Of Tea I Sing by Marjorie Dorfman

Where in the world did tea come from? Learn about its fascinating history, seemingly infinite varieties and, while you're at it, have a laugh on me.

If this coffee, bring me tea. But if this is tea, please bring me coffee. – Abraham Lincoln

If good old Honest Abe couldn't tell the difference between bad coffee and even worse tea, I guess that I am not as far behind the times as I think. I must confess that I am tea-illiterate and one of those people who drinks the amber concoction only when I am not feeling very well. Under those circumstances, it doesn't matter what kind of tea it is, as long as it's hot and steeped with plenty of honey and lemon. I've been told that I've missed out on a wonderful source of caffeine refreshment and have, therefore, decided to educate myself about one of the oldest and most popular drinks in the world today.

The story of tea, according to ancient Chinese legend, began over 5,000 years ago when in 2737 BC Emperor Shen Nong, required that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. In accordance with his ruling, while visiting a distant region of his realm, the servants began to boil water for the royal court to drink. Some dried tealeaves from a nearby bush accidentally blew into a boiling pot and a brown liquid was infused in the water. As an innovative scientist, the Emperor was interested in this new liquid, drank some and found it very tasty. Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture, penetrating every aspect of society.

It was during the Ming Dynasty that the method of allowing tealeaves to soak (steep) in hot water before drinking became general practice. About 1500 the first teapots as we know them came into being. These small, unglazed, purple sand pots with their equally tiny cups are still popular in southern China and Taiwan. During the later Ming, Epicureans came to prefer white porcelain teacups, since it allowed the color of the tea to be admired. The art of tea was by this time perfected, and every true connoisseur, shallow or deep, had a tearoom equipped with beautiful décor and utensils where a variety of exquisite teas could be offered to discerning friends.

The first tealeaves were brought to Japan by the Buddhist priest, Yesei, who had seen how tea enhanced the power of religious meditation in China. As a result, he is known as the Father of Tea in Japan. Because of this early association, tea in Japan has always been linked with Zen Buddhism. Tea was elevated to an art form with the creation of The Japanese Tea ceremony. This ritual requires years of training and practice (like that old joke about getting into Carnegie Hall), and yet the whole of its art signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea, albeit in the most perfect, polite, graceful and charming manner possible. Such purity of expression prompted the creation of teahouses, a special form of architecture based on the duplication of a forest cottage. The cultural hostesses of Japan, the Geishi, began to specialize in the presentation of the tea ceremony. Soon after this Hollywood found one somewhere north of the August Moon.

In the 1600's, tea became popular throughout Europe and the American colonies. The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560. (This was a close encounter of the ninth kind, not to be confused with those of any other ilk.) Portugal and her technologically advanced navy had been successful in gaining the first right of trade with China. It was as a missionary on that first commercial mission to Macao that Father de Cruz had tasted tea four years before. The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon where Dutch ships then transported it to France, Holland and the Baltic countries.

Since colonial days, tea has played a major role in American culture and customs. The colonists of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York) were the first Americans to taste tea after it was brought to them via Peter Stuyvesant. By 1720, the tea trade blossomed between the colonies and England, with its matrix in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. As tea was heavily taxed, smugglers became rich (if not so famous) with contraband tea imported from very far away. New and heftier taxes levied against the colonists after the French and Indian War brought the collective realization that the government taketh away before it giveth anything at all and became the impetus for colonial rebellion in 1767. The Boston Tea Party and its ensuing political ramifications came to symbolize America's displeasure with and subsequent rupture from the Mother Country.

The English were focused on the product's source, namely the Orient. There the trading of tea had become a way of life, developing even its own language known as Pidgin English. Created solely for commerce, it was composed of English, Portuguese and Indian words all pronounced in Chinese. The word pidgin is a corrupted form of the Chinese word for do business. So dominant was the tea culture within English speaking cultures that many of these words have assumed a permanent place in our language. Mandarin comes from the Portuguese word mandar and refers to the court official empowered by the emperor to trade tea. Cash comes from the Portuguese caixa which refers to the currency of tea transactions. Caddy is the Chinese word for one pound weight, the standard tea trade container.

The first three American millionaires, T.H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Gerard of Philadelphia, and John Jacob Astor of New York, all made their fortunes in tea trafficking. America began direct trade with China soon after the Revolution was over in 1789. Her newer, faster clipper ships far outsailed the slower, heavier English tea wagons that had once dominated the trade. John Jacob Astor began in 1800 and moved on to make another fortune in the fur trade. Steven Gerard was known as the gentle tea merchant. Thomas Perkins hailed from one of Boston's oldest sailing families. Together they broke the English monopoly on tea because their ships were faster and they paid only in gold.

Russian interest in tea began in 1615 when the Chinese Embassy in Moscow presented several chests of tea to Czar Alexis. By the late 1700's tea was spreading throughout Russian society. The samovar became a popular dispenser, as a combination hot water heater and teapot. Placed in the center of the Russian home, it could run all day and serve up to forty cups of tea at one time. Tea (along with vodka) is the national drink of Russia today.

Tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia Senesis tree. Tea growers prune their bushes, not only to keep them short enough to work with, but also to force the plant to produce repeated flushes of tiny, tender new leaves. Once the tender young leaves are plucked, they must be processed. There are three basic methods used, each producing one of the standard tea types: black, green or oolong. These terms do not refer to the types of tealeaves but rather to the process.

Black tea is by far the most common. Over 90 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is black tea. The leaves are steamed, rolled (to crack and release the juices), permitted to age and then fired (thus dried). The aging process ferments the tannin oils and adds to the body and base of the hearty flavored amber brew. The British Isles are the largest importers of tea and most of it is black. The traditional English breakfast tea (which blends well with milk) hails from the Keemum region of China; the traditional Irish is a blend from India and Ceylon. Some of the most popular ones include: English Breakfast, Darjeeling (a Himalayan blend with a subtly lingering aroma reminiscent of Muscatel that is also known as the champagne of teas), Earl Grey (a smoky tea with a hint of sweetness to it) and Orange Pekoe (a blend of Ceylon teas that is the most widely used of the tea blends). At the other end of the spectrum are green teas which make up only 10% of the world's production. These leaves are steamed and rolled, same as the black, but skip the oxidizing step. They are immediately fired (without severance pay or references) to prevent aging and fermentation. There's more of an herbal, fruity taste to green tea because it is closer to the natural leaf. It is more pungent than its black counterpart because the tannin oils are left intact in the process. A great many people prefer the delicate taste, finding it more interesting than the more aged and mellow black. Green tea is the drinker's choice in Japan, which is also the world's largest producer of this type. It has gained popularity in the United States due in part to recent scientific studies linking it with reduced cancer risk.

For oolong tea, the leaves are steamed, rolled and then aged, but the fermentation is cut short. The leaves are fired before they reach the full black stage. Hence, the name of this tea from the Chinese word wu lung or black dragon (black tea with a bite!) It is a cross between black and green tea in color and taste with a flavor that is not raw or bitter with a trace of fruit and herbs. Oolong is popular in China and is sometimes known as the burgundy of teas. The highest grade oolongs are grown in Taiwan where it is not only a preferred selection, but is also a source of national pride.

All in all, there is much more than meets the eye within the vast world of tea. It is a drink steeped (forgive the pun) in history and, as such, worthy of respect. So even if the amber liquid is not your particular cup of tea, the next time you serve some to your guests or sample a cup yourself, remember that your actions may have repercussions more severe than any waxy floor build-up. You may well influence the opinions of political leaders, enhance the wealth of an empire and find yourself responsible for the unfortunate demise of a single teabag. As far as the future is concerned, we must all brace ourselves and be prepared for the ultimate possibility of tea for two with or without sympathy.

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Copyright 2002