For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink

Reviewed on , book by Sarah Rose

An enjoyable account of likely the largest IP-theft in history. We may think of ‘intellectual property’ in terms of patents, but horticulture is a legit application of the term: seeds, growing, and processing. In the mid-1900s Britain wanted tea, and they traded it with China for, primarily, opium. Wanting to ease their dependence on China, continue their mercantilistic pursuits, as well as utilizing their Indian colony further, they decided to send in Mr. Fortune to visit the tea gardens of China to steal seeds. A journey into mainland China, described in vivid detail—further than any Westerner had gone since Marco Polo. This was a massive success from a British viewpoint, and by 1900 only 10% of tea was from China—down from 100% just a few decades earlier.

I’ve always wondered about the British affinity for black versus, say green, tea. It turns out that green tea was the preferred tea in the 1850s, however, through Fortune’s travels he found that the Chinese coloured the tea green with various toxic, cyanide-derived chemicals (though open to conspiracy, nothing suggests this was malicious), thinking the British wanted their green tea, well, very green! This caused an uproar in London, and promptly the preference for Black tea arose. The author speculates that one of the contributing factors for Britain outpacing all other European nations so much during the Industrial revolutions of the 19the century may have been due to tea. The cheapest source of calories in Germany and France was beer with the side-effects of drowsiness and loss of focus (as we all know), but in Britain, the preferred source of calories for the hoi polloi quickly became black tea with milk and sugar, with side-effects of focus and energy. An interesting hypothesis…

If you like tea, have some fascination for China, like lively history lessons, and have a mild obsession with the age of the industrial revolutions, this is a fun read. Nothing spectacular, but an enjoyable audio-book!