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Tea: A Decoction for the ages

by Paul Etcheverry
For millions throughout this planet, a tea kettle's whistle anticipates warmth, comfort and repose - not to mention tantalizing flavors and aromas. For many, tea holds a higher significance, as a cornerstone of sacred traditions and customs. Both common and rarefied, the venerable leaf, with origins in China, boasts a 2000 year history as piquant as its liquor. There's the ancient Buddhist legend of the saint who, hard pressed to stay awake during a marathon meditation, cut his eyelids off, only to find that a nubile tea bush sprouted where the discarded skins landed. Consider the exquisite ceramic drinking vessels and Japan's breathtaking tea gardens. The Boston Tea Party's militant colonists, the European activists who denounced tea as "the impertinent novelty of the age, pernicious to health," imperial China's knowledge-seeking Taoists, as well as that perpetually smiling English captain from ad-art eternity are but a few indelible images from the beckoning brew's annals.

A Capsule History

Originally a medicine, tea's popularity as a beverage can be traced to the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), when it spread from royalty to clergy to nomads (who would gladly swap livestock for the coveted leaf). Delicate, sparely designed teahouses, surrounded by lotus gardens, came into vogue. China's arts flourished; music, paintings, pottery and the Taoist poetry of Lu T'ung extolled tea as conducive to spiritual serenity. In 780 A.D., scholar Lu Yu published his exhaustive volume, Ch'a Ching, or Tea Classic. Devoted entirely to its cultivation, brewing, ritual and care, this treatise which would influence tea ceremonies from Korea to Japan.

Perhaps most significantly, it was during the T'ang Dynasty that Zen masters in Japan procured precious tea seeds from their Chinese counterparts and planted them in the temple gardens. Zen Buddhists in both countries sipped tea to stay awake during meditation, but ultimately developed a daily ritual, inspired by the rigorous procedures outlined in Ch'a Ching. Over 500 years, these customs would ultimately evolve into cha-no-yu, the formal Japanese tea ceremony.

Although teas reached unprecedented popularity in China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1280), they would not be introduced in Europe until the early 17th century. In the 1580's, England and Holland wrested control of Far East maritime trade, politically and militarily, from Portugal and Spain. Successfully cornering the market, the Dutch East India Company imported tea as an expensive plaything for the aristocracies of Holland, Germany and France. English royalty followed suit when King Charles II (1630-1685) married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, whose preference for tea at court functions made the beverage chic among bourgeois Brits.

In the eighteenth century, Russia-China trade began, launching Eastern Europe's fondness for the leaf, while in Western Europe, tea-drinking invaded intellectual circles at London and Paris coffeehouses. When supply increased and prices fell, tea-drinking spread through Europe's social classes, and inevitably met stern opposition; alarmist physicians claimed that Caucasians who drank too much tea would take on the physical characteristics of Asians, while English activist-inventor Jonas Halway publicized his scathing anti-tea treatises with messianic zeal.

Such hysterical warnings had nothing to do with tea's century-long disfavor in the States. Although such early settlers as the Dutch emigres in New York brought tea to the fledgling colonies, England's taxes dealt a near-mortal blow. Not until the introduction of tea bags and iced tea in the early 20th century would the leaf regain its pre-Stamp Act popularity in convenience-crazy America. The one attempt to grow tea commercially in the United States - at an Agriculture Dept. subsidized plantation in Summerville, South Carolina was abandoned in 1916, a money-losing proposition after 20 years.

Today's leading tea producer and exporter, India entered the international trade as a direct result of the 1839-42 opium war between Britain and China. Crown leaders searched desperately for new tea sources - and found that the leaf grew wild in Assam. Once the coveted leaf was cultivated in the Himalayan ranges of East India's Darjeeling, speculators flocked to back the new industry.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), an 1870 coffee blight forced bankrupt java barons to try growing tea instead. Now only India & China surpass Sri Lanka for tea production. Ceylon teas remain prevalent in English blends, as well as the ubiquitous tea-bag brands labeled "Orange Pekoe." In the twentieth century, successful tea enterprises sprouted in Kenya and Indonesia. Supplying demand in the United States and Europe for its two general classifications of black teas, North China Congous and South China Congous, China remains strong in the international trade today.

tea set

Categories, Cultivation & Commercial Processing

There are three general types of tea. Green or unfermented teas, the pride of the Far East, are prized among connoisseurs for their subtle interplay between herbaceous fragrances and flavors. Black or fermented teas gain their robust color, texture and liquor through oxidation - which, for unknown reasons, has been historically termed "fermentation." Their smoky, malty, nutty or fruity properties contrast intriguingly with the gentleness of green teas. The delectable semi-fermented or oolong brews, primarily from Taiwan, combine green teas' "fresh vegetable" sensations with the fruity, toasty tang of black teas. Depending on the individual variety, oolongs oxidize for 20-60% as long as black teas.

Tea's myriad variations all start with the same species, Camellia Sinensis . Thriving in hot humid, rainy mountainous regions it will, unchecked, grow into a 26 foot evergreen, with leaves too bitter for any brew, save that imbibed by masochists. Tea farmers, therefore, stop growth at 3-5 feet. Only fresh growths, preferably a bud and two leaves, are plucked for world-class brews.

After plucking, leaves undergo steaming for green teas, or withering for black and oolong teas. Two to three hours after plucking, the leaves of green teas are steamed for approximately forty seconds to stop oxidation, then air cooled. In withering, leaves wilt on trays for 8-24 hours in a warm, moist, controlled environment. Oolong teas wither for a much shorter time than black teas, then are pan-heated at 250 degrees Farenheit to halt the fermentation process.

To release their flavorful juices, all teas then undergo rolling - a kneading and crumpling by machine - and firing at a temperature of roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Green teas are quickly rolled and dried. As contact with air promotes oxidation in black teas, the rolled leaves are then spread on a clean surface to "ferment" for 2-4 hours. Once the tea reaches its appropriate color, firing, either by hot air or open fire, halts the oxidation process; some varieties of oolong teas are meticulously dried in special baskets over a charcoal fire.

Processors then grade the tea by leaf size. In the United States, grades range from full, whole-leaf Flowery Orange Pekoe, to Orange Pekoe, the small-leaf Broken Orange Pekoe to the low-grade "tea bag" varieties, Fannings and Dust.

Storage & Brewing

It is essential that green and oolong teas be consumed "young," as they eventually lose their clear, refreshing qualities. Black teas' shelf life proves considerably longer than that of green teas; stored in an airtight container, preferably in a cool, dark place (and away from foodstuffs possessing powerful aromas), a robust black tea can last up to a year. In any case, it's better to buy small amounts. If a loose-leaf tea looks and smells fresh, aromatic, flavorful - give it a try.

Green teas also demand more delicate treatment in brewing. Boiling water should be allowed to stand for about a minute before its proper introduction to a green tea. Try controlling steeping to roughly 3-4 minutes for green teas. Experiment to determine how you like it. Black and oolong teas can over-steep as well, so it's a good idea to not let steeping exceed five minutes. For "the perfect cup," start with cold, fresh water - if you have a favorite bottled spring water, use it.

Moroccans enjoy green tea with mint and sugar. Russian teas are traditionally mixed with lemon, sometimes sweetened with jam, and occasionally fortified with a tablespoon of rum. While Thailand vanilla-tea is mixed with cream, Tibetans serve hot buttered tea and Brits enjoy a strong black tea cut with milk and sugar. The very thought of adulterating a fresh, delicate Japanese gyokuru remains tantamount to blasphemy. Here in America, of course, we should resist that temptation to swig it on the run; tea not only opens avenues for fun culinary experimentation, but a precious opportunity to stop running, even for a moment. Perhaps Henry James, in Portrait Of A Lady, expressed it best, "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

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