I think my first experience with culture shock came as a small boy when, shortly after we moved here from Texas, a woman we were visiting for supper asked me what I wanted to drink and I said, “Tea.” To my horror, she brought me steaming-hot tea in a small china cup, a beverage I had previously only drunk when I was sick. Tact not being a big feature of my eight-year-old personality, I demanded “real” tea: iced tea. The woman responded by dropping a single ice cube into my cup.
Since that time I have come to appreciate hot tea in its own right, an appreciation that was sealed by a six-week visit to England and Scotland when I was in college. Tea is, of course, what you get when you pour boiling water over the leaves of the tea plant, an evergreen shrub native to Southeast Asia whose proper name is Camellia sinensis.
As with wine, the taste of a tea (there are at least 3,000 varieties) depends on where it comes from and what the growing conditions were. Most teas have a basic formula based on tea leaves from specific regions, but the variations in taste from year to year within those regions requires tea importers and packagers to employ skilled tasters, who mix and match many teas to maintain a consistent flavor for a given brand. (A typical tea bag bought at the supermarket may actually contain leaves from 30 different tea plantations!)
Although second to coffee in commercial value, tea ranks first as the most popular beverage in the world. According to ancient Chinese legend, the emperor Shen-Nung learned how to brew tea in 2737 BC when a few leaves from the plant accidentally fell into water he was boiling. In AD 780 the first book on the cultivation, processing and use of tea, Lu Yu’s The Classic of Tea, appeared in China, and it was from China that tea spread to Japan, taken there by Buddhist monks. (The famous carefully choreographed inner-peace-promoting Japanese tea ritual appeared in the 15th century.) Tea then spread to Java, the Dutch East Indies, and other tropical and subtropical areas.
British merchants formed the East India Company in 1600 and introduced tea into England and the American colonies (where it eventually got dumped into Boston harbor). In the 1700s, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, started the British custom of afternoon tea.
Tea plants are grown in areas that have lots of rainfall and rich, loamy soil. Although nowadays the plants are frequently cloned, traditionally, tea-plant seeds are planted in a nursery and replanted in the “garden” (as tea plantations are known) when they’re between six and 18 months old. The plants are kept pruned to a height of about one metre, which encourages the growth of new leaves. In 2 1/2 to five years, depending on the altitude (the hither the altitude, the slower the plant grows but the better the tea tastes) for the plant to produce commercially valuable leaves.
Tea is harvested by hand, several times a year. The crop of newly sprouted leaves and buds is plucked and taken to a factory for processing into black, oolong or green tea.
In North America, we mostly drink black tea. To process it, the leaves are spread out and partially dried for most of a day, then rolled in a machine that bruises and breaks them, releasing an enzyme that gives the tea its flavor and aroma. Next, the lumps of tea are broken and spread in a fermentation room to oxidize, where they turn a copper colour. Then the leaves are fired with hot air, which stops the fermentation process and dries the leaves, turning them black. Then they’re sifted, sorted, and graded.
Teas are graded by size rather than quality. The smallest leaves and buds make up the top grades, called Pekoe (and pronounced PECK-o) and bottom grades are leaf fragments and “dust.” About 80 percent of the crop winds up in the lowest grades, even though it may taste just as good as the higher grades. (By the way, the “orange” in Orange Pekoe apparently survives from an old Chinese term for a size of leaf that was once scented with orange blossoms Ñ it has nothing to do with the flavor of the tea.)
Oolong tea is made much like black tea, except the leaf ferments for a shorter period, so that when it’s dried, the edges turn coppery and the centre remains green.
Green tea, favored in China and Japan, is steamed right after harvest to destroy the enzyme released in other teas when the leaves are broken. This prevent fermentation and means that the tea doesn’t even smell like black tea. Then the leaves are rolled, which removes moisture and gives them a characteristic curl, and dried.
Black tea contains approximately 60 milligrams of caffeine per cup, compared with 100 milligrams or so for brewed coffee. Limiting the brew time doesn’t decrease the caffeine in the cup, either: tests indicate that 75 percent of the caffeine is infused out of the tea leaves within the first 30 seconds of boiling water being added and 95 percent within two minutes, and it takes three to five minutes to brew a decent cup of tea.
Iced tea, my drink of choice, is an American invention that more traditional tea drinkers like the British (and that woman we visited) find hard to fathom. Legend has it that iced tea dates back to a sweltering day in 1904, when a desperate tea exhibitor at the St. Louis World’s Fair chilled a batch of hot tea in order to attract a crowd.
And now, as a special treat, here’s my secret recipe for perfect iced tea:
Put three tea bags in a teapot, pour in boiling water, and let it sit until cold. Then pour the tea into a regular half-gallon pitcher, add two-thirds of a cup of sugar, and top off the pitcher with cold water. Pour into a glass you have first filled (filled, mind you — it’s not good enough to just put in a cube or two) with ice cubes.
I suppose you can add lemon if you want to, but why spoil a perfect glass of tea?