Leaves in a Pot


(Originally published on The Unofficial Field Guide to WashU ArtSci March 22, 2016)

Tea is my favorite drink in the world. I favor black teas, like Earl Grey or English breakfast and on a good day drink a cup in the morning and one at night. And even though I say cup, the more accurate term is mug or maybe tankard because my go-to drinking vessels hold more than 20 ounces of liquid. I'm that person who'll sit in 90 degree weather holding hot tea saying "Wow, it's hot as hell today". I think my need to drink tea it's a comfort thing (and a slight caffeine dependency). A hot cup of tea makes me feel warm and cuddly inside and helps me start the day with a clear head. Like so many other things that I enjoy in life, the discovery of tea was entirely accidental (or at least that's what the legend says).

In ancient China, a couple hundred years before the rest of the world got on board, people found that boiling water got rid of impurities and made some of the murkiest water potable and it quickly became a standard practice to purify water through boiling. Legend has it that one day, a few leaves from a tea plant fluttered into a large pot of boiling water and the began to brew. When Emperor Shennong came to check on the water, he noticed that it had changed from clear to a pleasant, pale amber color. Instead of dumping it out, he tasted it and enjoyed the aroma and flavor of the brewed leaves. And thus, tea was born. All by happy accident.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to 1607 when the Dutch East India Company brought tea to Europe. A few decades later, tea made its way to England, where it was served in coffee houses. These coffee houses were very much like a modern day cafe, where people discussed the news and perhaps the weather, although a major difference is that women weren't allowed entry. One of those coffee houses was owned by Thomas Twining and is about to celebrate it 310th anniversary here in London. Twinings has occupied the same space since 1706 and actually created the Earl Grey tea blend. Today, the company has the oldest logo still in use and makes the Queen's personal blend.

Last week I was in the Twinings shop for two hours, sampling six different teas during their master class. Two friends and I got there early and, as a treat, got a free mug of Darjeeling white tea to sip as we waited for the class to begin. At 10am, the leader of the class launched into a brief history of tea's origin, its arrival in London, the tea smuggling trade, the establishment of Twinings, and the beginning of the traditional afternoon tea.

After our history lesson, we learned how the six classes of tea (white, green, yellow, Oolong, black, and Pu'erh) are made and how the people in commodities taste and evaluate the teas that will be bought by the company. We learned how to properly taste the tea; slurp from the specially crafted spoon to ensure the liquid reaches all of the tongue's taste buds. We looked at the oils from the tea, the color of the liquid, the smell of the wet leaves, the flavor of the tea, the mouthfeel, the after taste, all of it. After a lifetime of drinking nothing but the bagged stuff, I was shocked to see what loose tea looked and smelled like.

White, yellow, and green tea smelled like leafy greens and looked like leaves after it's rained for a long time. Oolong smelled a bit fruity, but looked like vegetables once brewed. Black tea smelled like the ground after it rains and tasted bitter.  Pu'erh, or fermented tea, smelled like compost and had a flavor that's only describable as vaguely unpleasant. By the end of the class, I felt like the tea version of a sommelier, and I was convinced that I could only drink loose teas from that moment forward (I could not, however, afford loose teas so I still happily drink the bagged stuff).

When I got back to my apartment some hours later, the first thing I did was start making a cup of tea. As always, I started by emptying my kettle of the leftover water. London water is calcium-rich, and every time I boil a kettle, some of that calcium solidifies and sinks to the bottom of the pot. As I refilled the kettle, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of tea would suit this mineral rich water. For example, Earl Grey tea was made with bergamot to counteract the lime that was in city's water at the time. I don't know what a master blender would select to go with my particular tap water, but the Tesco brand Earl Grey tea tastes just fine to me.

Making tea is simple. Heat water in a stovetop, or electric kettle. Pour hot water over tea bag. Add sugar, if you please. Stir. Sip. Easy peasy. But the brewing of tea can be a temperamental process, especially for loose teas. The quality of water will change the taste. If it's too hot, the tea will become bitter and lose some of its aroma. If the water's too cold, the tea won't be as strong as it should and you're left drinking lukewarm tea. Allowing the tea to brew for too long will either make it bitter or the taste will go wonky. Flowering teas are dangerous because it's tempting to leave the pot as is, with the flower floating in the tea. But loose teas will brew for as long as they are submerged in water, so the beautiful tea will slowly destroy itself as the leaves continue to steep.

By the end of this post, I hoped to come to a revelatory statement relating tea and life. It was supposed to resonate and leave the reader nodding slowly with some sort of personal realization. But as I'm writing, tea is just tea and not everything is a metaphor. Last Wednesday, I had a wonderful time learning more about a drink that I enjoy daily. It made me smile to know that it was an accidental discovery. I was a little mind boggled to learn that that herbal and fruit teas shouldn't be called tea at all and should be called infusions, or tisanes, because actual tea leaves aren't present. I was surprised to learn that afternoon tea is fancier than high tea. But more than anything, I was just happy to spend a few hours with two of my closest friends, bonding over a mutual love of ours: the dried, sometimes oxidized, sometimes wilted leaves from the Camilla Sinensis plant.