Thanksgiving: Why We're Grateful for Good Tea11/19/2016
By Eliot Jordan and Danielle Hochstetter
When you drink a cup of tea, do you ever stop and think of all the people who had a hand in bringing you your daily brew? If you buy an apple in the store, you know apples are picked off trees, labeled, and shipped to stores. High quality black and green tea is plucked by hand, a couple of leaves at a time. There might be 30, 40, 60 leaves in your tea pouch or serving of loose leaf tea. That picked apple—it was either yanked off the tree by machine or someone’s hand. Most high quality teas, on the other hand, are still harvested by hand. It probably takes a couple minutes from an experienced tea plucker to pick enough tea for a cup before it gets processed into tea. It goes through centuries old ancient processes that lovingly transform it into a good black, green, oolong or pu’er tea. Danielle and I, as part of the tea team at Mighty Leaf Tea have a window into a world with so many people involved. I’m always grateful for the hands that brought me my tea and try to think about them every time I have a cup of tea.
What amazes me is that I’m usually blithely taking a pinch of loose leaf tea and throwing it into a pot. When you stop to think of everything that went into that convenience—the hand-plucking, withering, and complicated processing- it is quite awe-inspiring. People devote their entire lives to tea so we can enjoy a cup of it.
It took me three years well before I traveled to a tea field to grasp all that goes into tea. When you think about the leaves we eat like spinach and lettuce—both can be cooked or consumed raw. Tea is unusual and goes through processing for us to be able to enjoy its diverse expressions in the cup. Tea is more interesting and complicated than other leaves we eat. It’s a real chameleon. I’m grateful for the innovators mostly lost to antiquity. Someone came up with oolong tea at some point—consider how many subtleties and variations that tea type has! If you want to grow lettuce in your backyard, go for it; we grow basil in our backyard. But tea, it’s a semi-tropical plant. You have to go to Asia or East Africa to see it growing. The fields of uniform plants doesn’t tell you much about the how and the why of its cultivation. We try to explain these concepts simply even though they’re not simple. Locally-grown lettuce exists. Locally-grown tea? No. America is not a tea-growing country; it’s local to somewhere, just not here. People want to know where their tea comes from.
Although we are so far from a tea growing country, I’m optimistic about the food movement and how we are able to get closer and closer to the food we eat. Americans are becoming more food literate and sophisticated about what they eat. We don’t know where everything on our table comes from, but wine, coffee, and tea have the ability to hook people and get them passionate about certain varietals. My experience in China is that for tea farmers, it’s not just their day job. They care about tea. While the US is not a tea-growing country, some people are trying their hand at tea farming. We are in a new world for tea lovers. As people travel more, they are engaging with experiences different from the familiar. When I worked as a tea tour guide in Hangzhou, I was surprised at how many people wanted to take my tours because visiting tea gardens was simply an interesting activity, not necessarily because they were big tea drinkers.
I’m grateful tea exists at all. If I ever had to give up drinking tea, it would be so hard for me! I love tea. It makes me feel good. It’s the simplest, cheapest pleasure out there. It’s so readily available and easy to forget what happens behind-the-scenes to make it available. Wars have been fought over tea. I’m grateful it’s easy to find good tea now.
My gratitude list also includes the existence of tea and that people choose to plant tea over other crops. I’m thankful that people are interested in good tea and making it an integral part of their lives.