If you think having a nice cup of tea at the end of your day is a simple case of dropping a tea bag into a pot or brewing some leaves in a pan of boiling water, you might need to think again.
Having spent the last 12 months with teagrowers, auctioneers, distributors, tea sommeliers, retailers, restaurateurs and tea enthusiasts I learnt a little something that makes my cup a particularly exciting drink that is in some respects steeped in centuries of controversy. For me gone are the innocent days of sipping some branded blend out of a cup. That simple pleasure is now replaced with a somewhat cerebral experience. Let me infect you with my thoughts in telling this story of tea. This contagion might leave you enriched in small measure and perhaps enhance
your experience of this excellent beverage.
In this story there is mystery, intrigue, crime and glory. There is a soupçon of globalization and of history. There is the charm of glorious estates and tea gardens in the middle Himalayas and the fun and frolic of trading at auction houses in Kolkata. It carries the aromas and the buzz of tasting events where tea is served to some of the most discerning tongues across Europe, Asia & North America and the subtle genius of some near ‘illiterate’ farmers who smell the humidity in the air and feel the sunshine on their brow each day for weeks and months and deftly adjust their crop to the vagaries of nature.
If you happen to be an adventurer, I would recommend going on a tea tour of the world. It will take you to all these places and beyond. You will experience everything from modern technology and shipping to organic fertilizers and issues facing growers. It will take you from gardens in the east to high-rise rooftop restaurants in the west. You will visit old little rooms in European cities where tea has been sold for over 300 years and fill your lungs with the fragrance of First-Flush tea in warehouses in the hills. You will meet young entrepreneurs who see in tea an opportunity to make a fortune and meet old hands that can tell an Orange Pekoe from a regular Whole-Leaf by just looking at it for a few seconds. You will see multiple brands and infusions on the one hand and meet purists who drink from the same estates season after season, on the other.
You can experience these simple joys while developing a taste for one of the most outstanding flavors that humans have perhaps ever known. For me it has done all of the above and also made me question the history of the postmodern world. It has pushed me to reconcile facts with interpretations and ideas with realpolitik. It has woken me up to the world in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. But then what use is a cup of tea if it doesn’t wake you up and get your grey cells ticking?
The legendary history of tea
The story begins in China where tea was first discovered. The legend goes that nearly 4,800 years ago as Emperor Shen Nung sat under a tree, leaves from a nearby plant, Camellia sinensis (tea) blew in to some drinking water being boiled by a servant. The emperor, a keen herbalist loved its taste and the rest as they say, is history. While the veracity of this account is near impossible to ascertain, the origin of tea in China is undisputed. Tea remained a Chinese drink for at least a couple of thousand years with small amount of trade through the Silk Route with neighbouring countries, before Europeans and the rest of the world got the first whiff through traders from the east.
In the early 16th century as Portuguese ships touched the ports of Guandong in China, the first boxes of tea started finding their way by sea to Europe. Over time this exotic drink grew to become the foremost Chinese export. Tea spread gradually, to France (1638), England (1645) and Germany (1650) followed by North America by mid 17th century. It is believed that the wedding of Charles II to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, a tea addict, in the mid 17th century made the drink fashionable in England. The country was to become one of the foremost champions of this exquisite drink. Tea grew in popularity on the British islands, but the taxes made it expensive for the average consumer to buy. This led to smuggling for tax avoidance and to gangs getting involved in its trade.
Some records suggest that what started as a small volume of smuggling grew into an organised crime network smuggling up-to 7 million pounds of tea a year by the late 18th century, far exceeding legal imports of around 5 million pounds per year. By the early 19th century (1838) the competition for shipping tea from China increased, forcing the East India Company (EIC) to establish its own Tea plantations. India being the hub of the EIC’s operation became a favoured place to grow tea, starting with Assam and spreading soon to Darjeeling and Kangra. Introduction of tea into India by the British proved to be a huge success. By 1890s Indian tea exceeded Chinese tea exports into England. This was the time of Tea clipper races on the high seas between importers from Europe and America to bring back the produce from the East to western markets quicker, to secure the highest prices.
I find that stories of such drama on high seas, the intrigue and crime in the history of tea add to its flavor. The politics of tea doesn’t end there however and continues in the postcolonial period and right up to today. A sense of ownership of this product is palpable among many cultures; the Chinese as the discoverers and earliest drinkers, the Europeans and among them the British as the main promoters not only of tea but also of the production of tea to the Indian subcontinent and other colonies and Indians as one the largest producers and among its biggest consumers. Such love and ownership has led to several tussles among players. Between the British and the Indians the shared history of the beverage while sometimes a complex issue, remains one of those deep and personal relationships that will keep them wedded to each other long into the future. Top selling blends like English Breakfast Tea and Afternoon tea for instance reflect a long tradition of exquisite blending expertise in the UK coupled with a great mix of Himalayan, Ceylon and Kenyan teas. Above all of this however and perhaps in no small measure on account of it, tea remains secure in its position as one of the foremost nourishments the human race has ever known.
Turning a new leaf: Understanding tea
As in the example of English Breakfast Tea above, the provenance of tea you drink can be extremely interesting. Every tea-growing region has its own soul and every nuance of growing,picking and readying the tea for market adds its own dimension. However, for ease tea is classified along two sets of parameters. The first being the season or the flush when the tea is picked; the First, Second or Third flush and the second is on the basis of the kind of leaf; Whole-Leaf, Broken, Fannings and Tea-Dust. The treatment of the leaves and the oxidation process after the leaves have been picked also determines whether the end product is a Green or Black tea.
No amount of reading can replace developing one’s own palate to decipher the flavours and nothing can replace experiencing a wide variety of teas to arrive at your preferred brew. Most people may not know, but the price of Tea can vary from as little as a few Pounds for a kilogram of Tea-Dust in tea bags to several hundred Pound Sterling for a few hundred grams of the more exquisite leaf. Some excellent teas that are reasonably priced are the Flowery Orange Pekoes of First-Flushes or White Teas from some plantations. Tea sommeliers evaluate the aromas, colours, liquor and after taste of tea in a manner similar to wine and whiskey. Sitting with connoisseurs you can learn lots just wafting through thebouquets. I discovered for instance that the act of drinking tea accompanied with the unsavoury sound of sucking air is not to do with manners or the hotness, but infact to fill ones entire mouth with the flavour, as some tones can only be felt in the nasal passage. The manner of drinking tea itself varies dramatically from one place to the other. Traditional Chinese drinkers like to brew strong green teas or herbs in small pots and reuse the leaves for several cups. The trend on the high street on the other hand is towards flavoured teas and infusions that are purely herbal drinks where dried flowers or fruits are steeped with no tea. I don’t mind a flavoured tea or a herbal infusion at times, though mostly I am partial to Flowery Orange Pekoes (top bud and few leaves from the top) and Whole-Leaf teas such as First-Flush Orthodox from Kangra, Second-Flush Single-Estate teas from Assam and White Teas (Flowery Orange Pekoe) from regions like Fujian province in China. These tend to develop a soft golden liquor and reflect the floral attributes of their region with distinctive flavours. Such in brief has been
my incredible journey through tea.
Increasingly a model similar to wines and whiskies is being deployed for producing, evaluating and marketing tea. Online stores that ship fresh teas straight from plantations and consumers that are more and more discerning are an encouraging trend. All these developments are increasing competition again and a new wave of innovations is coming into the industry. As it enters this new phase in its extraordinary journey, the story of tea reflects the ongoing evolution and change in society. Despite all the changes however, just as surely as night follows day, tea continues to energize and awaken humans each morning to push forward with renewed vigour.