The Tea Brief

All about the world-renowned beverage

A Brief Introduction to TeaYou can’t write the history of the world without including this humble infusion.

By Rosanne Dunkelberger 

{mosimage}Tea. In the thousands of years people have been drinking it, the refreshing brew has opened trade routes, caused wars (the Boston Tea Party wasn’t even close to being the biggest tea-inspired brouhaha), driven culture and otherwise written history on its way to becoming the world’s second-most-popular drink. (FYI, water is the first.)

Like gunpowder, porcelain and refined thinking, the Chinese get the credit for discovering tea. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nong, who lived around 2700 B.C., had recognized the health benefits of boiling water. While a pot was boiling, the leaves of a bush he was using for firewood blew into his water and … the rest is history.

The earliest historical references to tea appear in China in about 1000 B.C., and it was initially used for medicinal and religious purposes. Over the years, a tea-drinking culture emerged and, by about the fourth century tea bushes were cultivated. Tea was actually pressed into bricks and used as currency until modern times in some parts of Central Asia.

Tea’s introduction to the wider world would occur in fits and starts throughout the centuries. Chinese leaders eschewed the pernicious influence of “foreign devils” and, frankly, the Western world didn’t offer much of interest to trade for tea.

But the brew did make its way to Europe by the 16th century, initially as an expensive luxury enjoyed by the upper classes. As trade became easier, the price of tea dropped and the drinking habit was embraced by the masses. According to Tom Standage in his book “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” the British developed a particular fondness for the brew, which he credited with fueling the Industrial Revolution. Mill workers were offered free “tea breaks” as a perk – which, because of its caffeine, kept workers alert during long shifts. The natural antibacterial properties of tea also reduced the prevalence of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery, allowing workers to live in close quarters and lowering infant mortality.


Standage also credits tea with creating a consumer society by creating a demand for the crockery and other implements needed to create a proper “tea service.”

What we consider the classic British “tea” – with its silver pots, delicate china, fine linens and array of finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets, cookies and cakes – is a relatively recent addition to the history of tea. It was popularized in the 1840s by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, as an afternoon ritual to revive the “sinking feelings” of the afternoon before dinnertime.

America made a couple of major contributions to the world’s tea culture – and both can be traced back to 1904. In that year, it was blazing hot at the St. Louis Exposition, and a British tea merchant from Calcutta was having a hard time getting fairgoers to try his wares. He collaborated with a  nearby ice seller, iced tea was born, and it was a big hit.

That same year, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan started offering samples of his product stitched in silk bags rather than packaged in the more traditional tin. He knew he was onto something when customers began asking for more – and thus began the tea bag.


Be it black (what most Americans are used to drinking), green, oolong or white, tea comes from one source – the evergreen leaves and buds of the camellia sinesis bush. All tea comes from this one plant, but depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed, the possibilities in taste, appearance and quality are practically endless.

To make black tea, the leaves are picked and then put through an oxidation process. Green tea is more lightly processed by steaming. Oolong is somewhere in between. White tea is rare and very refined, with a fine flavor.

“Herb” tea actually is a misnomer. If you’re having a drink brewed from chamomile, mint, verbena, ginger or other herbal sources, it’s more properly called a tisane or infusion. (And if the liquid is boiled for a time to release the active ingredients, it’s called a decoction.)

Brewing A Perfect Pot

Ever since Lu Yu wrote the book, “Classic of Tea” (taking 20 years to do it), during China’s Tang Dynasty, people have been sharing their thoughts on how to properly brew tea. The following is a compilation of the collected wisdom of the ages:

1. Use a clean teapot that is either earthenware or porcelain and figure out how many cups (six ounces) it will hold. Fill it with boiling water and let it sit awhile to heat. This water will be discarded when it’s time to make the tea.

2. Measure one level teaspoon per cup of tea and “one for the pot.” Loose tea can go directly into your teapot, or use an infuser, preferably one that will allow the water to flow freely around the tea leaves.

3. Fill the teakettle with cold water (Don’t use a kettle made from aluminum, it taints the taste). Chlorine, sulfur and minerals in tap water can affect the taste, so spring water is recommended.

4. Bring the water to boiling, but don’t overboil it. It carries away the oxygen in the water, producing a dull and dead-tasting tea.

5. When the water reaches a full rolling boil, pour the boiling water into your teapot immediately.

6. Steep the tea for three to five minutes. At this point, you may cover the teapot with a tea cozy to slow down the cooling of the water while the tea is brewing.

7. Give the tea a quick stir and serve immediately or the tea will be overbrewed.

8. Tea snobs cringe at the thought of destroying the flavor of tea by putting in milk or sugar, a habit, they say, that should be reserved for children or poor quality teas.

Consider tea to be like wine, with its thousands of different varieties, all coming from the grape. And, like wine, it’s quite possible to develop a discriminating tea-drinking palate. Perhaps you can detect the hearty smokiness of Lapsang Souchong, the robustness of African roobios, the citrusy flavor of oil of bergamot in Earl Grey, or the slightly peachy taste of Formosa oolong.

Green tea has played a significant role in Chinese and Japanese culture for centuries. The Japanese ceremony for sharing tea –“chanoyu”– is performed in the simplest of surroundings but, at the same time, is so fraught with tradition and meaning it can take a lifetime to master. Only recently has green tea entered Americans’ consciousness, as the headlines are filled with scientific reports of its ability to prevent second heart attacks in people who already have had one, to reduce the infectivity of viruses and bacteria, and to help protect against prostate, breast, stomach and colon cancer. So whether you are seeking to soothe your soul or boost your health, you’ll want to indulge in this simple brew.

India’s contribution to the world’s tea culture, chai, is black tea that has been sweetened, spiced and mixed with milk. The aromatic brew includes freshly ground spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and pepper. According to one Web site, “Chai recipes are like Italian minestrone soup – it’s always good, but everyone’s recipe is different.” While it’s a wonderful hot drink, a cool iced version is especially light and bracing on a hot summer day.

According to the Tea Council of the U.S.A., Americans overwhelmingly prefer black tea (94 percent of the tea consumed) in tea bags (60 percent)  – and they drink it iced (80 percent versus 20 percent hot tea).

This is the South, so when one asks for iced tea at a restaurant – unlike points north, you can get it year-round here – the next question that invariably will follow is “Sweet or unsweet?” Those of us who’ve been around awhile know to just ask for “swee-tee” first. Why two varieties when you can just add sugar to sweeten plain iced tea? That’s a question asked by Yankees who never have enjoyed the regional icon that’s as syrupy as a Southern accent.

Georgia legislators even proposed a law that would require restaurants in the state that offered iced tea to serve both sweet and unsweet tea. (OK, it was an April Fool’s Day joke, but anyone who has been frustrated by sugar sinking to the bottom of a cold glass of tea appreciates the thought.)

There is no local restaurant more identified with Southern-style iced tea than Sonny’s Family Bar-B-Que, a pioneer of the giant, bottomless glass of the brew. Josh Phillips, general manager of the Sonny’s location on Timberlane Road, said his restaurant serves an average of about 700 gallons of tea a week (“a lot depends on the catering business”), with about “80 to 90 percent” of that total being sweet. There is no specific recipe for the sweet tea – three gallons at a time are brewed from a four-ounce bag that is made specifically for Sonny’s – and the workers add “a half-gallon bucket that’s three-quarters full” of sugar for sweetening.

“It’s not an exact science,” Phillips admitted.

Hot or iced, green or black, milk or no, flavored or fragranced, it’s up to you to find your perfect cup.

A Quick Tea QuizTaken from the Tea Council Web site (, some of the answers may surprise you.

1    What country consumes the most tea per person?

2    From what three countries does America import most of its tea?

3    Which country is the largest exporter of tea?

4    Which has more caffeine, coffee or tea?

5    How do you pronounce the word “pekoe”?

  • 6    What is the proper temperature to brew tea?

7    What is the best way to store tea?

8    Tea is only the sixth most popular drink in the United States. What drinks are more popular?


The answers

1    Ireland gets the honor, with per-capita consumption of nearly 4 cups per day. By comparison, the British drink about 3.2 cups per day, while Americans average less than a cup a day.

2    Argentina, China and Indonesia. The bush grows best in jungle-like conditions with heavy rainfall and well-drained soils. It needs very warm days and cool nights that can be found in higher elevations.

3    Sri Lanka. China and India produce more, but they also have a tea-consuming native population and thus don’t export as much as the land formerly known as Ceylon.

4    Both. It’s a trick question. Tea has twice as much caffeine per pound as coffee, but because you get more servings per pound (200 for tea, 40-50 for coffee), each cup of tea has about 40 milligrams of caffeine. Coffee has about 80-115 milligrams per cup.

5    “Peck-oh.” Not “peek-oh.” And it doesn’t refer to a type or flavor of tea, but to the size of the tea leaf. It’s the largest size, and clever marketing techniques have positioned it as being of the highest quality.

6    With water that has just started to boil (212 degrees). Don’t boil it too long or the water will lose oxygen. An exception is green tea, which should be brewed at 165 to 185 degrees.

7    In a closed container in a dark, cool, dry area away from strong odors. Not in a refrigerator, and in a container that allows the tea to “breathe” so that moisture can evaporate.

8    Water, soft drinks, coffee, beer and milk.



Categories: Flavor