The Way of Tea: Part 1 • Early History and Black Tea
Updated: May 15, 2019
Tea. What is it? An aromatic beverage, a ritual, an old companion? Tea is part of daily life for many people around the Earth. Formal English or Irish teas are ritual meals accompanied by traditional breads, toppings, and sweets. The Japanese Chado (meaning The Way of Tea) and Chinese Kung Fu (meaning Hard Work) cermonies present tea as a working meditaion. Tea is many things to many people. But, what is tea? What are the main types? What functions does it serve? What does it say about the cultures that have embraced it? What is its significance in the human story? What significance does it have in my person story? Or yours? Or in the past? Tea has been central to acts of protest, wars, political alliances, social calls, and creative inspiration. It has always carried a philosophical weight and served a spritual purpose. Its history is full of mystical legends and stories.
In 2700 BCE, Emperor Shennong ("Divine Farmer" is said to have discovered tea by accident. According to legend, he decided to rest under a Camellia tree and boiled some water to drink. Dried leaves from the tree above floated down into the pot of boiling water and infused with the water, creating a the first pot of tea. Intrigued by the delightful fragrance, Shennong drank it and called "cha," meaning "godlike."
In 500 CE, Fakir Dharma took a vow to not sleep for seven years. After five years, he could no longer fight off sleep. He took a few leaves from the tree under which he had made his camp and chewed them. Immediately, he was alert and was able to maintain is vow.
A penitent made a vow to meditate for seven years. Despite his vow, he fell asleep on night. When he woke the next day, he was so upset with himself that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. As soon as the eyelids touched the earth, they grew into a shrub. After seeing this miracle, he took the leaves and prepared them with boiling water. Many people travelled to see this wondrous tree and the story of its divine drink quickly spread. In Japanese, the same character stands for eyelid and tea.
Although none of these stories seem very likely to be literally true. They give us a glimpse into the role that tea has played in these three cultures. It is divine. It is inspired. It takes us into a state of mind where we are made aware of the passage of time. But, before we consider the philosophical, spiritual, and artistic implicaitons of tea. Let's discuss what it is. All true teas are leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, bit tisanes or herbal infusions are also included as "teas." There are six types of tea, Black, Green, Oolong, White, and Pureh teas as well as Tisanes. Let's start with Black Tea.
Tea time is a chance to slow down, pull back and appreciate our surroundings. – Letitia Baldrige, Social Secretary to Jackie Kennedy and Ettiquette Expert
Black is the most common tea drunk in North America and the United Kingdom. Popular types include Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and Breakfast teas. Black tea receives its black color from the oxidizing the leaves of the tea plant, camellia sinensis. In Chinese what English speakers refer to as black tea is called "red tea" for the color of the tea once it is brewed, although the fermented leaves do appear blackish. (In English speaking countries red tea is another name for rooibos, a popular South African tisane. We will look at tisanes later.) Generally, unblended black teas are named after the regions where they are produced, such as Darjeeling named after the Bengali region. While all tea orginated in China, black tea is currently produced in China, Tea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Korea, Nepal, Africa, Indonesia, and Turkey. Some varieties feature black tea blended with other essential oils, such as bergamot in Earl Grey, or spices, such as Masala Chai.
Brewing Black Tea
1. Start with fresh, not previously boiled water, and high quality (probably a great topic for a future article) loose leaf black tea. To measure tea, traditionally use one teaspoon per person and one for pot when brewing in a teapot. Measure one rounded teaspoon per teacup if making one cup at a time.
2. Let water come to just a rolling boil. If the water temperature is too high, the tea may become tannic and bitter, but if the water temperature is too low, it will not be able to extract the full flavor from the leaves.
3. Pour water over tea. You may use an infuser, a tea basket, tea ball, or fill your own tea bags. You can even brew tea by leaves directly in the teapot (not the same thing as your tea kettle which is for boiling water) or cup and strain them out as you pour.
4. Steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Do not oversteep, the taste will become bitter.
4. Remove the leaves from the cup or pot to stop the infusion, and serve to taste with milk, lemon, spices, or honey (or another sweetener.) When using milk in tea, pour the milk into the cup first to heat the milk gradually. Using lemon and milk together is not a good idea, as the milk will curdle. I knomw I've done this. If you prefer tea with a citrus flavor, I recommend using a blended tea with citrus notes such as Earl Grey or Lemon Black tea.
While it may seem more expensive to use loose leaf, rather than pre-bagged teas. The advantage is that loose leaf teas can handle being re-steeped two or three times. The caffeine in the tea is removed from the leaves during the first steeping, so you can continue to enjoy your favorite cup without getting the black tea jitters.
Health Benefits and Effects of Black Tea
1. Energy – While Black Tea is famous for its caffeine content, it is considerably lower (20 – 60 mg per cup) than coffee (100 – 300 mg per cup). Tea also contains two other stimulants, theophylline and theobromine as well as the amino- acid L-theanine. All of these substances work together to give you tea's energetic and alertness boost. This boost also leads to slightly increased metabolism, so you burn more calories throughout the day. While drinking Black Tea is generally safe, heavy tea drinking, more than four or five cups per day as been shown to lead to caffeine related adverse health effects.
2. Antioxidants – Black Tea is full of polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help protect your cells from DNA damage. Research suggests that the antioxidants in tea lead to reduced risks for certain cancers. Studies have shown that women who frequently drink black tea have lower rates of ovarian cancer than non-black tea drinkers. It also reduces atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and may help lower the risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
3. Lower risk of serious health conditions – Black Tea consumption is also linked to lower chance of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney stones, Parkinson’s disease, and osteoporosis.
Our next stepping stone on The Way of Tea will take us to green tea, matcha, and a little bit about Zen.
Tea is a divine herb. – Xu Guangqi
Dethlefsen and Balk. Legend of Teas. https://www.dethlefsenbalk.de/ENU/10730/Legend_of_Tea.html (accessed 21 April 2018.)
WebMD. Black Tea. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/black-tea-uses-and-risks (accessed 21 April 2018.)