Book Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose

The history of the main ingredient in kombucha is described in For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. Kombucha brewers today can choose from a wide selection of green and black teas from around the world: China, India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. But it was not always the case. Until the middle of the 19th Century, quality teas were only available from one country: Imperial China. Sara Rose’s book tells the gripping tale of one man’s journey beyond the port cities where the Chinese allowed foreigners to trade into the forbidden heartland of the vast country where the premier tea estates were a protected monopoly.

Opium Wars

For nearly 200 years, the East India Company sold opium to China and bought tea with the proceeds. When China moved to cultivate the opium poppy, the British realized they needed to grow their own tea. Few Westerners had penetrated the Chinese interior since the days of Marco Polo. Until, that is, 1848 and the adventures of one Robert Fortune: “a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy.”

This book tells a compelling story. Set against a landscape of unearthly beauty, it recounts one man’s corporate espionage mission—a struggle against pirates, suspicious locals, the elements, and his untrustworthy companions.

Disguised as Chinese Mandarin, with a small entourage of native porters, Fortune succeeded in stealing plants and seeds from the distant tea valleys and mountains of various regions of China, off-limits to outsiders.

This was a brazen act of industrial espionage sponsored by the East Indian Company, desperate to break China’s tea monopoly and establish quality tea plantations in India. The Himalayas were an ideal high-altitude location in the British Empire to grow the world-renowned Chinese tea plants. They possessed the same growing conditions as China’s best tea regions.

Transporting tea plants

Fortune overcame a variety of setbacks. Not only the risks of traveling into China’s hinterland and the challenges of transporting thousands of high-quality tea plants and rare seeds from the exclusive green and black tea regions far inland. He was also faced with the ignorance of British botanists in India on the receiving end. His ingenuity enabled the seedlings he collected to survive transportation by land, a long sea voyage, and on to the high mountains of northern India. It took multiple shipments for the thousands of seedlings needed to arrive undamaged.

He made significant improvements to the glazed cases used to transport the tea plants that enabled many other plants, such as chestnuts, oaks, and rhododendrons, to travel between continents.

The theft of Chinese tea resulted in the establishment of great Indian estates, such as Darjeeling, that the British controlled. It helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices.

Sarah Rose demonstrates in engaging detail how botany and empire-building went hand in hand. No matter which teas you select for your kombucha, you owe a debt to Robert Fortune.

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of SYMBIOSIS – the Official Journal of Kombucha Brewers International. Both print-on-demand and electronic versions of the magazine are available for purchase.

SYMBIOSIS Magazine - Spring 2023

KBI PUBLIC Magazines: SYMBIOSIS Magazine – Spring 2023

SYMBIOSIS Magazine is the official Journal of Kombucha Brewers International. Enjoy brewing tips and techniques, equipment reviews, industry stats and information to improve your business. Plus well researched scientific articles on the health benefits, brewery member profiles, and more!

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2 Responses

  1. the_editor says:

    An examination of the Indian side of the equation is provided in the book Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hid­den His­tor­ies, by Amitav Ghosh.

    The review in the Financial Times examines how “opium, a tool of colo­nial cap­it­al­ism, was used to pum­mel India, cor­rupt China and prop up empire.”

    Opium's Hidden history FT Review extract

  2. the_editor says:

    Writing in the Feb 24, 2024 edition of the Weekend FT, economist John Gapper offers sobering view of the global trade in beverage commodities.

    He notes that coffee, cocoa, and tea were all the product of empire, and their supply has become fragile:

    The cost of food and drink has increased sharply in general but the disruption to cocoa, coffee and tea is especially instructive. These beverages were early products of empire and the trade routes established by the British East India Company and other merchant adventurers. They were first enjoyed as exotic luxuries in the 17th century, then gradually became part of every¬day life at home and work.

    There is an irony in tea being transported the long way around Africa, rather than via the Suez Canal. It was the opening of the canal in 1869 that put an end to the “tea races” of clip¬per sailing ships such as the Cutty Sark to bring tea sup¬plies from China to the west as rap¬idly as possible. As soon as steam ships could cut thou¬sands of miles off the journey, sailing became redundant.

    Victorians used to celebrate the arrival of new tea from Shanghai in Lon¬don and prices would drop as the clippers docked. There is less excitement about refreshment now: a tea bag is a tea bag and it is easy to for¬get how far processed leaves in branded packets have come. What was an adventure has turned into a routine bit of logistics.

    While current supply-line challenges are perhaps temporary, climate change will impact these commodities in future.

    The Suez Canal will probably be able to resume normal operations in time, but a vital trade route will remain a tempting target for attackers. The Panama Canal has also had to limit passages, in its case because of drought. It is getting hard to ensure safe and easy navigation for ships that have been loaded with products for our consumption.

    It is also more difficult to fill up those vessels without fail. Agricultural commodities were always volatile, with good growing seasons one year and failures the next. But climate change increases the risks and is making it difficult for farmers and farm workers to earn a consistent living. They have less capital to invest in trees and bushes, and less reason to carry on trying.

    The old empires of coffee, cocoa and tea are getting fragile amid climate change and the interruption of global trade routes. The price of their weakness is already becoming obvious, and the supermarket shelves may not always stay full.

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