The Culture of Tea: Elixirs of life

Teas for sale at an Istanbul market. Photo: Mars Karochkin

Teas for sale at an Istanbul market. Photo: Mars Karochkin

 — By Lisa Bland –

Numerous studies in humans and animals suggest health benefits from consuming of all forms of tea include the prevention of cancer and heart disease. These benefits are attributed to their polyphenolic constituents. Some of these include Catechins, antioxidants associated with tea’s anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, thermogenic, and antimicrobial properties.

 As the fallen leaves of October decay into the Earth and we move into the cold mists of November, the pace of summer harvest season slows and we turn towards more reflective or indoor pursuits. This is my favourite time of year for cooking rich vegetable soups, preparing apple and berry sauces, and enjoying harvest recipes with friends. With the darkening of the days, I also begin rummaging in my tea cupboard for the perfect brew to warm my body and spirit. Boxes and bags of tea mixtures of all types and flavours tumble out of my overstuffed cupboard. The contents of little bags, boxes, jars, and pressed cakes are a form of currency in my life, and no matter how busy I am, a steaming cup of tea on the table is a reminder that the simple, peaceful moments in life are treasures.

My familiarity with the ritual of tea drinking began early. Throughout my life my dad, true to his English heritage, consumed what seemed like a cup of tea every couple of hours in a day. He was continuously busy working at something and rarely stopped to rest. When he did, his short breaks were punctuated by a cup of orange pekoe, milk, and copious amounts of sugar or honey. I often joined him and remember fondly the conversation and connection that happened over those steaming cups.

History also tells the story of how valuable and culturally significant teas are worldwide. There is something in the mystery of tea drinking that draws us in—a ritual that has been part of human culture and community for thousands of years. As each handful of tea leaves unfurl into steaming hot water, essential properties are released. The five distinctive categories of tea: white, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented originate from different processing techniques and varieties of the evergreen shrub, Camellia sinensis, and are known as “true tea.” These teas have been consumed as nourishment, rejuvenating tonics, and medicine across China, Japan, India, and Europe for centuries.

In China, where the mother of all ancient tea trees originated, tea drinking is not a frivolous pastime; it’s a daily necessity. Modern Chinese in the Sichuan province consume up to four litres of tea a day. According to old texts, Chinese royalty and aristocrats began drinking tea before the Han Dynasty in 200 BC, and it became popular among commoners by 600 AD. In approximately 550 BC, the classical Chinese philosopher Laozi named tea an indispensable ingredient to the elixir of life. In 1191, in the oldest tea drinking book in Japan, How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea, Esai says, “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.”

Pu’er City, in the Yunnan province of China, is home to the prized and economically significant Pu’er fermented tea and is the origin of the Ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road (a treacherous 5,000 km mountain trail) linking tea trade by foot or mule from Yunnan to India, Tibet, and central China. Of Pu’er’s 26 ethnic groups, each has its own tea God. The Hani people of Pu’er, worship a 1,000-year-old tea tree still alive today and believe tea leaves are a gift from this God who has sustained them for millennia. During the Tang Dynasty tea bricks were often used as currency, especially beyond the center of the empire where coins lost their value. Wanshoulongtuan, a Pu’er tea from Yunnan once offered to the Qing emperor, is the oldest surviving tea in China at 150 years old. The price of this imperial drink is estimated at $500,000.

Of the five varieties of tea, all originate from the same Camellia sinensis plant, but undergo different methods of processing. White tea is made from buds and young leaves, steamed or fired and then dried. Due to minimal oxidation, white tea retains the freshest green colour. Green tea is made from more mature tea leaves than white, and leaves may be withered prior to steaming or firing. Oolong tea leaves are “bruised” and oxidized more than white or green teas before they are heated and dried. Black tea leaves are rolled or broken with maximized oxidization before drying. Pu-er or fermented tea is produced in both ripened and aged forms and undergoes secondary oxidization and fermentation caused by organisms growing in the tea and free-radical oxidation. This results in a unique chemical makeup and flavor and texture that becomes more savory and fragrant over time. The Chinese call Pu’er tea the “living antique” or “drinkable relic,” and it is believed to aid digestion, assist in weight loss, and invigorate the spleen.

Numerous studies in humans and animals suggest health benefits from consuming of all forms of tea include the prevention of cancer and heart disease. These benefits are attributed to their polyphenolic constituents. Some of these include Catechins, antioxidants associated with tea’s anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, thermogenic, and antimicrobial properties.

Herbal teas, also called tisanes, are infusions of single herbs or mixtures composed of bark, roots, flowers, spices, and/or leaves and are considered milder, more benign beverages than true tea due to the absence of caffeine or the presence of fewer antioxidants. However, the significant benefits of drinking herbal teas cannot be underestimated and countless studies show antioxidant and health benefits rivaling those of true tea. Some of my favourite herbal infusions include locally harvested nettles, smooth and nourishing Hawaiian Mamaki tea, bittersweet immune boosting Jiaogulan tea from Thailand, and a smoky blend of Yerba mate tea from Uruguay. Many herbal teas can be sourced in our own backyards or gardens—the least impactful choice to our planet in terms of eco-footprint. Tea mixes can be harvested locally from ingredients such as spruce tips, nettles, horsetail, chickweed, lungwort lichen, rose hips, and mint.

Today, a niche tea culture runs counter to the high octane modern coffee culture. Coffee could be compared as a crass country cousin to the more sophisticated and delicately refined tea. Where coffee takes you by the ears and gives you a good shake, tea is gentler and hits your system slowly. Digestive difficulties or jangled nerves experienced by coffee drinkers are non-existent among calm tea sippers.

Tea shops, as opposed to the noise and hustle of coffee shops, are oases from the frantic pace of life. Once inside, the calming, meditative quality of aesthetic sensibilities takes over. The harmony and beauty of clay vessels for steeping tea, Yixing clay pots with ornamental flowers, and delightful packages of aromatic wrapped tea leaves invite us into the subtleties of the palate and curiosity of this mysterious world.

Whatever culture you encounter, each has its variation of tea or herbal blends. Whether you sip on tea made from tea leaves and herbs and poured from a self-heating silver urn called a samovar in Russia, partake in a reverent Japanese tea ceremony, or receive a refreshing blend of green tea, mint leaves, and sugar poured from standing height into small glasses in Morocco, each tea ritual brings insight to the cultural stories, history, and customs of a region.

Among modern tea connoisseurs and serious collectors, tea is indeed a currency. You might pay anywhere from $20 to 12,000 for a 357g brick of pressed Pu’erh tea, the longer the vintage, the steeper the price. A brick produced in the 1950s sells for about $30,000.

Variation in the world of teas is vast, and once the doors of your curiosity are piqued, you may decide to ditch that crass coffee cousin for a delightful exploration into the subtle, life-giving realms of tea.

 

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