by Ahmed Rahim

The history of tea–like life–is filled with chance encounters, and it seems that in this openness anything is possible. A new cup, a new beginning…

Legends about the origins of tea have been passed on from generation to generation. One such story, dating back to 2700 BCE, describes how tea leaves, blown by the wind, accidentally fell into a Chinese Herbalist’s pot of hot water. The water now tasted of these wild leaves, and the herbalist, Shen Nung, found its soothing taste and fine flavors so irresistible that he instructed all of his people to drink in the wonders of the beverage.

Another story explains how the Indian Monk, Bodhidharma, sailed to China and went into a nine-year meditation. During this "Zen experience," he began to dose off and closed his eyes for a moment. He instantly cut off his eyelids to avoid sleeping, and where they fell to the ground a tea bush sprouted from the earth. And so the plant found another home with Buddhists in their meditation, helping them to stay awake and to maintain a high level of alertness and concentration.

There are many other stories about the origins of tea and how it found its way into our cup of boiling water. But the wonderful fact is we did not discover tea, "tu", "cha" or "tay," but that it discovered us through our openness and willingness to take in its beautiful offerings. Whether it was a Buddhist monk, an Emperor or a cultivator of the times, tea was–and still is–used to nurture the body and uplift the soul. The subtle flavors and health benefits of this magnificent plant make it the world’s most popular beverage after water.

The evergreen tea plant, also known as Camellia Sinensis or Camellia Assamica, comes from the genus Camellia, which dates back before the great ice age. If left wild, the tea tree can grow as tall as 60 feet, depending on the climate. There is even a 1700-year-old tea tree in the Yunnan Province of China that stands over 100 feet tall. Today, the tea plant, also known as the "tea bush," is pruned and harvested, and its height is maintained at about three feet. This tea bush is the standard for most of today’s tea cultivation due to its richer and fuller leaves. There are even some people who say that tea is the oldest cultivated plant, having been nurtured for over 1000 years.

Affecting the thousands of varieties of tea are variables such as soil, altitude and weather. Some teas crave high mountains and cool mist, while others grow better in lower terrain. Most premium quality teas grow at higher elevations, where mountain mist and dew shield the plants from direct sunlight. This humidity helps protect the leaves during the cycle of each day, maintaining a temperature that allows the leaves and buds to develop and mature at a slower pace.

Besides factors such as geography and climate, the fate of tea is also dependent on human touch. Since all tea comes from one plant, the way it is processed is the artistry we taste in the final cup. If the leaves are immediately dried and then heated (steamed) or fired, the tea leaves remain green, retaining the distinctive flavors and health benefits green teas are known for. If left to wither, the leaves are transformed through a process known as oxidation (also known as fermentation) into black tea, of which there are hundreds of varieties.

In between these two stages lie the delicate oolong teas, which are partially oxidized. Tea leaves become oxidized when they are spread out in a cool area and left to absorb oxygen. The longer the leaves are left to wither, the more oxygen they absorb and the darker their color becomes. Hence, black tea is fully oxidized. Many of these teas are also rolled and shaped, creating various styles, tastes and grades. This process also adds to the uniqueness of the final product and is viewed as the "art of tea." During these refinements, the valuable whole leaves are removed from lower quality tea dust and fannings. Unfortunately, much of the tea we are exposed to is made from these leftovers. Once you have experienced a true cup of tea, the harder it is to drink tea dust and flavored teas.

Another important facet of tea is its preparation. There are so many rituals and traditions in making a "perfect cup of tea," that to many, the process may seem extremely complex. But tea is simple and pure. From the types of teas and pots used, to the intricate methods of brewing, all tea ceremonies share the common knowledge that this beverage is a liquid form of serenity, easing the mind and relaxing the day.

Some say that only filtered or bottled water will make the perfect cup. Others recommend using water from a fresh stream. A cup of tea is prepared by bringing fresh water to a boil and then allowing the leaves to infuse for the preferred length of time. However, steeping time and water temperature is dependant on the type of tea leaf. Many green and oolong teas use water that is not quite at the boiling point and are brewed for shorter periods of time, while other teas may be re-infused up to seven times. With all of its elaborate details and methods, tea still remains a beverage that we can all enjoy in its simplicity and complexity. Its stimulation not only comes from its low levels of caffeine, but from its subtleties that caress the inner depths of our being; a friendship that grows within.

Why is it that this tea plant creates some of the most romantic thoughts, meditative moments and simple pleasures? A Chinese poet exquisitely captures the love of tea in a famous poem:

Lu Tong (A.D. 618-907)

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,
The second shatters the walls of my lonely sadness,
The third searches the dry rivulets of my soul to find the stories of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I am in touch with the immortals.
The seventh gives such pleasure I can hardly bear.
The fresh wind blows through my wings
As I make my way to Penglai.*

*Penglai, a mountain in China, was the traditional home of the immortals.

Ahmed Rahim is president of Oakland-based Numi Tea. Numi is a labor of love by Ahmed and his sister Reem. Through careful tasting, travelling and running tea houses in Europe, they have selected fine and rare whole leaf teas and herbs from across the world. Visit the Numi Tea Web site at http://www.numitea.com and discover the images and textures inspired by the life they share with tea. Ahmed can be reached at info@numitea.com.


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