WHEN I FIRST CAME UPON TEA and tea culture in San Francisco's Chinatown, what first surprised me was the vast array of teas available. Pu-erhs. bao zhongs, senchas, maatchas, keemuns. Old growth teas, red teas, teas that wind you up and teas that quiet the mind and body. Teas that make you meditate and teas that make you chat nonstop. Wow.
Having previously studied plant energetics with a Native American herbalist, I understood that the character of a tea would be determined by the way it was grown, harvested, and processed, as well as by the integrity and intention of the grower. Discussions with local tea masters confirmed these presuppositions. These tea specialists mentioned other influences on a tea's final character, including the elements of nature and geography that gave it life--the elevation at which it was grown, the climate, the quality of soil and light, and even which side of the mountain it was grown on.
So too would the age of the tree have an impact. Some teas come from trees that are hundreds of years old. As such, when you drink these teas, you drink not only what is present, but what has passed through these trees for centuries--the soil, atmosphere, water and climate hundreds of years ago is still in this tea! And if this is true, perhaps your tea might even hold the chanting and prayers of the Buddhist and Taoist monks who did and still do people the caves and havens in the remote mountainous ares where teas are often grown. If you are very sensitive (or simply imaginative), you might feel these profound influences as you sip your tea.
In researching tea's history for The Way to Tea, I learned that tea was introduced from one continent to another almost exclusively by healers and monks. Buddhist and Taoist monks sent tea to different parts of Asia, and Portuguese Christian missionaries living in China were the first to report back to Europeans of the existence of tea. So the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has this personal history and trajectory, this vivacity and benevolence of spirit. It has invited the attention and appreciation of the most sensitive individuals among us.
Of the hundreds of thousands of plants on the earth, why has tea consistently been the beverage chosen by the most keenly perceptive humans for at least a thousand years, and perhaps many thousands of years more? Why not dandelion, elder flower, nettles, or chamomile? What is this magic held by Camellia sinensis?
Very simply, this is the nature and character of tea. As with the many mysteries that shall remain so.
So, go out, friends, and delight in our fabulous tea culture. Commune with the tea, with yourself, and with your old and newfound friends. See how your mind and body change when you drink each tea. Go for a tea tasting at any of our great tearooms, marvel at the varieties of teas and how they make you feel.