by Ahmed Rahim
history of tealike lifeis 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 Herbalists 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
wasand still isused to nurture the body and uplift the
soul. The subtle flavors and health benefits of this magnificent plant
make it the worlds 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 todays 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
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:
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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