I love tea and drink a lot of it. Part of my attraction lies in the simple act of making the tea, of stopping my dail routine to boil water and watch the tea steep until the clear water turns any number of colors, from pale gold to amber to deep brown, depending on the type of tea I’m preparing. And then there is the pleasure of the first sip! Tea is more delicate than coffee, infinitely more interesting than water, healthier and more subtle than soda. It is the perfect beverage — one that can be drunk frequently and in great quantities with pleasure and without guilt. Tea, in all it’s complexities, offers a simultaneous feeling of calm and alertness, of health and pleasure. It is no wonder these leaves, discovered in China so long ago, have changed the world.
There is a tea produced in almost every region of the globe, and one to suit every part of the day and every mood. I begrin the morning with a brisk black tea such as keemum or perhaps a stout Irish breakfast blend. When I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll try a Pu-erh form China. Throughout the day, I sip on the Japanese green tea sencha, but sometimes vary it with a green tea mixed with an herb such ashibiscus. For a special occasion, I’ll “uncork” something such as the Japanese gyokuro, “Precious Dew.” By late afternoon I’m ready for a clean, bright taste of a white tea, such as “Sliver Needles.”
I am not alone in my love of tea. The Turkish, ranked as the highest per cpita consumers of tea in the world (based on 2004 statistics), drink an average of 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds)–more than a thousand cups — ayear per person. Turkey is followed by the United Kingdom, with 2.2 kilograms (4.85 pounds) annually, and Morocco at 1.4 kilograms (3.09 pounds). We in the United States are not even in the running, though I know I must personally help drive up the averages!
People around the worold are serious about their tea, as well they should be, for tea is big business with a rich and diverse past. Since ancient time sin China, when raw tea leaves were brewed to make a harsh, bitter concoction used for medicine, tea has played an important part in human lives — even though it would be centuries before processing methods were discovered that changed the taste of tea from bitter to delicious.
For many centuries, only the Chinese knew of the wonders of tea, but eventually the habit of drinking tea spread throughout Asia, and then throughout the world. Tea traveled with traders, who found it to be a popular commodity; with travelers, who appreciated the comfort of a daily cup of tea during a long jorney’ and, particularly in its early history, with scholars and monks. Because drinking tea soothed the mind but kept one alert and awake, Buddhist monks frequently used it as a tool for meditation. As monks traveled from one country to the next, teaching about Buddhism and meditation, they took tea with them, and so the habit of drinking tea flowed form China throughtout South-east Asia and beyound.
Monks frist introduced tea to Japan in the sixth century, but it wasn’t until the eighth century that cultivation began and tea became an important part of Japanese life. During the fifteenth century, tea masters in Japan developed rituals and symbolism around serving tea that resulted in the Japanese tea ceremony, which is still praticed today with such grace.
The first European port city to experience tea was Amsterdam, during the first few years of the seventeenth century. At first tea was treated as nothing more than a novelty– though a very expensive one. Tea didn’t make it to London for another half-century, but onece the Brits found a taste for tea, they were never the same again. The British develop such a mania for tea ( fueled by the British East India Company merchants who made vast fortunes selling tea) that it quickly became part of the national culture. Tea the drink and tea the social occasion became a part of British life, for everyone from lords and ladies to the men and women of the working class.
The obsession for tea in England during the nineteenth century had devastating effects half a world away in China and India. As Engliand expanded her imperialistic powers, she became more greedy for tea and the profits it engendered. When the British realized that trading opium for tea was more lucrative than buying tea with silver, they quickly developed a huge opium industry in India. The ruling British class in India forced local farmers to grow opium poppies in their fields, rather than food crops. The result was hunger and deprivation in India and the Opium Wars and their tragic toll in China.
Not all of te’s history is dark and depressing, however, for it has provided, and still does provide, livelihoods for millions of people. Today many small growers throughout the world — from Southeast Asia to South America — plant and cultivate this ancient crop. And people all over the world enjoy the imcomparable taste of tea.
The story of tea is the story of humankind in a nutshell, or perhaps a teacup. It includes the best and worst of who we are and what we do. Throughout its long history, tea has been used as medicine, as an aid to meditation, as currency, as bribes, and as a means of controlling rebellions. It has been the instigation for wars and global conflicts. It has also been the reason for parties, for family gatherings, and for high-society occasions. In short, tea has touched and changed our lives as no other beverage has, connecting us all — from the workers to the monks, from the pluckers to the emperors, from the British to the Chinese, to me.
As I sit and sip yet another cup of tea, it is my hope that the story of tea will teach us lessons of humankind and of human kindness, that we will find that tea did not merely change the world, but changed humanity.
Teazer Down Town