I received a call a few years ago from an MTV staffer who was producing a story on “manly teas.” He had been offered a monkey-picked oolong in a tea store. He was fascinated about this rare tea and thought it would be appealing for his male audience.
“How do they train monkeys to pick tea? he asked.
I had to break the news to him that Westerners had been falling for that story for over 200 years.
Chinese tea merchants in 18th-century Canton would spin tales about teaching monkeys to climb to the highest branches of tea trees in the rocky crags of Wuyi Mountain to pluck the rarest of tea leaves. The monkeys’ efforts would be rewarded with food when they brought their precious harvest back to their owners.
Wide-eyed representatives of the East India Company were fascinated by the tale and opened their wallets wide to purchase such a rare treasure for their clients back home. Money was no object.
China was a closed country and no European understood the true story of Chinese tea growing practices until Robert Fortune carried out his tea spy mission into China at the bequest of the East India Company in 1848. By that time, the monkey-picked story had become legend and another part of tea’s poetic charm. But like many such stories that inspire and excite us to open our wallets wide even now, the notion of monkeys picking our tea should not be taken literally.
My San Francisco tea brother James Norwood Pratt describes the scenario perfectly in both his Tea Dictionary and the ever-enlightening Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury:
“The tea that grew wild in the Wuyi Mountains was once so difficult to harvest that it was said only monkeys could gather leaves from such inaccessible mountain cliffs. Therefore, south China tea merchants traditionally called their best tea “monkey-picked” to signify its rarity.
Sadly, tea is nowhere plucked by monkeys and it never has been, but the Englishman Aeneas Anderson accepted the myth of simian assisted tea when on the 1793 embassy to China and carried the story home with him to England. It has been handed down ever since in the West.”
A modern tea proprietor’s monkey-picked tea is like his calling card, representing his tea philosophy. He will call only his best tea monkey-picked. No traditional tea merchant calls a tea monkey-picked lightly!
Norwood and I have sat with his neighbor and tea master Roy Fong several times and shared Roy’s finest Monkey-Picked Oolongs. We know Roy means this well-made tea to be, in the tradition of his ancestors, a nod to the uniqueness of the tea craft.
Our tea drinking experience is not diminished when our rational minds suddenly recall that this tea was not actually picked with simian assist because neither Norwood nor I are literalists. We both abide in a world steeped in romance and mystery. That’s why we love tea.
And, as I told the writers at MTV, you wouldn’t want to drink tea that had been picked by monkeys because you don’t know where those monkeys’ hands have been.
That you can take literally!
Read more about the history of tea in The Romance of Tea.