©Andy Kincart, Culture & Cuisine, San Francisco, June 2004
TEA: THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR BEVERAGE
three days without food than one day without tea."
~ Chinese proverb
Second only to water, tea is the most widely imbibed substance on the planet.
What are the reasons for this? How has tea become a worldwide favorite drink? What is it, and where does it come from? What role has tea played in the evolution of cultures around the globe? What are the current causes of the propagation of tea culture in the West? …In short, what’s so good about tea?
These are the questions that will be explored in discussing the plant that has only grown in popularity throughout the ages and across the cultural and political borders of humanity.
Historical Roots and Branches
All tea proper, which does not include the plethora of herbal concoctions that are often confused with it, is produced from one species of plant: Camellia Sinensis. It was discovered in China and recognized for its medicinal qualities. Its cultivation spread through the southern regions of China during the Six Dynasties Epoch (AD 386-589). The appreciation of tea evolved into an art during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) at which time the original Tea Classic (Cha Jing) was authored by Lu Yu. This is a massive treatise that includes classifications of tea plants and their environs; explanations of processing and the equipment used; tea brewing utensils; and extensive research on types of tea that were produced then, as well as where to source the purest water to brew it.
The Chinese word for tea –"cha"- was officially established by this time, and this name traveled with the leaves throughout almost all of the Asian languages, with slight variations, such as "chai" in India. The English word "tea" is a derivative of the pronunciation in Fujian dialect –"day"- which became "te" in Portuguese, and in turn translated into English as "tea".
The legendary tea-worshipping poet Lu Tong also traversed the earthly plane during the Tang era. His famous quote "I could care less about immortality, but live only for the taste of tea" attests to his reverence for the libation. He is mostly remembered for the famous poem from which a stanza is still commonly recited among Chinese tea circles as an expression of the magical and benign effects of good tea (tr. by John Blofield):
first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips;
The second banished all my loneliness;
The third expelled the dullness from my mind,
Sharpening inspiration from all the books I’ve read.
The fourth brought forth light perspiration,
Dispersing a lifetime’s troubles through my pores.
The fifth bowl cleansed every atom of my being.
The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.
This seventh is the utmost I can drink-
A light breeze issues from my armpits.
Toward the end of Tang Dynasty, in the ninth century AD, two Japanese Buddhist monks returned to their homeland with seeds of the tea plant. This was the first known emigration of tea cultivation beyond the Chinese Empire. In this period, the preferred method of making tea was to slice off slabs from hardened cakes of tea leaves and pulverize it into a powder for infusion. This method of infusing tea leaf powder did not endure in China but was evidently preserved in Japan for well over a thousand years and has evolved into the highly formalized Japanese Tea Ceremony that is practiced and taught all over the world today.
The Chinese tradition of the Art of Tea and its cultivation perhaps reached its pinnacle of development in the Sung Dynasty era (960-1280). Most of the varieties of tea that exist in China today, as well as the classic styles of teaware, were established in this period. Ceramics developed for tea during the Sung Dynasty are held in high esteem to this day. It was in this era that loose-leaf tea began to gain preference over teacakes for the varieties of highest qualities.
By this time, tea was an essential commodity for trade with nomadic tribes on the outlying hinterlands of western China. Due to the fact that their diet was almost completely void of vegetables, these tribes became so dependent on tea for its nutritional qualities that they traded horses to the Chinese for the precious teacakes that sustained their health. Consequently, China used tea as a means to control their rebellious colonies by sanctioning their tea supply. These sanctions ended up being at least partially responsible for a revolt that led to the establishment of an independent state in northern region of the empire, known by us as Mongolia. Tea remained a primary trade commodity through the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Horse and Tea Bureau was established and governed by central government officials to ensure sufficient and reliable tea production that would supply the military with horses in trade. By imperial decree, taxes were lowered for tea production as an incentive for its cultivation.
Loose-leaf tea became the generally preferred form during the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), and by the end of this era tea had reached Europe for the first time. In the early 1600’s, the Dutch were the first to trade spices for tea with China. Consequently, Holland was the primary source of tea for other cultures in Europe. Having partially colonized the island that is present-day Taiwan, the Dutch first exported tea cultivated there in the early 1700’s. It was apparently through Holland that a demand for tea developed in Russia, which led to the legendary camel caravans from western China and the resulting smoky-flavored "Caravan Tea" that is a popular breakfast tea/coffee alternative in the West today.
The English soon followed suit, and by the early 1700’s were procuring sizeable amounts of tea from China. This trade naturally made its way to the Colonists in the New World. In accordance with the Tea Act of 1773, the East India Tea Company was authorized to impose the same tax on tea that existed in England on the American Colonists. It resulted in the Boston Tea Party revolt. This protest against tax on tea is widely acclaimed to be the event that initially instigated the American Revolution.
By the mid-1800’s, the cultivation of tea was established in the British colonies of India and Sri Lanka. This was at least partially incurred by the closing of all foreign trade ports in China to put an end to the British-operated opium trade.
In the 20th century, the cultivation of tea spread through Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. So, it is scarcely more than two hundred years in which tea has permeated cultures worldwide. As tea was introduced to new lands via global trade, it was adapted and integrated into each cultural milieu in variations as broad as the cultures themselves. From the salted yak butter tea of the Tibetan Plateau to the sugary mint tea of Turkey to iced pearl milk tea- or "bubble tea" from Taiwan that is the current craze on the West Coast. There are myriad ways to prepare tea that have evolved from the influences of cultural cuisines down through the ages and across the globe. These are to be explored and enjoyed in whatever context you find yourself. Wherever you go in the world, you are apt to find some form of tea readily available.
Types of Tea
Let us now look at the most commonly recognized categories of traditional loose-leaf teas from which the endless varieties are derived. Following is a list of teas from the lightest, least processed to the darkest, most processed teas, along with their countries of origin and some of the names they go by:
White Tea is made from the youngest, smallest leaf of all types of teas. Traditionally very rare, it is rapidly gaining popularity – apparently due to its acclaimed health attributes. The highest quality white tea is made only from hand-picked leaf-buds that have not yet opened into leaves. Since these leaf-buds are so small and delicate, they are simply picked and dried in the sun without any further processing. White tea comes from China by the names of White Peony; Silver Needle; White Cloud. The occasional rare white tea is produced in India as a type of Darjeeling.
Green Tea is made from slightly more mature, yet still young, new leaf. The leaves are picked and quickly exposed to high heat to prevent any oxidation, and dried. Green tea is perhaps the most diverse in form ranging from powdered Matcha, fine leaf Sencha, roasted Hyojicha, and Kukicha(leaf-stems) from Japan, to rolled Gunpowder; flat, heat-pressed LungJing and Young Hyson tea from China.
Oolong(Black Dragon) Tea is made from a partially-oxidized leaf that ranges in size from young to fully mature, and is often baked or roasted after being fully dried to produce a more mellow, rich flavor. Traditional Oolongs from China are more oxidized and roasted, producing a darker, strong tea. These include TieGuanYin(Iron Goddess); FuoShou(Buddha Hand); Monkey-Picked; and WuYi Oolong. Taiwan has become the most esteemed producer of Oolong tea by using fully mature, new-growth, hand-picked leaves which are only slightly oxidized before being tightly rolled and dried. This method makes a tea that is very close to Green, yet having a much more complex, rich flavor than Green Tea. Taiwan High Mountain Oolong is typically left unroasted; where as DongDing Oolong undergoes carefully attended, long, slow roasting at low temperatures to produce a richer brew. Other types of specialty oolongs that require unique cultivation methods include Oriental Beauty and BaiHao Oolong. Darjeeling tea from India is technically an Oolong, since it undergoes only partical oxidation and roasting. The best quality Darjeeling is also an exquisite Oolong.
Note: The term "oxidation" refers to a naturally occurring enzyme in the leaf that begins to breakdown its cellular integrity after being picked. Oxidation is observed by a reddish discoloration that begins at the center stem and along the edge of the leaf, as well as the fragrance that the wilting leaf begins to exude. This is closely monitored to determine the type of tea that will be produced.
Black Tea is made from leaves that are well-oxidized, and well roasted during processing. Due to the heavy processing that the leaves undergo, leaves of lesser quality are most often used to produce black tea. Although in India, which is perhaps the largest producer of Black Tea, there is an ornate grading and classification system to determine the relative quality of the tea. The most popular Black Teas from India include: Orange Pekoe; Assam; Nilgiri. Black Teas from China include Keemun; and smoked tea, such as Lapsang Souchong; Russian Caravan. Black Tea is also produced in many other countries throughout the world, often bearing the name of the estate that they come from – these include: Sri Lanka, Africa; Indonesia; Malaysia; and more.
Asian culture in general has become increasingly integrated into Western society in many different aspects. From the ubiquitous presence of Asian cuisine and Anime, to FengShui to Oriental Medicine, these cultural riches continue to pervade modern society beyond their cultural origins. While tea is a part of this overall cultural eclecticism, probably the single most influential factor in the current trend of tea in the West is the scientific evidence that attests to the ways in which it promotes health. More and more research is being done on this substance that was originally recognized for its medicinal properties some 2000 years ago.
Reports summarizing the health benefits of tea state that polyphenols are the primary active ingredient. Conclusions on the study of the effects of polyphenols found in tea report the following:
-Lowers blood cholesterol
-Kills Influenza virus
-Inhibits increase in blood pressure
-Reduces tumor growth
-Inhibits increase of blood sugar
-Fights carcinogenic bacteria
-Increases mental acuity
Leaves and Water
While an educated discernment of tea is useful and only adds to the intrigue about the wide world of tea, it is also wise to keep in mind a sentiment that was expressed to me by a leading representative of tea culture in Taiwan. As Mr. Lin says, "All kinds of teas are all good." One can revel in the experience of the finest tea, and yet, there are times when an utterly ordinary teabag-brewed "cuppa" seems like the perfect elixir. So, may I suggest that we remain open to the vast spectrum of tea in all of its variety, as we progress in our understanding of this universal beverage in all of its mystique. Tea culture is a fascinating and rich field to explore, with deep roots that are intertwined with arts and traditions worldwide. It is culture that is experienced in daily life - at home, in the café, and on the street, as well as in museums, temples, and historical sites. Tea, like all culture, is a living experience. It is the art of humanity – created to enrich and expand our lives with meaning and fulfillment. It is here for our health and enjoyment. So live a little, and have a cup of tea.