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A weekly show where knowledge junkies get their fix of trivia-tastic information. This week, John shares some little known facts about tea!

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Hi, I'm John Green. Welcome to my salon.

This is Mental Floss Video. And did you know the only beverage on Earth more popular than tea is water? That's right, tea is bigger than coffee, bigger than Coca-Cola, bigger even than Diet Dr. Pepper. It's been a very popular drink all over the world for centuries. And that's the first of many fun facts about tea I'm going to share with you today in this video brought to you by our friends at Geico.


So I guess we'll start simple, with what tea is. Basically, tea leaves come from a plant knows as Camellia sinensis. And although there are different varieties of the plant, as it's grown all over, all tea comes from that one plant, Camellia sinensis.

Now, you might think you're drinking tea from a variety of plants, but if it doesn't have leaves of Camellia sinensis, it's actually known as tisane. Tisane is actually just any beverage infused with herbs or spices in hot water. But we're going to just refer to all of it as tea for the purposes of this episode, because we are not pedantic here at Mental Floss Video. Ah, who are we kidding, we're a little bit pedantic.

There are four basic types of real Camellia sinensis tea, depending on who you ask: black, white, green, and oolong, which is.. a color? Apparently, oolong is not a color. Also, there are hundreds of varieties within those categories. And technically, there's a fifth category, pu'er, which is fermented tea, but it hasn't reach mainstream popularity yet.

Black tea is the most oxidized, with a more powerful flavor. White tea is on the other end of the spectrum. It's usually leaves in their natural, unoxidized form. Green tea has been prepared in a way to bring out a lot of flavor, like it's been fired or steamed. And oolong is a Chinese tea that's very slightly oxidized.

But let's back up a bit and talk about the history of tea. So the story goes that it was invented, or more discovered, in 2737 BCE. And you can tell that is probably a fictionalized account because, you know, anything involving a specific year in the 28th century BCE, probably fictional.

But anyway, it's said that the emperor Shen Nung of China was sitting with a boiling cup of water, and some leaves fell into it. He drank the concoction, and the rest is history. Yeah, that sounds like a true story.

When the beverage was introduced to the West by the Dutch East India Company, it was called "te", and we don't know exactly when or why the pronunciation changed to "tea".

And speaking of tea etymology, it turns out that "chai tea" is kind of a redundancy. Basically, when it first became popular in China, there were two different words for it. "Te", like I just mentioned, was the Minnan Chinese term, and "cha" meant tea in Mandarin and Cantonese. So while the Dutch East India Company was selling it as "te", there were Portuguese merchants selling it as "cha". Eventually, chai tea became its own beverage, but the name itself kind of means "tea tea".

There's a common misconception that a man named Thomas Sullivan invented the tea bag by accident. It's said that in 1908 he started transporting tea in silk bags and customers just took the bags and put them directly into hot water. But actually, in 1901, two women named Roberta Lawson and Mary Mclaren of Wisconsin filed a patent for an invention a lot like the modern tea bag. So it was invented on purpose, by women.

And then there's the controversial origin story of iced tea. There's a story that it was invented at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, when a merchant named Richard Blechynden was having trouble selling his tea because the weather was hot, so he put ice in it and became a billionaire. It's a great American story. And like many great American stories, not true. For one thing, iced tea was definitely around before that. There's a recipe for iced tea from an 1877 cookbook called Buckeye Cookery. For another thing, that guy never became a billionaire. The only man who ever made a billion dollars off of iced tea is Ice-T.

The story of Earl Grey tea is also a mess. The traditional explanation is that it was named after the second Earl Grey, Charles, who was the prime minister of Britain during the mid-1800s. He supposedly requested a type of tea he tried in China from a local merchant, Twinings, which, by the way, is still around today. But the first appearance of bergamot, which is the main flavoring of Earl Grey, as a tea additive was to make cheap teas drinkable at around the same time. So it's unlikely the Earl would have been associated with that, you know, cheap tea.

Speaking of tea brands and names, Lipton is named after Sir Thomas Lipton. He lived in Glasgow in the late 19th century, and he packaged and sold tea from modern-day Sri Lanka. Eventually, the company was moved to New Jersey.

You can compress tea into molds and make big blocks, and over the course of history these have been used as currency in multiple locations, including China, Tibet, Siberia, Russia, and Mongolia. In fact, in some parts of Asia, tea blocks were still used as currency as late as the early 20th century.

And surprisingly, considering their reputations, pirates were really into tea. In fact, one famous tea drinker was the pirate Black Bart, who only drank water and tea – no rum. Pirates, of course, also stole a lot of tea from ships and sold it on the black market.

Tea is typically grown between 3,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. And some of the countries that produce the most tea are China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

Root beer was originally called "root tea". It was invented by a pharmacist named Charles Elmer Hires in the late 19th century, and he originally brewed it much like tea. The story goes that he had trouble selling it to the coal miners who made up much of the clientele in his Pennsylvania town, so he switched the name to "root beer" and it became wildly popular.

Trying to read the future in tea leaves is known as tasseomancy. "Tasse" means cup in French. Other beverages that are sometimes used include coffee and wine. We don't know the exact origin of tasseomancy, but it probably came from England around the 17th century, when lower classes started having more access to tea. And it probably became popular because it was an easy and relatively safe way to practice divination, unlike other popular methods, including hot metal and wax.

Even though the lower-class access to tea increased, tea was taxed pretty heavily in 18th century England, and that led to a lot of tea smuggling. Various gangs and cartels formed to make this possible. Like in 1747, a ship operated by the Hawkhurst gang had its contraband, including tea, confiscated by customs officials. The gang stole their tea, leaving all the alcohol, from the customs house two weeks later. Do these people not know that tea can be effectively mixed with alcohol to make a delicious hot toddy?

There's a legend that in ancient China, monkeys were trained by Buddhist monks to pick oolong tea leaves. You can still buy tea described as "monkey-picked", but just to be clear, it isn't.

In 1922, a service station was built near Zillah, Washington, in the shape of a teapot, which was supposed to evoke the Teapot Dome scandal involving President Harding and bribery. This was back when service station architecture was a real political statement. Anyway, you can still visit it in Zillah today.

In early 2016, researchers found the world's oldest tea in a Chinese tomb. They were tea leaves from the tomb of Han dynasty emperor Jing, who was buried around 141 BCE.

The London Tea Auction was a major center for the international tea trade for over 300 years, from 1679 through 1998. Every quarter there were tea auctions, and by the 1950s, about a third of all tea sold in the world went through the auction.

So I think we've made it pretty clear that the British take their tea quite seriously. And the British Standards Institute regularly releases a guide on how to prepare tea. The one released in 2016 was six pages long. It covers everything, including the ideal teapot, tea-to-water ratio, and temperature. In fact, some British tanks even have a way to brew tea on board. The main battle tank they have is the FV4034 Challenger 2, and it's a requirement that these have a way to boil water on board, mostly so that armies can have tea. And also other rations, but mostly tea. So if you ever go to war with the United Kingdom, just remember: attack at tea time. They'll be like, "Oh, god, what do we do? How do we get to the guns... the tank? No! I'm reading through my six-page manual. It takes 40 minutes just to drink the tea!"

Speaking of transportation, you may have noticed that tea tastes weird on planes. Basically, the boiling point of water on a plane is about 18ºF lower than it is on the ground, due to air pressure. That makes the brewing process more difficult, and it's why your coffee and tea taste weird.

Tea parties became a tradition in England around the 1840s. Anna-Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, often gets credit for their popularity. She basically noticed that around 4 pm, between meals, she'd get a little hungry and restless, so she started hosting tea and snacks. And her friend, Queen Victoria, went to a few of these events, and they then became very fashionable. So fashionable, in fact, that today you can attack a British tank at 4 pm.

But the English aren't the only people with their tea traditions. Like, Japanese Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies have been going on since the 16th century. And it's pretty serious business, with a specific dress code, decor, and way to prepare tea.

But neither Japan nor the United Kingdom have the most tea consumption per capita. That would be Turkey. The United Kingdom is fifth on the list, Japan 24th, China 33rd, the United States all the way down at number 69.

Speaking of tea consumption in the United States, 85% of tea sales is of iced tea. We like our tea like we like our everything else: highly processed and full of sugar.

And speaking of the US, you probably know about the Boston Tea Party, in which colonists dumped a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the British tea monopoly. They destroyed about 92,000 lbs of tea.

You can actually buy tea that's been harvested in panda poop. Thankfully, it's not, like, picked out of the panda poop. It's just, like, the panda poop is used to fertilize the tea plant. And amazingly, it's the world's most expensive tea, at about £22,000 per pound. According to its creator, An Yanshi, the tea is rich with nutrients because pandas only absorb about 30% of the nutrients in what they eat. The rest comes out in their poop. That's right, for just £22,000 per pound, you can own tea fertilized in everything a panda didn't need. That was probably too much information about pandas.

John Lennon loved tea. Yoko Ono once explained his tea making process, saying, "John was very particular about how to make English Breakfast tea. He told me that you are supposed to put the tea bag in first and the hot water over it, so the tea would not get cold. I thought it was logical, and followed it for quite a few years. When I made a mistake and put the tea bag in after the hot water, he would recognize it. He later told her, by the way, that he was wrong about that whole thing.

To contrast, David Bowie hated tea. It's said that he had a gross cup of it when he was five years old, although that may just be a rumor. On his first date with Iman, though, they went out for tea, and she later recalled that it was odd because of his distaste for the drink.

Now, you've probably heard many different health benefits of tea, like it has been associated with lower risks of depression, lower risk of stroke, reduction in heart disease, lower risk of diabetes. But of course this is all correlation, not necessarily causation, so experts say if you like tea, drink it. If not, don't feel the need to pick up the habit.

And finally, I return to my salon to tell you about tea sommeliers. Yes, they exist, just like wine sommeliers. You can take classes at the rhymingly named Palais de Thé in Paris. And some restaurants work with these sommeliers, like 11 Madison Park and the Atera restaurant in New York City, so they know what food to pair with different teas.

Thanks for watching Mental Floss Video, which is made with the help of all of these nice people. And thanks again to Geico for making today's video possible. Let me know in comments if you're more of a John Lennon or a David Bowie when it comes to tea. I myself was long a Bowie, but I find myself working toward becoming a Lennon.

Anyway, as we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.