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.
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.