"It is probably, after water, the world's most popular beverage, due, more than anything, to its palatability, adaptability and comparative cheapness." - Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992), p707.
"A simple cup of tea is no easy matter. Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to explore its many layers." - The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010), p13.
Tea appears to rank amongst the most popular of ancient bevarages. As The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010) states, depending on how one defines a beverage, p9:
"Tea, the most widely consumed beverage on the planet after water, still proudly maintains its title as the world’s oldest beverage."Britain's almost obsessive relationship with tea is relatively young compared to that of Eastern countries', and the book Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992) illustrates how tea remains as popular as ever in the UK, p709:
"In Great Britain, tea is drunk by more than 80% of the population."
The word we use for tea is itself intimately linked with the East, as is explained in The Way of Tea (2010), p46:
"The various pronunciations of the character “tea” spread far and wide. The Mandarin pronunciation of the character, as “cha,” spread overland to the north and west of Yunnan. Tea is, for example, called “chai” in India, Greece, Russia, etc. Another pronunciation of tea as “tey” followed a second sea-route from Xiamen of Fujian Province. The Western sailors that stopped in Xiamen and other local ports would adopt the way tea was said in the local Fujian dialect; and “tey” would later become “tea” in English."
Thousands of years before tea arrived in English ports, however, it had been enjoyed in South-East Asia. Here is Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, p1-2:
"The tea camellia has been known to man for a very long time - Camellia sinensis, the commercially important Chinese tea plant. This particular camellia has been cultivated by the Chinese people for certainly more than 2000 years, not, as one might imagine, on large plantations, but on countless thousands of small plots of land where the bushes were numbered in dozens rather than acres. The Chinese certainly knew of the tea plant and its value to them long ago, and had discovered that the infusion of its leaves, if carefully processed, produced a very palatable drink. It is likely too, that the people in the Shan States of Burma and Siam had been using the leaves of the tea plant - at first for medicinal purposes, then as a beverage - for as long as the Chinese."
The habitual use of tree leaves is something one finds in human societies no matter where one goes. The people most knowledgable of the special properties of plants tended to be shamans, and later, sages and seers. The earliest origins of tea use is alleged to be linked to such figures in South China, in The Way of Tea, p33:
"...in China, this tradition of sages and seers lends the origins of tea a kind of mystery, magic, and wonder; for it was in their bowls that these leaves would first be sipped by man. Even before Taoism would become important in the lifeways of Chinese people, asceticism was already an established aspect of some cultures. It was common for some such shamans to live secluded from others; and they were all, in the end, villagers and shamans alike, living in the forest. There they would seek out the origins of life and man’s place in it. Through diet, meditation, and quiet, one imagines, these ancient sages and seers were able to commune with the world around them, learning of the healing powers available in Nature. In crude huts or cave hermitages, surrounded by the forests of Yunnan—in all their glory—man would first establish a relationship with the Leaf."It seems the Chinese Taoists later inherited this legacy, as written in The Book of Tea (1912), p21:
"It is written in the Chinese school manual concerning the origin of habits and customs that the ceremony of offering tea to a guest began with Kwanyin, a well-known disciple of Laotse, who first at the gate of the Han Pass presented to the “Old Philosopher” a cup of the golden elixir. We shall not stop to discuss the authenticity of such tales, which are valuable, however, as confirming the early use of the beverage by the Taoists."And The Way of Tea states that the domestication of the plant in China followed during the 5th Century BC, p38:
"At some time in the Warring States Period, the domestication of the tea plant occurred..."The more rigorous historical study in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states a later date, p2:
"...the origins of tea, which are still cloaked in mystery. It is known that the Chinese were drinking tea in the 5th century AD."And as trade in the precious leaf between the Chinese and their neighbours flourished, hybridized tea plants began to spread across the globe:
"Quite apart from its original home in an indefinite area to the south-east of the Tibetan plateau, including Sze-chuan, Yu-nan, Burma, Siam and of course the Assam variety in north-east India, the tea plant has undoubtedly been spread by the natives over the centuries. Plants have been found growing near to all the caravan routes between China and India. There were also reports by Europeans, in the late 18th century, of tea plants growing wild at Khatmandu."News eventually reached Europe, as The Book of Tea relates, p6:
"The earliest record of tea in European writing is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveller, that after the year 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea. Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea-taxes. It was at the period of the great discoveries that the European people began to know more about the extreme Orient. At the end of the sixteenth century the Hollanders brought the news that a pleasant drink was made in the East from the leaves of a bush."And then the product itself arrived, as stated in Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, p3:
"The first tea to reach Europe came by way of the Dutch who, being busy eastern traders, brought the first consignments to Holland in the early part of the 17th century. All the early supplies of tea entering England were brought over from Holland. Coffee houses started to appear in London in the early 1650s, and it was in one of these, Garraways Coffee House, in Exchange Alley in the city, that the first tea was served to the public in 1657."Within thirty years the British would be hooked, p4:
"From 1689 onwards the English East India Company commenced importing tea directly from China in its heavily armed merchantmen. It is said that Queen Anne was very fond of a dish of tea, pronounced 'tay' in those days. By the mid 1750s tea houses and tea gardens were appearing in and around London. These were ideal places at which the public could meet and gossip over a cup of China tea and light refreshments."
The British later switched over to Indian-grown tea for their own profits and faster delivery, p5:
"People in the western world had been drinking China tea for almost 200 years, but by the mid-1850s her monopoly of the tea trade was slowly coming to an end. Each successive year saw China's exports of tea falling. The discovery of a similar tea plant growing wild in the remote jungles of north-east India was to lead to a pioneering enterprise of great magnitude in the history of world crop cultivation - Empire grown tea. The year 1887 was the turning point when, for the first time, Britain imported more tea from India and Ceylon than she did from China."
"The British Parliament imposed duties on various imports into the American colonies after the year 1767. Three years later all duties were repealed except those on tea. The colonists showed their disapproval by boarding merchantmen in Boston harbour, and throwing overboard their chests of tea. It would seem that this 'little party' was to lead to the Americans changing their national drink wholly to coffee."All Chinese tea plants appear to have come from the south of China - in Yunnan Province's tropical forests, as is stated in The Way of Tea, p27:
"Yunnan, the birthplace of all tea and cradle of ChaTao, is a series of stepped plateaus starting in the tropical jungle-like lowlands of the south and rising upward in three giant tiers sloping towards the Tibetan Plateau and the great mountains there. Scientists surmise that the tropical forest near the bottom of Yunnan began after an ice age around one million years ago, and it was probably at that time that the first evergreen tea trees evolved, Camellia Sinensis being one of them. These ancient forests of tea would be alone in this virgin wilderness for many eons to come, long before they were a part of “Yunnan.”"These ancient tea trees grew quite tall. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states, p2:
"...the tea camellia, C. sinensis and its many cousins, is indigenous throughout the forests of south-east Asia where, in its natural state, it grows into a tree between 30 and 40 feet tall."Being a hardy plant, a tea tree can also grow in quite inhospitable environments. The Way of Tea explains, p39:
"...tea is a rather tenacious plant, with deep roots, an innate ability to produce chemicals in the leaves that dissuade some kinds of insects from eating them, and the ability to grow in adverse environments that many weaker plants couldn’t survive in. The myriad strains that developed over time on various mountains, in various climates are a direct result of the different environs the tea plant adapted to, sometimes naturally while at others transplanted there by man."The growing location can, however, change the taste of the tea. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p10:
"Tea that is grown in the high, thin air of the Himalaya in eastern Nepal will invariably taste different than tea that is grown in the low-lying, hot, and humid river valley region of Assam, India. [...] When the elements of place are distinctive and strong, they conspire to keep a particular tea from being able to be duplicated in exactly the same way in other places. The sum total of all of the unique places and teas in any one tea-producing country combines to create the collective regional or national character."Chinese tea remains the least hybridized of the tea plants in the world today. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption reports, p2:
"The typical small-leafed China plant occurs in east and south-east China and has, over the centuries, suffered less cross-breeding, and remains comparatively truebred, whilst the tea found growing in the Shan States of Burma and Siam has been the most hybridized. The Assam indigenous plant was later to become subject to much hybridization, particularly in the 19th century, when large importations of seeds of the China jat were introduced into north-east India."As a result Chinese teas can often have unique tastes which are not found anywhere else in the world. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook states, p11:
"In China, several tea-producing regions in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, and Yunnan have native strains of tea bushes and tea trees (some are centuries old) that are not found elsewhere on earth. The fresh leaf from these indigenous varieties is responsible for much of the unique character of the tea from these regions. If you compare tea that is made from old tea tree leaf with one made from the leaf of a modern tea bush cultivar planted nearby, the difference in taste and aroma is quite noticeable."
The best time to taste these differences would be in the spring - when the plants produce fresh leaves, p62:
"Specific to China bush Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (which goes dormant over the winter months), new leaf growth represents the fresh taste of spring: the essence of flavor that develops within the plant during the winter months."These fresh green teas are eagerly awaited every year in China, p57:
"Green teas are the herald of spring, a sign that the anticipated rejuvenation of the earth from the icy grip of winter is beginning. Tea shops in Asia clear off the shelves for the arrival of the first teas of the new season... These teas fill the mouth with fresh, delicious flavors that are sweet and refreshing, like a much-needed breath of fresh air."In addition to taste, aroma, and cultural value, Chinese green teas are considered to have special active compounds due to their relatively unprocessed state, as reported in Handbook of Green Tea and Health Research (2009), p2:
"Black tea is also made from the plant, but unlike green tea, it is made from leaves that have been fermented. Due to differences in the fermentation process, a portion of the active compounds are destroyed in black tea, but remain active in green tea. The active constituents in green tea are a family of polyphenols (catechins) and flavonols which possess potent antioxidant activity. Tannins, large polyphenol molecules, form the bulk of the active compounds in green tea, with catechins comprising nearly 90%. Several forms of catechin are present in the plants. Among them, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant flavonoid in tea (Arts et al., 2000) and particularly in green tea (Campbell et al., 2004). Approximately 26% of the solid weight of green tea extract is tea polyphenols, of which 11% are EGCG (Suganuma et al., 1998). Thus, EGCG is primarily responsible for the pharmacological actions of tea. Moreover, frequent consumption of green tea results in high levels of EGCG in the blood and brain (Suganuma et al.., 1998; Kim et al., 2000). [...] L-Theanine (γ-glutamylethlamide) is a unique amino acid only occurring in green tea and a few other plants, and is a derivative of glutamate. After administration, Ltheanine concentrations increased in the serum, liver and brain (Yokogoshi et al., 1998a, b), suggesting that L-theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier. Intravenous administration of Ltheanine was shown to affect the cortex, hippocampus and amygdala and increase the alphaband component of electroencephalograms (EEG) in rats (Kakuda et al., 2000a). More recently, it was shown that L-theanine could reduce stress via either inhibiting cortical neuron excitation in human subjects (Kimura et al., 2007) or influencing the secretion and function of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system (CNS) (Terashima et al., 1999)."The alleged health-preserving qualities of green tea are quite famous and have been said to help protect against and help heal a wide range of ailments:
"Some reports indicate green tea may have the ability to help prevent cancers of the skin, esophagus, stomach, colon, pancreas, lung, bladder, prostate, and breast. Green tea contains chemicals known as polyphenols, which have many beneficial effects such as antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and antiviral activity (Frei and Higdon, 2003; Tachibana et al.,2004). Compared with the peripheral actions of catechins, the information for the central effect is limited to date."However, Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (1992) has the following to say on this topic, p707:
"Although claims have often been made for its nutritional value it is doubtful whether any can withstand critical examination, apart from those attributable to its water, milk and sugar content."This is not to say that the potential can be ruled out of course (especially since the above statement is over 20 years old now), but water content and the placebo effect due to folk stories remain to be heavy contenders, p711:
"Many of the 'therapeutic' effects of tea are undoubtedly due to its water content. Others could be due to pharmacologically active substances, not all of which have necessarily been identified. Probably most important of all is the placebo effect, especially if the person prescribing the tea believes in its healing properties."Also, the potential for one's health to improve with increased water intake goes up when the best quality of water is sought (something which is traditional in China with regards to green tea consumption), p709:
"The composition or quality of water used to make tea is an important, but largely overlooked, factor. [...] The quality of the water also undoubtedly affects the palatability and hence level of consumption of the tea into which it is made. "Just boiling water before drinking it as tea is in itself a healthy precaution in countries where certain serious diseases are afloat, p709-711:
"The fact that water must first be boiled before it can be turned into tea is probably one of the most important health measures ever to have been introduced, albeit unconsciously, since unboiled water was, and still is, in some parts of the world, the main channel by which bacterial diseases such as cholera and other enteropathic infections are disseminated."As unproven as many of the enhanced health claims appear to be at present, on the up-side the same seems to apply for any toxicity claims, p711:
"More often than not... claims for the toxicity of tea, like those for its therapeutic efficacy, are based upon unwarranted extrapolations from inadequate data."Of course the caffeine content can inhibit sleep, but that is only for those with a low tolerance to caffeine and if caffeine is taken in higher doses than present in cups of green tea (14mg-37mg per eight-ounce cup, compared to 50mg for black teas and 140mg for coffee), p728:
"...there is good evidence that the ingestion of 100 mg caffeine or more, shortly before bedtime, especially by normally low consumers of caffeinated drinks, delays the onset of sleep. Smaller doses of 50 mg or less such as in one cup of tea seemingly do not do so, and may, by the soothing effect of drinking, actually accelerate the onset of sleep. Normally heavy or habituated users of caffeinated drinks do not apparently experience the same delay in the onset of sleep, even with the larger doses of caffeine."After digesting all this data, in amongst the obvious benefits we enjoy in our cups of tea, is there anything more one can get out of drinking the leafy beverage? In order to best answer that question it seems more appropriate to go to the ancient source - China - where, 1500 years ago, tea drinking was turned into a special ceremony and art form by the humans who lived there; the inspiration for what the Japanese still practice as 'Zen Tea', and for other Asian neighbours to emulate through various localised interpretations.
Tea was originally regarded as a kind of medicine drunk by a relatively small group of people in China (often Buddhist monks), but a man named Lù Yǔ (or Lo-Yu), alive in the 8th Century AD, changed things in a big way by writing The Classic of Tea - the first definitive work on cultivating, making and drinking tea. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption states, p2:
"By the end of the 6th century the Chinese began to regard tea in a different light; no longer was it just a medicinal drink, but a refreshing beverage. In the year 780 AD, there is the first authentic account of tea. This famous book, Cha Ching (tea book) written by Lo-Yu, describes the preparation of the leaf and manufacture."Lù Yǔ had apparently been educated by Zen Buddhist monks, and his detailed methodology and approach had deeply holistic and mindfulness-oriented threads throughout. During those times, tea was very expensive - manufactured and prepared for drinking in more complex ways than today, and the best tea was considered a rare delicacy. When looking at Lù Yǔ's approach to drinking tea (as this blog series will do in a later post), what can normally be considered as indulging in the consumption of a potentially expensive commodity and any accompanying sensory delights, can change into a highly appropriate moment to intimately connect with the 5 basic elements of nature - through kindling fire from wood and air, boiling water in metal cauldrons, pouring it into clay cups, and bringing the final product into our being to become a seamlessly integrated and essential part of us. In this sense tea can be considered a highly tangible and symbolic microcosm of the fundamental forces at play in the universe manifesting in a very simple, engaging, and nourishing event.
Later, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), tea culture spread further into mainstream Chinese life, as is stated in The Way of Tea, p56:
"Great tea competitions started in the Song Dynasty, in which tea makers from all over would compete to see who could whisk the best cup of tea. Owing to the preference for light green teas, made from powder much like the Japanese matcha today, the people of this era began to move away from using the jade-blue celadon to brown or black pots “rabbits fur (tian mu 天母),” named after the mountain in Zhejiang, which brought out the colors of the whisked tea. The tea houses became cultural meeting places, expanding in number during the Song dynasty, though not really flourishing until the later Ming and Qing ages. However, many scholars, poets and artists of the day found such competitions and the more boisterous tea houses vulgar, and were more interested in brewing tea in natural, quiet environs, inspiring the truer sense of Cha Tao."Although some people liked to make drinking tea an opportunity to display and indulge in their superior abilities, the poets of the Song Dynasty can inspire us to make drinking tea with fellow humans an opportunity to recognize one's shared humanity and compassionate nature - to present others with a gift of a cup of tea, to wish everyone good health, and to enjoy something very organic and wholesome whilst surrounded by scenes, symbols, and objects pointing to the awesome dimension of nature which exists beyond human constructs (which of course includes tea trees, their leaves, and the water one drinks).
Moving into the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the accumulation of Chinese knowledge and culture on the subject of tea drinking caused a situation more resembling tea's current use in China to begin to emerge. The Way of Tea states, p57:
"Near the end of the Ming Dynasty the common masses would really start drinking tea; and as it shed its formality, the modern method of brewing tea leaves in clay pots was developed. Brewing with skill and mastery, with “gong fu,” became the ideal of tea preparation. New cups, pots, and utensils were developed to meet the demand of this new method of brewing, which was now focused on more intimate settings and hence the teaware grew smaller—especially in the southern parts of China."Even to this day, the necessary 'mastery' of tea use remains well-known and deeply integrated into Chinese culture. The Tea Enthusiasts Handbook gives us an insight into what is necessary for mastery on the most superficial of levels, p28:
"Chinese tea masters refer to water as a friend to tea: water heated to the right temperature for a tea will yield a cup that reveals the subtle flavors and character of that tea. Too little or too much heat and the flavor will be suppressed or ruined."In order to rise to the challenge of mastering the art of making good tea, then, one must be constantly watchful of the water heat, brewing time, type of tea, to name but a few of the variables involved, and so being present and focused will be an obvious component. Indulging in a casual caffeine and sugar 'hit' accompanied by rich milk can change, through an intention to 'master' pure tea-making - especially traditional Chinese green tea without any additives - into a more peacefully awake, engaged and physically present experience as one explores the subtle differences in flavour manifested in different carefully 'crafted' steepings, in different years, and by different strains from different climates and elevations - an intimate interaction with, and exploration of, a tree valued by ancient people and also valued right now by billions of people all around the world.
Part of such an exploration and emerging understanding will be to know something of the manufacturing processes and the qualities of the most rewarding teas - ultimately the green teas of China. This will be looked into in Part 3 of this series.