Tea rituals have been observed for centuries in countries across the globe where tea is more than a delicious beverage or even a hot drink with health benefits, it is an indulgence deemed worthy of a complete stop in the day’s activities. Studies show that a few short breaks in the workday can revitalize the mind and increase productivity. Taking a short teatime can put the morning’s drudgery in the rearview mirror and clear the way to a brighter afternoon. Later in the day, when the afternoon droop sets in, teatime can energize mind and body to power through the remaining hours of the work schedule.
While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of tea, its legend reaches back almost 5,000 years. The story is told of Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who was sitting beneath the branches of a Camellia sinensis tree when its leaves were stirred by the wind. As a servant boiled drinking water in a pot, the leaves fell in and accidentally resulted in the world’s first cup of tea. To this day, every cup of tea enjoyed around the world comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. “Tea” brewed from any other plant is actually an infusion or tisane.
Tea is the second most-popular drink in the world after water. It contains less caffeine than coffee, and a host of health-boosting antioxidants. From its earliest recorded use, it was believed to refresh the spirit, alleviate tiredness, fight off depression and illness, and boost energy. It is for many of these reasons that we drink and enjoy tea today.
The Culture of Tea
As long as there has been tea, there have been tea “events.” Thousands of years ago, the Chinese monk Lu Yu gave form and structure to Chinese tea preparation and drinking. In Japan, tea was introduced around 800 AD. Buddhist Priest Yeisei brought the beverage to the country, believing in the benefits of a tea ceremony for religious observations and meditation. The Japanese tea ceremony is a formalized preparation and serving of tea which takes years of training to achieve the required level of grace, charm and manners.
Tea made its way around the globe from China along trade routes into India. The Portuguese introduced tea to the Dutch and the Dutch brought it to France, Holland and the Baltic countries. It was first introduced in England in the seventeenth century when King Charles II married a Portuguese bride, Catherine de Braganza, a devoted tea drinker who brought the beverage to the royal court and set a trend for the aristocracy. At first only the wealthy could afford to drink tea. However as the price dropped dramatically by the 1800s, its popularity spread and it soon replaced ale as England’s preferred refreshment, commonly served in taverns and tea rooms alike. In addition, tea became the customary drink served with an evening meal to satisfy the hunger and thirst of those working during the Industrial Revolution. Consequently (as alternatives to male-dominated taverns and pubs), tea gardens, tea rooms, tea parties, and tea dances became fashionable as acceptable places for ladies and gentlemen of all classes to gather and socialize. The culture of tea was born.
Afternoon tea emerged as a fancy social affair sometime around the 1830s. Back then, lunch for the refined was generally a light meal served at noon and dinner occurred no earlier than 7:30 p.m. Legend has it that during one long, food-less afternoon, the Duchess of Bedford Anna Maria Russell ordered tea and snacks brought to her bedroom chamber. She made this tea break a habit and began inviting her friends to join her in the post-lunch ritual, so the practice spread in aristocratic circles. Although some historical references call this ritual “low tea” — because the ladies would sit in low armchairs while sipping — afternoon tea was hardly a humble affair, nor is it today.
Afternoon tea is where those delicious snacks are served — finger sandwiches, scones, macaroons, cakes and petit fours. It’s generally served around 3 or 4 p.m., and a time to mind your manners: place your napkin on your lap and stir gently. Splashing tea, clinking cups and spoons, or (heaven forbid!) finger licking will make one appear beastly. Definitely don’t devour everything in front of you, etiquette experts advise. You don’t want to appear hungry at this mini meal — propriety calls for restraint. And relax that stiff pinkie! It should extend naturally from the hand, otherwise it looks pretentious.
Fortunately, the pressure is off when it comes to high tea. Despite its name, high tea originated with the working classes, who didn’t always have the luxury of an afternoon lunch break, so they took tea right after work with heartier fare — like pies, meats and cheeses. Experts say the name high tea probably evolved from the fact that this evening meal was served at proper dinner tables, rather than on couches or settees. The Ritz-Carlton staff in London reports that using the term “high tea” when you really mean “afternoon tea” is a dead giveaway you’re American. A more recent twentieth century tea tradition is the elevenses, a late-morning work break involving a light snack such as muffins, scones or biscuits, along with hot tea or coffee. As the name implies, it occurs around 11 in the morning.
Types of Tea
Until tea was exported to Europe, all tea was green, the natural pigmentation within the leaves preserved by a careful steaming process. The export market inspired the innovative introduction of new processes that resulted in black tea. Allowing the leaves to oxidize naturally before drying resulted in the dark color and produced a tea which stood up better to foreign export. While the Chinese continued to drink green tea, it was black tea that took Europe by storm.
All true tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, native to China, but grown around the world in mountainous areas in mineral-rich soils. Leading tea-producing countries include Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Taiwan. The United States has tea farms large and small in South Carolina, Alabama, Hawaii, Washington State and Oregon.
Tea leaves are harvested early in the morning and then gently laid on racks to wither. The differences among black, green, oolong, dark and white teas are the result of varying degrees of processing and levels of oxidization. Black tea is fully oxidized and oolong teas are partially oxidized. After withering and rolling, the tea leaves undergo natural chemical reactions resulting in taste and color changes that develop the teas’ distinguishing characteristics. Green and white teas are not oxidized after leaf harvesting. Oolong tea is midway between black and green teas in strength and color. Dark teas are fermented after manufacture.
Tea in America
Although the English are noted for making tea a cultural phenomenon in the West, Americans love their tea too — except for that revolutionary blip in December 1773. In 2014, Americans consumed more than 80 billion servings of tea, or more than 3.6 billion gallons. Like Europeans, Americans largely prefer black tea, while green tea was a distant second, and oolong, white and dark teas represent a distinct minority. However, consumption of green tea is growing at a much higher rate than black tea — up more than 60 percent in volume over the past five years. On any given day, more than one-half of the American population drinks tea. On a regional basis, the South and Northeast have the greatest concentration of tea drinkers. More than 77 percent of the tea brewed in the United States is prepared using tea bags — an American invention. The USA is the second largest importer of tea after Russia.
Although the tradition of teatime is less of a fixture in American culture than it is in Britain, elegant restaurants and hotels right here at home still offer afternoon tea as a refined diversion from otherwise hectic lives. The Williamsburg Inn, 136 Francis St. E, Williamsburg, VA 23181, (757)220-7978, offers afternoon tea at several of its properties; as does The Jefferson Hotel, 101 W Franklin St., Richmond, VA 23220, (804)649-4750. In addition, Richmond boasts no less than ten establishments, possibly more, offering afternoon tea service. But for a satisfying teatime, especially in the chilly months while spending more time indoors, you don’t have to leave the peace of home. Simply brew up a pot, include some snacks, and enjoy a cozy afternoon by the fire, alone or catching up with friends and family.