My wife is one of those just-minded people who not only keep tabs of their cosmic debts but who believe in paying them, as well. Correctly discerning that the Powers have dealt benignly with us, she annually seeks to even up the score by observing the Lenten ritual. I, of course, am invited to share in this exercise of spiritual enrichment.
This past year she made me give up coffee.
Certain sacrifices could have been more dear: my right leg, the power of speech, a firstborn child. I am a man of few addictions: powder skiing, Leo Kottke, handball, Joyce's stories, Malick's movies. And coffee, strong and sweet. Coffee's hot jolt shook me dependably from sleep. Its dark strength sustained me through boring meetings and endless trips. Come afternoon doldrums, my spirit slack and drooping, and potent coffee pushed me through.
No more. Actually, the first days were not bad. They were -- horrible. My caffeine-soaked system writhed. Mornings passed like weeks. My tongue lusted for the taste of coffee, rich and steaming, laced with thick dollops of half-and-half. I thought, naturally, of sneaking cups of 7-Eleven brew. But no! If she could do it, I could! Thus firmly resolved, I wandered about weak, distracted, unblessed.
But blessings come in strange disguises. Denied my beloved coffee, I discovered tea. A panoply of tastes, richer and more varied than coffee ever was, unfurles across my tongue. Kee Mun's smoky mystery, the honest strength of Irish Breakfast, Japanese Green's undefinable subtlety, all issued from my steaming pot. Truly, a momentous discovery.
And a somewhat belated one. According to legend, tea was discovered five thousand years ago when fragrant leaves, wafted by blessed wind, drifted into a Chinese philosopher's bubbling campfire pot. For the more practical, historians point out that around 2700 B.C. the Chinese used tea leaves to flavor water they were boiling for sanitary purposes. By the year 800 A.D., in any case, tea was a cultivated crop both in China and in Japan, where it was first drunk by Zen monks to keep themselves awake during study halls.
The Dutch, those famous traders, introduced tea to Continental Europe in 1610. One small sip of tea, but one giant gulp for tea-drinking, occurred in 1840, when the Dutchess of Bedford institutionalized that venerable custom, British Afternoon Tea.
American tea tipplers held a famous party in Boston before the Revolution, and by 1787 we were importing our tea directly from China. It was a brisk trade, over a million pounds per year, and to support it ship-builders developed a special breed of fast clippers, a class that culminated in the famous Yankee Clipper ships.
Early in the 19th century an ingenious New York wholesaler named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of special teas to preferred customers in tiny silk bags. The less elegant but more practical paper bags we now use account for more than three-quarters of the tea sales in the U.S. (but they're a no-no, as you will soon learn).
Dandy Don Meredith's proclivities aside, the British remain the world's greatest tea-lovers. They drink, on average, five cups per person per day and are followed, in order, by the Irish, the Libyans and New Zealanders. Americans finish far down the ladder, but our habits may be changing. We are drinking more tea today, both because of coffee's skyrocketing prices and because college-age adults are experimenting more than their predecessors. Our habits might have changed even more had an 1890 Department of Agriculture experiment proved more successful. Tea plantations were established in the Carolinas and in Texas, and they produced excellent tea. The project was deemed a failure, though, because no way was found to compete with rock-bottom Asian labor costs.
Today the Black Teas of India, variously blended, constitute about 95 percent of the tea consumed in the United States. Standards of quality and style for these imports are established by a quaint group called the Federal Council of Tea Tasters, headquartered in New York City. If, reading that, you visualize a group of venerable gentlemen in tweed suits sitting at round tables and sampling steaming spoonfuls of tea with rattling sips, you are exactly right. The tasters have come in for their share of criticism, but they do perform a necessary function.
That function, basically, is to monitor the taste and cut of three kinds of tea: black, oolong and green. Each type has its own character. Black produces an amber brew, full-flavored, without discernable bitterness. Oolong gives a light brownish green fluid, slightly bitter. And green tea's liquor is pale yellow-green, with slight bitterness. The other exotic designations you read -- pekow, souchong, orange pekoe, etc. -- describe the leaf's position on the tea plant. Tiny, prized Flowery Pekoe occupies the branchlet's ultimate tips. ("Pekoe," translated from the Chinese, means "white hairs.") A little larger and farther down the stem grow the Orange Pekoe, and below them the Pekoe. Farther down still come the First Souchong and Second Souchong growths. And lowest of all are the First and Second Congou leaves.
Tea does not come to you fresh from the plant, unfortunately. If it did, it would be far cheaper. But tea is processed -- withered, rolled, fermented and dried -- before it is sold. Then, finally, it is shipped to market, ready for brewing into the Perfect Cup.
What do Washingtonians consider the "Perfect Cup?" I talked with Sande Wool of the Bean Bag, a tea, coffee and spice emporium in Bethesda. Ms. Wool said that while Washington is still a coffee-drinker's town, tea has made surprising gains recently. Coffee's absurd prices have helped, as has the appearance of decaffeinated teas. The most popular sellers, at least in specialty shops, are fruited and spice-flavored teas. (Apricot, I learned, is currently the hot item.) Herb teas are making dents in the coffee market and the "straight" teas, like English Breakfast, are holding their own.
How to ensure that Perfect Cup for yourself? Take a page from Tabor's Book of Failsafe Brewing, a heady distillation of tea knowledge for many sources. First, bring a glass pot of cold, freshly drawn water to a rolling boil. Just so. Do not overboil or underboil, as either will flatten the water and the tea you brew with it. Pour the just-boiling water, then, into a pre-scalded glass or a ceramic pot containing the tiny leaves, absolutely fresh, of your favorite blend. Watch the exquisite swirling as they gently open like blooming flowers under the bubbling water's urging. Cover and steep for five minutes -- precisely. Stir once before serving, to circulate essential oils that give color, flavor and bouquet. Use a tea ball or strainer if you must, but never tea bags, as the paper will adulterate your beverage's subtle flavor. Decant your tea into elegant white cups of the finest china, so thin you could read this page through their fragile walls. (Why white, I do not know; but it is a well-established fact tea served in cups of any other color does not taste the same.)
Serve your perfect brew with sugar; add milk if you will (the English swear by this; I find its slightly less than disgusting), sip, savor and discover that the world is not Maxwell House nor Maxwell House the world.
Are you curious what the world's greatest tea connoisseurs drink? I was, so I checked in with confidential sources at several embassies. At the British embassy, I was told with a polite chuckle, the drink is "Twining's. English Breakfast, of course." Of course. The Japanese embassy serves Japanese Green to its honored guests but not even my redoubtable source, Inscrutable Throat, would divulge the specific brand. Finally, I whispered with a representative of the embassy of Ireland. What, I asked, is the tea of choice there? A dry smile preceded the secret: "Lipton's, I'm afraid."