Tea’s globe-trotting tale is infused with whimsy and revolution – Nikkei Asian Review

How Asia’s favorite drink helped shape history


Tea-plucking outside Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka (Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA   According to legend, the world’s oldest beverage came about by accident more than 4,000 years ago, when a draft blew some tea leaves into a pot of boiling water being prepared for Shen Nung, the Chinese emperor known as “the divine farmer.”

Divine intervention, maybe? Whatever the provenance of that fateful gust, it was not the first farce — or tragedy — to propel the tea industry forward and eventually globalize what was for thousands of years an Asian drink. As recently as the late 16th century, a handful of Japanese Christian pilgrims in Rome prompted much curiosity among their hosts by making tea: Locals assumed at first that the drink was just boiled water, according to “Tea: The Drink That Changed The World,” a 2007 book by John Griffiths.

Kakuzo Okakura’s “The Book of Tea,” a 1906 paean to tea culture, suggested that the drink — by then almost as much of a staple in parts of Europe and North American as it had long been in Asia — could be a liquid bridge between East and West. Tea, wrote the Japanese scholar, who was also known as Tenshin Okakura, “has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”

But the century or so before “The Book of Tea” was published saw tea not as mediator but embroiled in war, conquest and revolution. Chinese tea was used as payment for opium grown in India by the British East India Co., a trade that created unknown millions of Chinese opium addicts but was “indispensable” to financing Britain’s industrialization, as well popularizing tea among Britons, as described in Sarah Rose’s 2010 book “For All The Tea In China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favorite Drink.”

And British East India Co. tea was central to one of the world’s best-known acts of revolutionary political theater: The Boston Tea Party of 1773, when disgruntled Americans, still under British rule, dumped a shipment of the company’s tea into Boston Harbor in protest of a tea tax levied by London to support the company. The American subjects, who could not send lawmakers to the British parliament, decried the levy as “taxation without representation,” giving rise to the independence war that birthed the United States of America.

A new twist

The history of tea is a blend of the dark and the serendipitous, for sure, but there’s been an infusion of whimsy along the way. A century after tea’s central role in the American Revolution, some stateside inventiveness would give the tea industry a couple of jolts. According to legend, a merchant named Richard Blechnyden noticed his hot beverages were not selling one particularly sticky summer’s day in 1904, so he had ice added to the tea being served at a trade fair in St. Louis.

Four years later, a New York merchant named Thomas Sullivan put servings of tea into small silk pouches, which he sent on to customers to sample. Some of the recipients assumed that the ensemble was to be dunked intact into a cupful of boiled water, and, after some inadvertent innovation, thus was born the modern tea bag.

More recently, the “tea and oranges that come all the way from China” — the wafting line in the late Leonard Cohen’s 1967 ballad “Suzanne” — referred to a tea from Sri Lanka that was flavored with orange and branded as “Constant Comment” by Bigelow Tea, an American company.

The eventual success of Constant Comment came about after a packet was left open in a shop in a moment of absent-mindedness. The tea’s zesty orange tincture piqued the senses of customers and prompted, as the name suggests, a flow of constant comment about the fragrance and the beverage.

But whether the great English polemicist George Orwell would have approved of such ornamentation is another question. In 1946, with rationing still in place in the U.K. after World War II, Orwell took time from penning the political allegories for which he remains best-known, to issue his 11 rules for making “A Nice Cup of Tea” — as the essay is called — which he rounded off with a stern directive that tea “should be drunk without sugar.”

Global reach, Asian roots

Orwell recommended Indian or Ceylon tea above all others, a reminder that although countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and Turkey are well-known tea producers, Asia is steeped in tea like no other region.

Of the world’s top 10 tea-producing countries, seven are in Asia, including Japan, the ninth-biggest producer, as well as major coffee producers Indonesia and Vietnam. The two biggest producers are China and India, who grow tea mostly for their huge domestic drinking markets. Among exporters, Kenya is first, with China and Sri Lanka vying for second. The world’s biggest tea drinkers are all Asian, with China, India and Pakistan the world’s three biggest tea drinkers in absolute terms in 2016.

The camellia sinensis tree is the single source of the world’s more than 3,000 varieties of tea — a categorization that omits herbal teas, which are more accurately described as infusions.

It is from camellia sinensis that tea leaves are harvested, or “plucked,” a process that takes place at different times of the year in different tea-growing regions. The teas produced after plucking can mostly be categorized into a handful of main groups, such as black, green, white and oolong.

Some 13 million people — mainly smallholder farmers — work in tea production across 35 mostly tropical and subtropical countries, according to the Rainforest Alliance, a group that has developed a respected certification system aimed at ensuring that tea is grown sustainably and without exploiting workers. But as a 2015 BBC expose of working conditions on tea plantations in the Assam region of northeastern India showed, workers sometimes endure grim living and work conditions, a reminder that the world’s most popular beverage has had something of a troubled history.

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