Note: If you missed reading the explanation on Page One, please be aware that this is not an active blog at this time.
A Nice Cuppa, Please
I have no particular love for tea. I’ll drink a glass of iced tea with lemon on a hot summer day, and I do appreciate the green tea that I’m occasionally served in Chinese and Japanese restaurants, however I rarely brew tea at home. I do not own a teapot; it would feel too much like a betrayal of my coffee grinder, to which I owe a debt for morning consciousness and the ability to shave without bandages.
Tea connoisseurs are an entirely different breed. They taste, pour a bit from the teapot to raise the temp, taste, add more milk, taste, sweeten just a bit, taste, heat, taste, milk, taste, sweeten… Such a ridiculously complex morning ritual would make me suicidal. By the time a tea drinker’s cuppa is finally prepared to perfection, I’ve already been at work for two hours.
Preparing my cup of morning coffee is much simpler. I pour it; I drink it. All I ask is that it be black and hot and have enough caffeine to simulate the jumpstart from a defibrillator.
Along with coffee drinkers, modern tea drinkers have fallen prey to modern marketers. You can now purchase a staggering variety of brewed teas or choose from a long menu of tea-flavored, liquid confections. To name just a few, tea varieties include black, white, yellow, green, Oolong, herbal, Zen, English Breakfast and Earl Grey. You can flavor your tea with chocolate, lemon, ginger, honey, spearmint, peppermint and (very nearly sacrilege) coffee.
For those who really wanted a milkshake for breakfast, there’s Starbuck’s lattes, such as the Vanilla Rooibos Tea Latte, which their website states contains an infusion of rooibos, steamed milk, syrup, vanilla and cinnamon, topped with a velvety foam. Starbucks is a good company, so I’m sure their latte is very good and very popular. But this drink does raise some questions:
- Rooibos is a South African shrub. Is this really an herbal infusion for morning tea, or is someone in Johannesburg making a profit on trimming their hedge?
- While the list of ingredients is most impressive, why doesn’t it mention tea?
Tea is a drink steeped in history, myth, legend and hot water. We consume all of them, although only the latter requires milk or lemon. And where did it all start?
According to legend…
China, 2737 BCE
Emperor Shen Nung (AKA Shennong) was boiling his daily water, as he had taught his people to do for their health and vitality. He relaxed by a tea tree as the water simmered. A fortunate gust of wind blew several leaves from the tree, which landed in the water, coloring it softly. The curious emperor tasted the mixture and felt quite refreshed. He decided to bring tea to his people.
Emperor Shen Nung was burning various herbs to determine if the smoke or the ash would have medicinal properties. Several tea leaves dropped from his burning branch into his daily water, which was boiling nearby. The emperor tasted it…
Emperor Shen Nung was studying the pharmacopeia of various medicinal herbs. He accidently dropped some tea leaves into simmering water. The leaves turned the water brown almost immediately. Being a curious scientist, the emperor tasted it…
OR… OR… OR…
Variations on the legend of Emperor Shen Nung are almost too numerous to count. In addition to introducing tea to the Chinese people, he invented agriculture, the hoe, axe and irrigation. He was the first to dig wells for water, the first to use herbal medicine and acupuncture, and he introduced the weekly farmers market. It’s almost impossible to list the many varied accomplishments of Shen Nung, but fortunately he was immortal, so he had plenty of time to get everything done.
Historically, there is no definitive proof that Emperor Shen Nung ever existed. The best we can say for certain is that he is a Chinese cultural hero. However, the very specific date, 2737 BCE, is repeatedly mentioned for the discovery of tea, even though it’s undocumented. It makes me wonder if someone did introduce tea to China during that specific year, or historians just happen to be repeating the same typo.
Regardless of how it was introduced, the Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years. It’s believed the first instruction book for the preparation of tea was written in 59 BCE by Wang Bao. Tea has been used medicinally; for private, state and religious ceremonies, and for simple daily consumption. Tea is represented strongly in Chinese art and literature. Collectors today will gladly pay exorbitant prices for antique teapots and cups, some plain, some elaborately decorative. While tea became an integral part of Chinese culture, it certainly didn’t stop at the borders.
There are various dates given for the introduction of tea to Japan, but is seems the most credible sources favor either the 6th century CE, or the early Heian period (794 – 1185 CE). Buddhist monks brought tea to Japan, although there is some question whether it was Japanese monks who travelled to China for religious study, or Chinese monks who travelled to Japan for the same reason. Tea stayed in the monasteries for some little time, but it was soon adopted by the Japanese aristocracy.
In 1191, the Zen priest Eisai (1141 – 1215 CE) brought tea seeds to Japan, and this was the beginning of tea being adopted by the masses. Here again, there are variations of the story saying Eisai brought back, not seeds, but a powdered variety of tea which became popular. The seed story seems more credible. Customs services tend to take a dim view of unidentified powders.
However tea was introduced, Japan followed China in adopting tea as an integral part of its culture, even to the point of popular fashions being decorated with tea leaf motifs. Chanoyu, known to the West as the Japanese tea ceremony, is both an art form and a spiritual experience heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism.
I see my coffee cup is empty.
Tomorrow: Europe discovers tea time.
A Nice Cuppa, Please – Part II
Please prepare yourself a nice cuppa tea, grab your bunny slippers and prop up your feet. I will now continue to regale you with tales of high adventure and intrigue regarding tea’s brisk spread throughout the world. Actually, it’s not so much a tale of adventure as one of runaway greed. Ebenezer Scrooge would have been proud of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Dutch and English merchants and financiers who took time away from foreclosing on convent orphanages to bring tea to the world.
Tea was and is a profitable commodity. It’s not quite as profitable as cocaine and heroin, but there are major benefits to selling and drinking tea:
- You meet fewer DEA agents.
- You can drink from fine china and porcelain cups instead of gutters.
- You can actively show your support for multiculturalism by staining your teeth brown.
- The grandmothers at most tea socials bake cookies.
Business was a little different when tea first arrived in Europe. In the 17th century making a profit required entirely different strategies than it does today. War, piracy, gunboat diplomacy, bribery and corruption were all vital and pervasive constituents of sound business practice. Cutthroat business was not a metaphor; it was a career choice. After all, there’s no need to screw the competition when you can just kill them?
While most people associate the English with tea, it was the Dutch who first introduced tea to Europe, and the source was Japan, not China. Powdered green tea was brought back as a luxury good circa 1610. However, this story is disputed as to the date and source, which may have been 1606 and Macao respectively. Regardless, these small early shipments can be considered incidental to the trade in spices, dyestuffs, silk and other Oriental goods. Tea was not a primary business at the time, nor was it even being considered for one. After all, spices could be sold in Europe for hundreds of times the price paid in Asian countries. Pepper in the early 17th century sold in Europe for approximately 600 times its cost in Asia. Tea was then unknown in Europe and no reputable ship’s captain would fill his hold with speculative cargo when he could be certain of a good profit from highly demanded spices. There is little documentation for the intentions of disreputable ship’s captains. It’s hard to keep good records when you’re blind drunk in a brothel.
The Dutch East India Company (Known in the Netherlands as Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) achieved a near monopoly on the spice trade with a very simple corporate mission statement: We’re going to kick the Portuguese out of Asia and steal everything they’ve got.
Actually, the Dutch were interested in kicking everyone out of Asia, including a lot of natives. The Dutch East India Company spent fifty to seventy percent of their operating budget on weapons and fortifications. In some cases, they killed or drove away whole native populations in order to steal land for Dutch plantations growing various spices. They overwhelmed the Portuguese and other European traders with force of arms, and by negotiating exclusive contracts with native suppliers.
That covers it, Mr. Harjanti. Sign here and we’ll give back your testicles.
In England, tea was introduced to the public as a medicine and promoted as an alternative to gin. However, I can honestly say that tea has never cured anything for me, and anyone who honestly believes tea is a good alternative to gin, hasn’t given gin a fair chance.
Tea soon made its way into English coffeehouses and its popularity grew rapidly. Not long after tea became commonplace, the English government decided to tax it, creating yet more problems. The taxes rose in volume until it was ten percent of the government’s tax income. This made tea a critical commodity, one the government could not allow to decline. Further, the taxes drove a huge increase in smuggling, to the point that half to two-thirds of the tea consumed in England was supplied by smugglers. Much like Prohibition in the United States, the government found that they could not lock up the entire population, but it didn’t stop them from trying, and even the British government has to admit the situation turned rather ludicrous…
“I drank a cup of tea.”
Due to the tremendous demand for tea, imports from China increased to the point that England’s trade imbalance was bleeding the country of silver and gold. Unfortunately, England did not have any native products that were in demand in China, so they had to create both a product and a demand in order to save their gold and silver reserves. What they found was opium, primarily grown in India, transported to Canton by English merchants and smuggled into China by local pirates. The English King saved his gold and the Chinese addicts smoked the evidence.
Naturally, the Chinese government objected, especially since opium was illegal in England, but the English government had no problem with creating a new class of addicts halfway around the world. The opium trade became so valuable to English merchants that two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) were fought to protect it.
The English also had a tiny little problem with tea in the American colonies, where more tea was consumed than in the home country. Tea imported into the colonies was taxed heavily, but that was only part of the problem. When the English East India Company ran into financial difficulties, the English Parliament passed a law allowing the company to import tea directly to the Americas, bypassing the colonial middlemen, who stoically faced unemployment while thoroughly cleaning their muskets.
The Revolutionary protest most remembered is the Boston Tea Party, but in fact numerous attacks on English tea, ships and merchants occurred throughout the colonies. In the end, as I’m sure you know, the English sent General Cornwallis to settle the unrest in the American colonies, and at Yorktown, he did. We still consider the matter settled.
Today, Americans drink more than six billion dollars’ worth of tea annually, and believe it or not, it is more popular than gin, but not quite as useful for drowning olives.