Tea: The First Healthy Alternative to Alcohol?

Tea: The First Healthy Alternative to Alcohol?

Reading the Leaves: A Historical and Health Perspective on Tea

Tea has journeyed through time and cultures, evolving from a medicinal concoction to a global beverage savoured for both its taste and purported health benefits. As we steep ourselves in its rich history and investigate its health claims, we uncover a narrative that intertwines cultural transformation with botanical prowess. If history isn’t your thing, skip to the end to learn about the health benefits certain teas are claimed to have, and whether you can trust them. 

The Steeped History of Tea: From Ancient China to English Cups

The origin of tea is as rich in mythology as it is in history. Legend has it that in 2737 BC, Emperor Shen Nong discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. This serendipitous infusion introduced tea to Chinese culture where it started as a medicinal drink. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), it had evolved into a daily beverage among the aristocracy and Buddhist monks, marking the beginning of tea culture with texts like "The Classic of Tea" by Lu Yu elevating its brewing to an art form.

From China, the ritual of tea drinking spread to Japan and Korea, where it became ingrained in local customs and religious practices. In Japan, for instance, tea became central to the Zen Buddhist ceremonies and eventually gave rise to the Chanoyu, the intricate Japanese tea ceremony.

As the leaves of tea blew across continents, they found their way to the great Arabic empires by the 9th century. Arab traders, enamoured by this exotic brew from their travels along the Silk Road, introduced tea to the Arab world. Here, it was traditionally enjoyed sweetened—a stark contrast to the later English preference for less sugary varieties, a distinction that might bemuse a visitor from the Middle East even today. Tea's arrival in England is often attributed to the marriage of King Charles II to the Portuguese Infanta Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Catherine was a tea enthusiast and brought with her a dowry that included a chest of Chinese tea. Her fondness for the drink helped popularise it among the English aristocracy. By the late 17th century, tea had become fashionable at the English court, and the East India Company began importing tea in larger quantities to meet the growing demand.

Tea's transformation from an aristocratic luxury to a staple of the British working class took place in the 18th century. The establishment of British tea plantations in colonised India in the 19th century further reduced costs and made tea accessible to all levels of society.

Tea: The First Alcohol Alternative?

In the 1800s, as Britain grappled with the social and health issues posed by widespread alcohol consumption some believed tea might solve the problems of drunkenness. Historically, this period marked a significant shift in British social habits, driven largely by the temperance movement. Advocates of this movement promoted tea not only as a wholesome alternative to alcohol but as a tool for fostering a disciplined and productive workforce.

Temperance tea parties became social phenomena, venues for the working class to gather not around pints of ale but cups of tea, a symbol of sober industriousness. These events often paired tea with sugar and wheat-based snacks, creating a setting that was both enjoyable and emblematic of the values the movement wished to instil—sobriety, self-discipline, and social order. The drive to replace alcohol with tea was not merely a health campaign; it was a social movement aiming to reshape the fabric of society.

Is Tea Good for You?

Tea's reputation as a health enhancer is both ancient and modern, with various studies and expert analyses underscoring its potential benefits, however it’s herbal teas, rather than the more traditional brews that show the most promise. Let's explore some notable claims:

Chamomile Tea: The Sleep Promoter?

Claim: Chamomile tea aids in better sleep

Evidence: Recognized for its mild sedative effects, chamomile has been a go-to for those seeking a natural remedy to improve sleep quality. This is largely attributed to an antioxidant called apigenin found in chamomile tea. Animal studies have shown that apigenin binds to specific receptors in the brain that may decrease anxiety and initiate sleep, providing a calming effect, evidence from human trials is limited.

Peppermint Tea: The Digestive Comforter?

Claim: Offers relief from digestive discomfort

Evidence: Peppermint contains menthol, which can help relieve symptoms of indigestion and congestion associated with colds. Evidence supporting menthol’s digestive benefits comes from various studies and clinical trials, which highlight its role in relieving symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and indigestion. However, these studies use peppermint oil, rather than peppermint tea, where evidence for digestive effects remain tentative. 

Rooibos Tea: The Anti-Inflammatory Powerhouse?

Claim: Acts as an anti-inflammatory and stress regulator

Evidence: Recent studies on Rooibos tea show that it moderates the body’s response to stress and inflammation without impairing its ability to handle acute stressors. Specifically, it adjusts cytokine production, crucial in inflammatory responses, and affects adrenal steroids linked to stress. However, this evidence has yet to be explored in human trials.  

Reflecting on Tea's Place in History and Modern Day

Tea continues to be celebrated for its versatility and purported health benefits, weaving its way into daily routines, a testament to its enduring legacy and appeal. Despite the temperance movement’s zealous efforts, tea never succeeded as alcohol alternative in society at large, and alcohol remains the world’s favourite psychoactive substance. It has not replaced the communal and ritualistic roles that alcohol holds across the globe, but that doesn’t mean alcohol will forever sit unchallenged.

To learn more about alcohol alternatives, history, wellness, and neuroscience, you can leaf through the rest of our journal, or head on over to our mixology page or Instagram for top tips on how to best enjoy the benefits of the new alcohol alternative on the block.