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The History and Cultivation of Tea

The discovery of tea is lost among the folktales. Chinese storytellers recite the legend of Emperor Shen Nung, the father of agriculture and herbal medicine, who lived almost three thousand years before Christ and taught his people the value of cultivating land and the wisdom of boiling water to make it safe for drinking. One day, while working in his own garden, Shen Nung noticed the leaf of a camellia-like bush floating in his steaming bowl of water. Sipping the concoction, he discovered a drink that was refreshing and exhilarating.

For the Japanese, tea had its origin in an act of atonement rather than discovery. Their central character is the missionary monk, Daruma (Prince Bodhidharma), who brought Buddhism from India to China and Japan. In a.d.520, Daruma began a nine-year meditation in a cave-temple near Canton, but, growing weary after many months of staring at a stone wall, he fell asleep. Awakening, Daruma was so displeased with himself that he cut off his lazy eyelids and threw them to the ground. It was there, according to legend, that the first tea plant grew, providing Daruma with an elixir that kept him alert during the remaining years of his reverie. The legend neatly echoes an almost identical and earlier Indian legend.

By the eighth century, tea was being eulogized in literature and legislation. The Chinese poet and scholar (and one-time acrobat) Lu Yu wrote the definitive commentary on tea. Ch'a Ching, known as The Classic of Tea, is still read today.

With each succeeding dynasty, tea evolved to reflect society. During Lu Yu's era, the T'ang dynasty (a.d. 618-906), tea enjoyed its golden age. The world's largest empire was a mecca for traders, and tea was a flavorful commodity. During this period, tea often was brought to Japan by monks returning from pilgrimages to China. Pounded and shaped into molds, tea bricks were easy to transport, and the beverage was made simply by breaking off a chunk into boiling water.

During the Sung dynasty (a.d. 960-1280), the refinements of tea culture blossomed in both China and Japan. Powdered tea and delicate porcelain came into vogue, and the first teahouses appeared. Many of the rituals used in the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu, date to this elegant period.

Prized as a tonic and panacea, tea's shiny leaves were considered food by early Asian nomads. Some of the world's first energy bars were concocted by mixing tea leaves with salt, garlic, and dried fish. The reeking but portable result made a handy form of exchange. After the social, political, and cultural upheaval of Kublai Khan and his Mongol relatives, the Ming dynasty (A.D,1368-1644) attempted to revive many lost rituals. The black, green, and oolong teas we are familiar with today were developed during this dynasty, and the Chinese teapot became an indispensable vessel for brewing.

As sixteenth-century Portuguese, Dutch, and other European traders and missionaries began to visit Asia, word of the beverage spread. The Dutch introduced tea to England in the early 1600s, but it remained the drink of aristocrats until the 1650s, when coffeehouses began serving tea as an alternative to coffee and hot chocolate. In 1657, Garway's Coffee House in London advertised tea as a cure-all, and rumors attributing Chinese longevity to tea drinking helped spread the gospel. But tea was considered a man's drink until King Charles II's consort, Catherine of Braganza, introduced tea at court as the fashionable breakfast drink.

Tea came to North America in the mid-seventeenth century, when the Dutch settled on the small island now known as Manhattan. The neighboring British colonies took longer to embrace the drink. In fact, they didn't drink it at all. Instead, they boiled the leaves and ate the lifeless vegetation with a little salt and butter.

Barely a hundred years after its introduction to Great Britain, tea had become an international commodity, but its popularity in America imploded due to an ill-conceived political maneuver. The British government levied a special tax on teas destined for the colonies, and the colonies protested with a boycott. As tea sales plummeted, the British tried to force the colonies to take the surplus, and, in a manner of speaking, they did. In December 1773, participants in the Boston Tea Party, one of many held in different ports, dumped the tea in the harbor and set the stage for the American Revolution. It was decades before Americans began to drink tea again.

The twentieth century proved to be a busy one for American tea enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. In the scorching summer of 1904, the United States was strut ting her economic stuff at America's first World's Fair, held in Saint Louis. From around the world, countries came to exhibit their wares, and an Englishman by the name of Richard Blechynden set up a booth to promote Indian black tea. But no one was willing to drink his steaming brew in the sweltering heat. Out of desperation the frantic man poured the hot tea over ice and, to everyone's delight, a quenching new beverage-iced tea-was invented.

Four years later, Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea importer, initiated a second major innovation. Deciding to cut his overhead, he replaced the large sample tins of tea he sent to his retail customers with small, individual silk bags. Eventually, filter paper replaced the silk, and it's safe to say that tea bags are here to stay.

With the dawn of the new millennium, tea is more popular than ever. During the 1990s, tea sales more than doubled, reaching $4 billion a year in the United States, and iced tea continues to be second only to cola in popularity. One of the world's most popular beverages, tea has shown a sophisticated ability to transform itself. Long praised for its beneficial health components, tea is showing up in everything from cosmetics to candles, ointments, and balms.

Growing tea

An old-fashioned bouquet of camellias and your grandmother's tea service have more in common than the sideboard on which they're standing. The tea bush and the camellia bush are kissing cousins, related by the scientific classification of genus. The familiar camellia plant, with its shiny, green leaves and lovely, corsagelike blossoms, is known as Camellia japonica, while the evergreen tea plant that supplies the world with its second most popular beverage is Camellia sinensis.

Native to Asia, the tea bush or shrub thrives in semitropical and tropical climates. Although its glossy, elliptical leaves grow quickly in a humid, junglelike environment, the best tea grows above five thousand feet, where harsher conditions encourage the leaves to mature slowly and develop complexity. Most cultivated tea is grown on large estates, plantations, or "gardens," but there are still postage stamp-sized plots, especially in China and Japan, where individual families grow enough for themselves, their village, and, when the price is right, export.

If left to grow wild, the tea plant can reach thirty feet in height or higher. (In the Yunnan province of China, there is an ancient tea "tree" that, at a hundred feet, towers over the landscape.) For commercial use, cultivated plants are pruned to waist height. Pruning encourages the dense growth of young shoots, called "flush," and makes the work of harvesting the crop easier.

Even though a great deal of tea production has been mechanized, the young shoots destined for finer teas are still handpicked. An experienced tea leaf plucker-usually a woman-can pick enough shoots in one day to produce nine pounds of finished tea, equal to eighteen hundred cups of tea, or the annual consumption of a thirsty Brit.

The number of leaves plucked from each shoot is one of the major factors that determine quality. The finest teas use only the flavorful top leaf and bud, while a coarse plucking grabs the first three, four, or five leaves on a sprig and produces a stronger, harsher brew. Mechanical harvesters pluck not only the top two leaves and bud but other leaves as well. The tea is then processed through a "cut, roll, curl" machine that results in broken leaf sizes.

With the variety of teas on the market, you might assume that there are many different kinds of tea plants. Until the nineteenth century, it was believed that green tea was made from one species and black tea from another, but thanks to noted botanist Sir George Watt, the different tea plants were identified as belonging to the same species. The dramatic differences among types of tea depend instead on where they're grown and harvested. The other crucial variable is how the tea is processed. The next chapter explains what's different about each variety, explores whether tea gives you a lift, and discusses the health benefits of tea (does green tea really prevent tooth decay?), along with many other facts vital to your selection of tea.