The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

The air has just turned crisp enough for my breathe to fog the air around me, and I crave the warmth of the gentle tones of a cup of tea. I live off the subtle taste of my winter tea. Any type of tea is ok with me, but I decided to take a second look at one of my favorite commodities.

Earlier this year, I had the joy of visiting a tea shop in San Francisco, which I featured in Vital Tea Leaf: A Story of Tea. It started my journey into learning more about this popular drink. I read a wonderful book called The Tea Book, which showed me that the tea leaf we enjoy is steeped in history and culture. I released part of this in the exposé called Tea: More Than Just A Leaf. However, I decided to take another dive into exploring the culture of tea and how it has shaped the world by reading the book called The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss.

Tea has been around for centuries. It was originally used for food to medicine by our early ancestors before the practice of drinking tea in pleasure came into practice. Each new culture that adopted tea drinking improved upon the process of tea drinking in pleasure. Some of these practices were lost over the years, but some of the practices are still live and well today. Tea has been engrained into our human nature. However, the truly remarkable item to note out of the variety of teas that we have produced in our history and today comes from a single strain of plant.

The tea has six classes of leaf manufacture, which is composed of eight different steps of production. The eight different steps of production include plucking, sorting, cleaning, first drying/withering, final drying/withering, sorting, and packaging.  How the tea develops during this production and the specification of these process produce the varieties of teas as we know them. Didn’t know that about your average tea bag now, did you?

Modern innovation has helped the complex and delicate tea production process, but many still rely on the techniques of old for tradition or quality reasons. Some of these teas take well over 50 years to create the deep and rich flavors. These teas can easily cost as much as a designer handbag. It is truly amazing to learn about something I take for granted most winters but took centuries to cultivate. In The Story of Tea, the authors include an encyclopedia of tea so readers can not only learn about the production, but what each type looks like and what makes each derivative different. The Tea Book included something very similar in a more simple version than the complexities include in this book. However, the most shocking story lies in the last pages.

The tea trade isn’t pure from the issues of capitalism. They suffer from worker welfare issues, different agriculture practices, and political differences like many other industries. There has been attempts made to help regulate the industry with the certification of ethical agencies such as Fair-Trade  and Ethical Tea Partnership. I am use to looking for these labels on other products I buy such as coffee beans, but these are labels I never thought to look for on my tea products. The simple tea leaf is truly more than just the product I buy off the grocery store shelf. It is steeped in history, culture, and controversy. My winter addiction of tea is now something I will contemplate on before grabbing my next bag and never dismiss this treat as insignificant.

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