicate that great taste at home, but couldn’t do it. I guess you have to be there…