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

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.


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