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Tea's globe-trotting tale is infused with whimsy and revolution

How Asia's favorite drink helped shape history

Tea may be a quintessentially Asian drink, but it has a rich global history. Here, two women have a sip in front of the camera circa 1905.   © Getty Images

JAKARTA   According to legend, the world's oldest beverage came about by accident more than 4,000 years ago, when a draft blew some tea leaves into a pot of boiling water being prepared for Shen Nung, the Chinese emperor known as "the divine farmer."

Divine intervention, maybe? Whatever the provenance of that fateful gust, it was not the first farce -- or tragedy -- to propel the tea industry forward and eventually globalize what was for thousands of years an Asian drink. As recently as the late 16th century, a handful of Japanese Christian pilgrims in Rome prompted much curiosity among their hosts by making tea: Locals assumed at first that the drink was just boiled water, according to "Tea: The Drink That Changed The World," a 2007 book by John Griffiths.

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