May 21 is International Tea Day, a day when we believers in the communal cup of humanity gather to spread the good news of our favorite beverage. Teaists are all part of this colorful cult of tea that has simmered worldwide for over a thousand years.
Although Westerners are new comers to this global tea party, we have provided the recent heat that is bringing the kettle to a fresh boil.
This ancient elixir is gaining new respect while as we seek rituals that will comfort us while we hunker down during these discomforting days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not amazing that tea vendors everywhere are reporting record direct-to-consumer sales.
We can thank our British brethren for giving us their antidote to all ills that begins with the simple incantation, “Let’s have a nice cuppa tea.”
Of course, scones and clotted cream go along way in lifting our spirits as well!
If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.
British Prime Minister William Gladstone
Scones and calories side, we tea drinkers are duty-bound to pay homage to the source of our good comfort, the tea plant and the workers who tend it. Without them, we would be simply drinking hot water.
For me, that awareness began twenty years ago with my first trip to the highlands of Sri Lanka with its unending highland vistas filled to the horizon with tea gardens.
Every tea professional experiences their a-ha moment when they make their first pilgrimage to a tea garden. Until that happens, we are all novices – naive to the magic of the tea plant and unaware of the labor involved in getting the leaves from the garden to the cup.
Luckily, I had been raised on a farm. I was sympathetic to the fact that agricultural produce depends upon hard work and a close bond with the elements. I felt at home when I entered the tea fields of Sri Lanka and breathed in the aromas of the composting tea.
My tea pilgrimage later took me to India and the eastern gardens of Assam. While the tea here is mainly produced for the British teabag market, I became addicted to the full-bodied and mellow Tippy teas from a few select gardens.
For over ten years, I faithfully begin my day with a pot of single-estate Tippy Assam.
I also visited the magical gardens of Darjeeling. Only 86 gardens here can bear the trademark name Darjeeling, known for its characteristic muscatel aroma, delicate flavors, and high prices.
Taiwan is an island of tea gardens and best-known for crafting high-grown oolongs.
I was privileged to witness the arrival of the tiny flying insects that arrive in Hsinchu County in late May to nibble on the low tea bushes there. Workers sitting on stools – and covered head to toe as a shield against the intense rays of the sun – delicately pluck the bug-bitten tea leaves that will produce one of the world’s great oolongs, Oriental Beauty.
My travels to China have taken me back to the Longjing tea gardens outside Hangzhou on numerous occasions. A week’s stay in a tea garden there allowed me to wander through the hills lined with tea bushes and observe the everyday lives of the local inhabitants.
While tea is harvested multiple times throughout the year in Sri Lanka or India, green teas here are plucked only in early spring. Read my travel story in TeaTime, July/August 2019.
Annual trips to Japan have given me new insights into a culture deeply infused with the tea spirit. I have visited small scale tea farmers on hilltops where hand plucking continues, and large commercial gardens where mechanized harvesters trim the bushes of their new leaves every other week during the spring harvest.
One of my favorites tea farmers is Master Sakamoto in Kagoshima. Here is a third-generation farmer who completed re-engineered the soil of his family’s garden to make a more productive tea plant – and a healthier cup of tea.
I drink a pot of his shade-grown Gyokuro everyday and think of him with every sip.
As we celebrate this first International Tea Day, I challenge you to look deeply into your cup and remember the efforts of the tea farmers and workers worldwide who bring us this magical beverage.
“This book acknowledges our debt to the contributions of others to our pleasures. Savor the photographs…”
– Spirituality & Health magazine