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The World in a Cup

What we talk about when we talk about tea

The year 1996 marked the opening of the first Tealuxe store, in Harvard Square, Cambridge. I stepped inside the trendy new emporium, with its copper counters and black wainscoting, and found a menu of more than eighty loose-leaf teas: Darjeelings and Assams, oolongs and senchas. I marveled at the tung ting oolong leaves, which were rolled into spectacular half-ball shapes, and lingered wonderingly over p’uerh, which smelled like rich humus soaked by a summer rain. Then there was gyokuro, which somehow made me think of asparagus. My life would never be the same again.

I knew that tea was no simple, one-dimensional beverage, but until then, the knowledge had been merely intellectual. I had always associated tea with my grandmother Elsie, a proud woman with set white hair and high heels who spent her life striving to be the quintessential minister’s wife. To Elsie, wearing white gloves and a hat to church was as obligatory as tithing, and being a hostess was the best job on earth. A lifelong Anglophile, she also believed that tea was an important component of hospitality. She cherished her bone china teacups and sterling silver tea service.

Too bad the tea itself didn’t receive as much attention as the accoutrements. When I recall Elsie’s thick mahogany dining table, I picture a soggy, bunched-up teabag drying next to her cup. The bag would sit there waiting to be used at every meal for a day or even two. This tribute to frugality must have provided her with immunity to every strain of bacteria in existence. My grandmother taught me the social value of the tea ritual, but not about the beauty of an exquisite cup of tea.

So that day in Tealuxe, it was as if a whole new world had opened up before my eyes. And this world has continued to reveal itself to me, often in surprising ways.

One gray May morning, I approached an unobtrusive warehouse building in the heart of West Concord. I climbed the wooden steps past a rustic hand-painted sign and stepped into a small office with industrial carpeting and a metal reception desk. This was the headquarters of Mark T. Wendell Tea Company. What it lacked in aesthetic appeal was more than made up for by the welcome I received from the owner, Elliot Johnson, and his son Hartley. They quickly swept me up into their tales of the century-old enterprise, which Elliot had acquired in the late sixties when Mr. Wendell—known as the Bachelor of Beacon Hill—died without an heir.

Elliot recounted his comical battles with customs agents at the docks who served as both tea tasters and “fish sniffers.” The officials routinely discarded p’uerh, that valuable aged tea whose earthy aroma had so intrigued me in the Tealuxe shop: they assumed it was spoiled. It took years to convince customs that p’uerh was supposed to smell that way.

Our conversation meandered to the day Elliot went to pick up one of the first shipments of tea from China after the embargo was lifted in the early seventies. Someone along the shipping chain, likely an angry dockworker, had scrawled “Commie Tea” across the crate. Elliot took one look at the graffiti and made up his mind to get off the docks with his tea as quickly as possible.

Hartley, the son, pointed out the aqua tea tins favored by one of the store’s famous customers, Julia Child. Some of these tins, he told me, are now on display in the exhibit of her kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum. (When the recent film Julie & Julia was in the making, it was Mark T. Wendell that supplied the tea tins Child would have owned. )

There in the humble Mark T. Wendell warehouse office, with the rich smells emanating from the crates and barrels nearby, it became clearer to me than ever that tea is a drink with a past. In the weeks and months that followed, I devoured book after book on the subject. From Laura Martin’s Tea: The Drink That Changed the World I learned that tea spurred Britain to develop a substantial opium industry in India: merchants wanted to offer China something of value in exchange for the treasured leaves. The result was rampant opium addiction in China. Martin also described how Chinese emperors created famines by demanding that consumable crops be replaced with tea grown in tribute to the aristocracy.

Beatrice Hohenegger’s Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West revealed that those working in wealthy homes used to steal the leaves from brewed tea, dry them, and resell them on the black market. And I was introduced to Robert Fortune, a “spy” who journeyed through China learning tea-growing secrets so that a tea industry could be launched elsewhere in the world. From other books, I learned that compressed tea bricks were used as currency in ancient China, and that Japanese samurais participated in elaborate tea-tasting competitions. It is fair to say I became steeped in the history of tea.

Tea has lured me into the mysteries of science, too, as happened one day when a package appeared in my mailbox from Aura Teas, of Vancouver, British Columbia, with whose owner, Fionna Du, I had become friends. Inside the package was something called Formosa natural Wuhe honey black tea, which I immediately brewed. A few sips convinced me that it had been scented or flavored with honey. So I emailed Fionna asking for more information about the tea and its production. She introduced me to green leaf cicadas, aka “leaf hoppers.”

When the leaves used for making honey black tea are growing, these insects chew on them. The chewing action breaks cells in the leaf, exposing them to air. The resulting oxidation is not an unusual occurrence in itself—it’s the chemical process that causes some tea leaves to turn from green to dark brown or black—but it typically doesn’t happen until the leaves have been picked. With honey black tea, by contrast, the leaves oxidize while still attached to the plant. This early oxidation is what imparts the striking honey-like flavor.

I have since learned that leaf hoppers are responsible for the lovely honey scent and flavor of other teas, such as China’s famous Oriental beauty (Bai Hao oolong). I’ve begun to understand that like wine, tea has a particular terroir, an influence from the physical environment in which it grows. Insects may be part of that, but a myriad of other factors may figure just as prominently. Darjeelings from India have a muscatel flavor that is readily identifiable to experienced tea drinkers, while other black teas may be characterized by a unique fruitiness or slight astringency. Often these subtleties can be attributed to geography: the altitude, the humidity, the soil and the minerals therein, even whatever other crops are nearby. Teas grown high in the mountains, bathed in humidity with periods of cool weather, have a flavor that is significantly more appealing than teas grown at lower elevations. The locale contributes a specific chemistry that you can actually taste.

With my understanding of the importance of place in the cultivation of tea has come a deepened awareness of environmental issues. My enjoyment of the wonderful teas from Sri Lanka, for instance, is tempered by my knowledge that overfarming there has led to massive degradation of soil quality. The problem started in the early seventies, when the government took over many tea plantations and converted them to a monoculture. The land inevitably became depleted, so much so that production plummeted. Efforts have been launched to diversify the crops again and restore the soil, but the consumer’s quest to buy tea at the lowest price possible continues to reinforce detrimental farming practices.

Sometimes unenlightened agriculture can bring even worse consequences, as has been the case in Taiwan. Because of the demand for Taiwanese high mountain oolong, trees have been removed from the mountains there to make room for additional crops. Without sturdy tree roots to hold the earth in place, many regions have become susceptible to mudslides, such as those that occurred over the summer of 2009. Entire villages succumbed.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that the greed of some in the tea industry is often offset by the altruism of tea aficionados. An example that comes to mind is the Sri Lankan Charity Tea Auction held at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. The Park Plaza is a tea lover’s delight, employing one of the nation’s few tea sommeliers, Cynthia Gold. (One remarkable afternoon tea featured tea-infused white port, tea-rubbed pork, and Earl Grey crème brûlée.) And in hosting the Sri Lankan Charity Tea Auction, the hotel showed its willingness to support those who produce the tea it serves. The proceeds went to Sri Lanka Tsunami Relief, an organization established to help the tea-growing island recover from the devastating tsunami of December 2004.

Finally, my tea obsession has brought me back to the rituals surrounding the drink’s consumption. One especially memorable experience unfolded at the House of Flower Wind one afternoon not long ago.

Standing on the steps of a brownstone in downtown Boston with my husband, knowing that a fully appointed Japanese teahouse was somewhere inside, I was anxious. I had heard and read about the Japanese tea ceremony, with its strict protocols, but had never participated in one. Would I get it right?

The assistant to the tea master arrived soon enough and led us through a small gallery, down some stairs to an art studio, and into a Japanese garden. The space was an oasis in the midst of a busy city, with flowering trees, sculptures, fountains, and a small fishpond. We took deep, relaxing breaths of the warm spring air. Then we stepped through a doorway and into the waiting area of the House of Flower Wind.

From there, the day assumed a magical quality that put me completely at ease. We removed our shoes and turned to face a second doorway, which by design was far too small to walk through. The door of a teahouse is generally only about three feet high, with the result that guests must show humility and enter on their knees. Together with her assistant, the tea master, Katharine Finnegan, SMFA80 (who also teaches painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts), led us through the procedure, which entailed scooting along using our fists to support and pull ourselves.

Once inside the teahouse proper, we kneeled on a tatami mat. A charcoal burner hissed and sizzled as fresh water was ladled in to reach the proper temperature for tea. Kate measured out matcha, a savory, finely ground green tea, with her long bamboo scoop (chashaku), ladled heated water from the burner into the tea bowl (chawan), and whipped the infusion into a foamy green broth with a delicate bamboo whisk (chasen). The staff reminded us to stop and fully feel these moments in the teahouse, emphasizing that each movement of the tea master is part of a finely choreographed routine, intended to communicate a sense of harmony and natural beauty.

We were then instructed in the procedure for drinking from the chawan. First you observe the artwork on it. Next, you carefully turn the bowl two and a half times so that your lips don’t touch the decoration. You take a sip, after which you wipe the bowl with a towel and lower it to the floor.

The chawan from which we drank was six hundred years old; it felt heavy and full of history in my hands as I gently slurped the tea, with its slightly sweet foam. We admired the floral arrangement—a single blossom in a vase—and the simplicity and quiet elegance of the calligraphy on a nearby wall scroll. I reached an extraordinary state of calm, transported to a place far, far from Boston.

In late 2007 I decided to join the thousands of others out there who have turned their hobbies into blogs. I began posting stories and thoughts about tea. I reviewed products and got to know vast numbers of other tea lovers, including fiction writers who incorporate tea into their work. A woman I interviewed who writes under the name Laura Childs has developed an entire series of mysteries based in a South Carolina teashop. I also interviewed Laura Schaefer, a midwestern author of young adult novels, including The Teashop Girls, about a group of middle schoolers with a love of tea.

Before I knew it, I had embarked on a new career. I was writing about sustainable tea packaging for the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, providing a guide to teashops for Connecticut Magazine, and offering my picks for the top five teashops in New England for Yankee Magazine. One tea company hired me to develop an education section for its website, and another hired me to create a blog. Now I am busy writing product descriptions.

My favorite project of all is collecting stories from tea lovers around the globe. A Louisiana native has written to me about the teashop he owned that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. A man from Taiwan has told of how he once took his family for a transformative tea-tasting experience. A Hawaiian tea farmer has chronicled his efforts to help make his small state a big player in the tea-growing industry. I hope to publish the stories in an anthology I’m calling Tea Memories.

And after that? I will draw on the patience that one acquires through the practice of tea as I wait to see what is in store.

KATRINA ÁVILA MUNICHIELLO, J96, is a mom, writer, and tea enthusiast whose work has been published in the Boston Globe Magazine, Yankee Magazine, and Connecticut Magazine. She blogs about tea at teapages.blogspot.com.

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