Thank God for tea!

What would the world do without tea?

How did it exist?

I am glad I was not born before tea.

- Sydney Smith, 1855

In England they've been doing it for years. Since 1840, to be exact, when the Dutchess of Bedford introduced tea time.

While many Americans may take time for tea, those who confine their tea consumption to the local foodstore blend are missing the subtle delights offered by the wide variety of different tea blends - each as exceptional and unique as are different vintages of fine wines.

A musky Lapsang Souchong can be heavenly after a chilly outing on a crisp fall day; Early Morning Thunder packs a wake-up wallop of caffeine to clear a sleepy head and a delicate Jasmine tea is just right for a sweet and fragrant pre-bedtime drink.

You don't have to be a revolutionary to throw a tea party. A tea-tasting soiree, like a wine-tasting party, is a socially enjoyable way to introduce a variety of blends to friends and family. Prepare several pots of tea and serve slices of fruit and cheese to clear the palate before sampling each new blend.

Teas are divided into three categories, depending on the processing method - black, green and oolong - and several teas of each type can be included at a tea party.

To make black tea, ta leaves are picked then spread on racks to wither for about 12 to 24 hours. Next the leaves are rolled, by hand or by machine, to bruise the leaves and speed fermentation. They are then spread in cool, humid fermenting rooms for up to an hour. Finally they are heat dried to arrest fermentation.

Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented, resulting in a liquid with a slightly bitter taste. The leaves are steamed after picking to inhibit the action of the fermenting enzymes. Green teas include pan-fired green, basket-fired green and the gunpowder teas of China.

Oolong tea is the intermediary between black and green tea and is only partially fermented. The finest grade of oolong is Formosa oolong.

Herb teas, the chicken soup of beveragedom, are hailed as panaceas for just about anything that ails you. These blends are prepared from herbs rather than the leaves of the tea plant, and most contain no caffeine. Fine herb teas include camomile, pepper mint, rosehips and senna, a laxative tea.

The listing below includes several popular blends. Select among them for a tea party as lively as the Mad Hatter's. BLACK

Orange Pekoe - The finest grade of black tea, usually from Ceylon, the king of black teas has a full flavor and a warm, golden brown color.

English Breakfast - As its name hints, English Breakfast is a lovely wake-up brew, light-bodied and deeply colored.

Darjeeling - One of the finest of all the Indian teas, Darjeeling is a fragrant tea with a deep red hue.

Lapsang Souchong - A deep smoky tea, dark-colored with a warm, hearty flavor, Lapsang Souchong is especially fine served with a touch of milk.

Assam - A light, woodsy fragrance and a robust flavor distinguishes Assam as one of the richest of the black Indian teas.

Jasmine - A delicate, fragrant tea with an Oriental flair, this light colored brew is blended with aromatic Jasmine flowers. OOLONG

Formosa Oolong - Known as the Champagne of Oolongs, Formosa oolong is light and greenish-gold in color with a delicate aroma and flavor. GREEN

Pan-fired - A delicate golden liquid, pan-fired green has a distinctive bitter sweet aftertaste.

Gunpowder - The light, delicate flavor and pale color distinguishes this lovely Chinese tea. HERB

Camomile - Flowery and golden, camomile tea is not only soothing and refreshing to the taste, but cooled and poured over the hair is said to bring out blonde highlights.

Red Zinger - Made with hibiscus flowers, rosehips, lemon grass, wild cherry bark and orange peel, red zinger has a warm brownish-red color and a flowery, fruity taste. TEA SHOPS

Unusual teas can be purchased in health food shops, supermarkets and specialty stores. Some particularly fine tea collections can be found in the following stores.

M.E. Swing and Co., 1013 E St. NW, 628-7601.

An attractive, heavenly smelling coffee and tea shop with more than 40 different varieties of tea sold in tins, bags and bulk pack plus every possible tea accessory.

Home Rule Natural Foods, Inc., 1825 Columbia Rd. NW, H02-5150.

Only herb teas here, but more than 200 blends sold in bulk, boxes and bags.

Georgetown Coffee House, 1330 Wisconsin Ave., 338-2366.

The gamut of black, green, oolong and herb teas are sold here in tins and loose by the quarter, half and full pound.

Smile Herb Shop, 4908 Berwyn Rd. College Park, 474-8791.

More than 350 kinds of herbs and teas are stocked including blacks, greens, oolongs and herb teas. Helpful staff can suggest the perfect tea for its medicianl properties.

YES!, 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 338-1700.

In its newly remodeled quarters, the Yes! tea and spice shop carries a wide variety of herb and black and green teas. HOW TO MAKE PERFECT HOT TEA

While the culinary procedures used at the famous Boston tea party were fairly unorthodox, they did have the right idea. A perfect pot of tea is made by starting with cold water. First, warm the teapot by rinsing it inside and out with hot water. Add one teaspoon of loose tea per cup of water. (Purists will break open a teabag and spill out its contents, as the paper can affect the flavor.)

In a separate kettle bring fresh, cold water to a full, rolling boil and pour into the teapot. Let it brew from 3 to 5 minutes. If a tea ball was not used, catch leaves in a strainer, and serve. The exception to the rule is with Chinese tea, which should brew 8 to 10 minutes. Do not strain Chinese tea, but allow a few leaves to float into the cup.