Why do we drink tea?

Aside from the fact that tea is addictive through caffeine, why do we drink tea?

Since I drink tea daily, it is not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. For most of us, it’s already become such a routine that it’s just a simple part of day, but there is always a dimension of “why”, especially when it comes to trying to look for the finer teas, or to find teas that are particularly interesting.

I think on a very fundamental level, a tea should be pleasant. This means that when drinking tea, it should deliver pleasurable things to you. What those are may differ on an individual level, but generally, they should probably consist of fragrance, good taste, and good feeling. Teas that don’t fulfill these requirements can be, and often are, seen as failures.

Take green teas, for example, which is something I rarely talk about. Green tea for me was where it all started – I began drinking longjing, just like my grandfather did. I recently drank some green teas from my hometown, not too far from Suzhou where biluochun is produced, and I’m reminded of why people drink green tea and why it is in many ways the most desired tea. Green teas are very nice things to drink. They are fragrant. They are smooth, at least when you brew it correctly and the quality is not too bad. They are sweet. They aid your digestion and are refreshing. There is really no drink more perfect than a good cup of green tea.

Or consider an oolong I bought recently. It’s expensive, to be sure, but it is also fragrant, smooth, has long lasting aftertaste, complex, interesting, and has qi (most teas don’t, but that’s another topic for another day). It’s great, and it feels great to drink it. Everyone there enjoyed the tea.

Then you look at things like newly made puerh – and it all falls apart. Compared to green teas, new make puerh are very rough. They are rarely sweet, instead leaning much more to the bitter side. They can be fragrant, but not always. In fact, the ones that taste good right from the get go tend to be ones that will age poorly, especially if they exhibit, say, green-tea like beany fragrance. Contrast that with an aged puerh, where the rough edges have been worn down and the tea becomes sweet, smooth, and feels great to drink. It’s a big difference.

I used to subject myself to a never ending series of questionable teas, all in the name of learning. Even when a tea seems nasty, or worse, tasteless, I’ll persist to see what’s going on and see how it fares. With time and experience, however, it is now far easier to arrive at a conclusion about a tea’s inherent quality. It is rarely the case that teas will show you anything new or exciting that is different after your 3rd or 4th infusion. It is possible, but very rare, and the tea is usually some kind of oddball. Most teas, in most cases, you can figure out what’s going on very quickly. Being now much more willing to discard poor quality teas, it is nice to drink teas that are actually enjoyable. I reserve samples or other teas of unknown quality for when I drink with a group. In those cases, it is easier to compare different teas, to examine them, and to arrive at a conclusion about them quickly and much more accurately. The really nasty ones? You drink a few sips and you throw it away.

When I’m at home and drinking by myself, I increasingly find myself reaching for the tried and true – puerh that I have aged myself that are now very drinkable after 10+ years, things I have bought that I know are good, and other kinds of teas that are not going to give me a nasty surprise. After a while, there isn’t a whole lot left to learn in bad teas – they are bad, and that’s that. For puerh, it is somewhat useful to know why they are bad – whether it’s bad storage, or bad processing, or just bad leaves. For other teas, it’s not really material – if it’s bad, you shouldn’t drink it. Life is short, drink something nice. For that purpose, a well made green tea is almost unbeatable.


Comments

Why do we drink tea? — 8 Comments

  1. “Why do we drink tea?” A seemingly obvious but actually very fundamental question. Why do we spend so much time, thought and money on what many consider to be simply a consumable good? What exactly is the point of all this?

    While I think that answer is different for everyone, for me its not about simply having a tasty beverage to drink. After all, if I just wanted something tasty and caffeinated to drink I’d just go to Starbucks or what have you. Of course, a tea should have a pleasant aroma and taste and should make you feel good, but for me there’s a world of difference between a tea that is merely fragrant, smooth and sweet, and something like your oolong with a complex taste, long finish, and perhaps qi to boot: basically something that makes you sit up and take notice. All teas can teach you something (tho I agree there is a limit to what we can learn from bad tea), and as long as you learn something from a tea or a session it isn’t a mistake or a failure. That said, once the lesson is learned, there’s no need to repeat it, is there?

    Also, consider that what people find pleasant can be highly subjective. There are things worthy of study and appreciation that are not “pleasant” at first (single malts come to mind here). While smoothness may itself be a desirable quality, I would dare to say there are many, many other qualities that connoisseurs would value in a scotch above simply how easy it is to drink. Many people might find peated Islay whiskies to be nothing but liquid smoke, but there are also many who enjoy exactly that quality, having passed through their initial averse reaction to it. Pu-erh was certainly that way for me at first, drinking young Bulang tea and thinking “Why do people drink this?” But now I find I enjoy exactly that same bitterness and strength that before gave me nothing but a headache.

    While I do think there’s more to good tea than simply “tasting good” and more to the pursuit of tea than simply drinking it, teaheads are sometimes prone to making mountains out of molehills. Your post brought to mind the old zen proverb that (paraphrased) runs, “Before I studied zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I entered the path of study, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. Now that I have mastered zen I see that mountains are once again mountains and rivers are once again rivers.”

    Sometimes its best not to overcomplicate things and realize that tea is just tea.

    • It’s of course somewhat different for everyone, but I think it is safe to say that generally speaking they fall on a small spectrum – somewhere along the lines of “I like tea” to “I find tea interesting”. Absent these two things, I doubt many will continue on drinking. What they find interesting or tasty of course may differ, but that’s a difference in degree, not in kind.

      I drink a reasonable amount of scotch, and I think you may be conflating “smoothness” with “easy to drink”. When I say a tea is smooth, I mean it doesn’t feel like you got sandpaper in your mouth, as is sometimes the case with severely overbrewed tea or some young puerh (as well as badly processed oolongs, things like that). In the case of whisky, that tends to come from the cutting feeling you get from alcohol. Really alcoholic tasting and “hot” whiskies are generally not very well liked, and has little to do with the age of the whisky or the alcohol content. I’ve had some cask strength NAS Islay that are very smooth, and some sherried Speyside that is 43% abv that makes you feel like you’re drinking rubbing alcohol. The former is very pleasant, the latter is definitely not, and I think on matters like this it will be surprising to find too many who would disagree.

      While I certainly don’t think I have mastered tea (and I’m sure no Zen practitioner will feel they have mastered Zen) there is a point after which you feel you have gained enough confidence in your own knowledge to know when a mountain is a mountain and a river is a river. In tea terms, when starting out teaheads tend to listen to others. Then you start forming your own opinion, but you are never really sure, and when encountering a tea that is odd, strange, different, unexpected, etc, you wonder and don’t know what to make of it – that’s the path of learning. Then, you gradually figure out those things, and once again, teas sort themselves into good, bad, and mediocre. Things become simpler, because you’ve learned how to classify and sort them into categories. I certainly feel myself closer to that now than a few years ago, and tea is far, far simpler than Zen meditation.

  2. MarshalN:

    A question of cha qi, which is off-topic (ie “that’s another topic for another day”) so feel free not to post it: When is “another day”? Not a complaint but request, after re-reading earlier posts in which you approach or allude to cha qi: http://www.marshaln.com/2012/05/drinking-with-your-body/ and http://www.marshaln.com/2014/03/good-teas-are-all-alike/ I found both interesting notwithstanding limitations of language: “Tao Called Tao Is Not Tao,” as Lao tzu warns, but it won’t stop us (or him) from trying….

    Colleague sent me this link: http://deathbytea.blogspot.hk/2015/04/a-bit-about-qi.html after I read (or tried to read) it, I re-read your old posts on cha qi which cleared by mind. I’m hoping you mark a day on your crowded calendar to say something sayable about the unsayable. I’d be unsayably grateful….

    Empty Cup

    • Sorry, your comment got buried in a whole bunch of spam – I’ve been meaning to write something on cha qi, but it’s always been something that is harder to write, and I suppose I’ve always had other things that needed to be done first. Maybe I’ll work on it one of these days this summer.

  3. You gave some delightful observations about tea here. I’m guessing you really do know your tea. This was a real pleasure to read. Thanks 🙂

  4. Great post…”Green tea for me was where it all started – I began drinking longjing, just like my grandfather did.” …I think drinking tea is nostalgic for many of us…we have fond memories of having conversation over tea with our parents and grandparents.. It took me months to actually learn to like the taste of tea…i started drinking it because i loved the tradition, not the flavor…i love hearing the water boil…picking out the right cup for the kind of tea I’m preparing…waiting for the tea to reach the right temperature and color…taking in the aroma…holding the cup and feeling the warmth…it’s all so ritualistic…i’ve been reading about tea traditions from around the world..fascinating stuff!!!

  5. Great post, MarshaIN. As AdmiralKelvinator has said it is most definitely a subjective matter. The saying “You cannot argue about taste” comes to mind. For one something is spectacular, for another the same might be rubbish. Whiskey comes to mind here. Some can sit for hours and discuss and examine to nuances in a single malt whereas I cannot stand the stuff. Sorry! One thing is for sure, the world of tea provides for each a place of escape from life’s struggles an challenges.

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