Salute to a Cup-of-Tea

Tea has become a generic name for hot beverages.  Originally brewed from Camellia sinensis, “teas” have been made in the past from wild plants when the genuine article was not available, and now many tea-drinkers prefer the dried leaves or petals, even roots and berries, of other plants wrapped in a porous paper bag. There is a kinship of “teas,” but it is based on the shared process of infusion and never on taste. To an aficionado, only real tea holds its flavor over time and the fruitiness of others soon turns to old hay. Nevertheless, they all garner reputations for promoting health.

A pot of steaming tea in a brown betty warming inside its knitted cozy is as much a British emblem as a bull-dog or a commemorative royal wedding mug, but it has become a rare sight. Still regarded as the national drink, Britain was not the country that introduced it to Europe from China, though the one that took tea drinking to its heart.

According to legend, a Chinese Emperor tasted the first cup of Cha nearly five thousand years ago, starting a tradition that led to an honored drink requiring special etiquette and ceremony for serving it. Tea didn’t arrive in Britain until the 17th Century, along with other novelties brought home from tropical lands by plant collectors, including coffee, chocolate, ginseng, and tobacco. Never again have we been so grateful to botanists or have they had such an impact on history.

The Portuguese wife of King Charles II popularized tea drinking in England. It was served at coffee houses like the Garraway in London where the proprietor proclaimed its health benefits “against the Stone and Gravel, cleaning the kidneys and uriters (sic)”. Fashionable society tasted it, doctors prescribed it, and devotees guzzled it. Samuel Johnson drank up to sixteen cups at a sitting, almost one cup for each of his medical problems.

A luxury item and social status identifier at first, working class people aspired to join the fashion. Their first tastes were often from reused leaves strained in the kitchens of toffs they worked for, or leafy-looking products said to be adulterated by charlatans with sheep dung. The bosses complained when their workers took tea breaks, and the preacher John Wesley condemned it as a mental stimulant, although temperance movements hoped tea shops and cafes would keep folk away from pubs and inns.

Tea was on its way to become the number one beverage, not only in the British Isles and Ireland but in the world. It became popular in India after the British East India Company started tea estates in Assam, which has a favorable climate. Hot tea probably saved lives from water-borne diseases because it is made with vigorously boiling water. Somewhat paradoxically, it helps to cool the body in hot weather, and experimental studies show it drops core body heat more than ice-cold drinks or sucking ice cubes. Perhaps the physiological explanation is that blood warmed by a hot drink ascends in the internal carotid arteries to the brain where the thermoregulatory center “thinks” the body is too hot. Or maybe sensors in the gut are the messengers. In any case, the hypothalamus triggers sweating and a flush of blood to the skin to create a cooling effect by the latent heat of evaporation and thermal radiation, respectively. However, don’t count on hot drinks in hot and humid climates when sweat drips off the body instead of evaporating.

The name “Lipton” is synonymous with tea and the company’s yellow packages have been familiar sights on pantry shelves for more than a century. Thomas Lipton (later Sir Thomas), who grew up in a Glasgow tenement in the Victorian Age, was a savvy businessman and made a fortune in the grocery trade by age 40. He had a razor mind for cut-throat competition and an unerring instinct for publicity, even running pigs through the streets to his shop to prove the freshness of his bacon. He knew that tea was too expensive for most households at 30 ¢ per pound when weekly incomes were averaging $10 per week. He aimed to reach mass markets by under-cutting middlemen and using salubrious slogans to advertise his products as “direct from tea garden to tea pot.”

At a time when coffee plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were being wiped out by a fungus, he discreetly paused on a voyage advertised to Australia to visit Colombo where idle estates were in fire-sales. They were ideal for growing tea, so he dug in his deep pockets to buy thousands of acres of rich farmland. His enterprise became wildly successful after crops were exported for sale at known-down prices at home. He also revolutionized the way tea was sold. Instead of wooden chests from which grocers weighed customers’ orders on scales, he manufactured premeasured packages of standard products in yellow wrappers covered with company promotions. Tea had its home in Ceylon, and Lipton was its by-word.

The first tea bag for making individual cuppas over a century ago was not another brainwave of Lipton, but he quickly realized the handy little bags and shorter infusion times would catch on. They have consigned a lot of tea-pots to decorative shelves in kitchens after giving daily service for much longer than a century, but convenience has its price.

A friend returning some years ago from tea plantations in Sri Lanka (no longer owned by Lipton) told me the best of the harvest was hived off to sell as loose tea at premium prices while the rest, including dust at the bottom of bins and leaf stalks, was swept into containers for tea bags. If you care about the difference, open a tea bag beside a pile of loose tea and after noting the difference with your eyes and nose compare flavors in your palate.

Does any other beverage boast as many champions and snobs, or has any created professional tea-tasters? But the difference between real tea and pale substitutes should not be a storm in a tea cup because, just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, taste is in the synapses of the front lobe.

Next Post: An Owl Prowl

Enemy of the People

This post began as a gentle experiment at home to compare drinking water. It wasn’t a test of impurities but more like a whiskey- or tea-tasting party at which connoisseurs pronounce which sample has the best flavor.

We took samples from the kitchen faucet, two brands of bottled water, water filtered in a jug (Brita), and from the refrigerator (MWF filter, General Electric). They were equilibrated in identical vessels and reached the same temperature in an hour. We took turns to be the tester (observer) and the tested, offering samples in random order to avoid bias from knowing the source.  After the first round our roles were reversed, and then we repeated the experiment for two more rounds. It wasn’t long before we reached the same conclusion.

Bottled water along with refrigerator water tasted best. Water filtered in a jug tasted as bad, or possibly worse, than straight out of the faucet. In my opinion, none of them was as tasty as water drawn from our well in the Allegheny Mountains, which is raw, unchlorinated, and only passed through a simple string filter. It gives excellent results with chemical tests, as it ought from rain falling at high elevations onto limestone far from West Virginia’s mines.

The experiment changed our drinking habits. Brita filters are out. Refrigerator filters are in. I discourage bottles because they aren’t environmentally friendly, but can’t give them up completely. It’s hard to explain the difference in taste between filters because there are no comparative data from the same lab. Both manufacturers claim their filters remove heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic) as well as some drugs and man-made pollutants. Both of them say they reduce chlorine (GE removes “97%”), but I’m suspicious that Brita water tastes the same as from the faucet, perhaps implying chlorine or chlorinated compounds cause the difference. I also wonder if filtration removes beneficial solutes like fluoride along with chlorine/ chlorides, which would not be good news for kids’ teeth in the absence of fluoride supplements.

The experiment provoked a fit of musing. Water is something we take for granted because it is almost ubiquitous, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, over 2% of which is fresh. We never expect kitchen faucets or showers will run dry.  And so I was stunned to hear at a public meeting a senior official from the Department of Environmental Quality lament the Potomac aquifer supplying water to James City County and neighboring countries will be exhausted by the middle of this century at current rates of depletion. Levels of fossil water have fallen by 200 feet and rain adds <<1 inch per year. How could I be ignorant of so important a fact, and why are local planners in a mad dash to grow this region’s population?

The prospect of coming water shortages is a paradox for a region of great rivers and wetlands where the annual rainfall approaches 40 inches. The audience was told we might switch to river water, recycle more water, and import water, but no option is rosy or cheap. Perhaps that’s why water is called the “new oil,” which I previously assumed meant only parched parts of the world. Water conservation is of course part of the solution, but whose supply will be drawn down first or inflated in price? Probably not those with the influence money buys. The papermill at West Point draws 20 million gallons per day from the aquifer, four times the volume used by the county and much of it for bleaching paper. Where it is drawn from source by industry and private well-owners it is free because billing applies only to water treatment and delivery.

The other half of the story is about the purity of what we drink. Why should citizens go to the trouble and expense of extra testing when we pay for what flows out of our faucets? Trust in the authorities to safeguard public health was misplaced in the past, and is being eroded again.

Up to Victorian times, cholera epidemics were blamed on bad air (“miasma”). Untreated human waste was dumped into the River Thames which flowed through London like a meandering sewer, and the air was so fetid in 1858 that it was called the “Great Stink.” Dr. John Snow died that year of a stroke an unsung hero at 45 years old. It wasn’t until 2013 that the medical journal that published his brief obituary issued an apology for ignoring this savior of public health, who is now called the first epidemiologist.

Four years earlier he deduced the source of a cholera epidemic was the community water pump on Broad Street in Soho and had its handle removed. His dot maps proved a connection between where people collected water and they fell ill, and he noticed men at a local brewery never contracted the disease because they drank beer from water that was boiled for malting. His theory was excoriated by leading medical men, so Snow was in that ever good company of scorned pioneers.

The playwright Ibsen probably knew the story when he penned The Enemy of the People nearly thirty years later. His fictitious Dr. Stockmann suspected the health spa in his town was contaminated, but its salubrious reputation filled the coffers. Officials denied it caused cholera outbreaks, and his former allies at the newspaper sided with the politicians. In standing alone he paid a heavy price.

These stories have modern resonances, although the new threats are from chemical pollution because bacterial contamination is cured by chlorination. A switch in the water supply exposed citizens in Flint MI to lead, carcinogens from coal ash spilled into wells in Belmont NC, and the oil MCHM overflowing into the Elk River contaminated the public water supply for Charleston WV.

When we experimented with water samples at home we were solely interested in taste, which is a comparatively trivial concern. Despite the ubiquity of this essence of life, the public has few choices for sourcing their drinking water and trust it doesn’t harbor invisible hazards. A faithful public watchdog, Dr. Stockmann was unjustly called an enemy of the people for casting doubt on his town’s supply, but it was those who tarred him who really deserved the label, along with anyone who calls for rolling back the Clean Water Act in the name of “jobs,” which I suspect is disingenuous cover for personal profit.

Next Post: A Cup of Tea