Tea is poison

I’m currently in Heathrow waiting for my plane to Munich, where I’m going to be giving a (pretty terrible and rough) paper that I’ve been working on regarding early ideas about tea in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I was trying to look at how people thought about tea’s connection with health. It was quite interesting, really, because for anyone trying it for the first time, tea is obviously doing something to your body. It’s not just water – it’s more than that. If you drink a strong cup of tea, it will do certain things to you – and these are effects that are universally noticed.

However, that doesn’t mean people all have the same conclusion when it comes to tea and what it does to your body. Whereas in the very early eighteenth century when tea was still a rare and unusual commodity, people writing about it were still most introducing it, by the mid century it was obvious that tea consumption had become very popular (with mentions of ladies drinking tea in the afternoon, people using tea in copious amounts, etc) worries about tea also increased. You start seeing people writing about it and saying it causes health problems – everything from physical problems to causing neurological diseases. In one instance, an author even claimed he tested and found that tea caused scurvy, which is of course the opposite of the truth (tea in fact cures scurvy with its vitamin C).

Then by the late eighteenth century, people seemed to have started to calm down a bit, and worried more about the economic effects of tea. This is when George Macartney was sent to China to try to persuade the Qianlong emperor to open up trade, only to be rebuffed. You see this anxiety reflected in writings at the time – a lot of pages devoted to the economic health of Britain and how tea was draining it. Tea is not physical poison, but it’s economic poison. People also drank a lot with their tea – adding alcohol in it. So it got mixed up with the whole temperance movement. Not quite tea as a poison itself, but tea as the conveyor of poison, in this case.

It’s only by the nineteenth century that we seem to see that subside as well – of course, things had changed a lot by then. But it’s pretty clear that for almost a hundred years, there were doubts, worries, anxieties, and uncertainties about this drink. Contrast that with today’s unequivocal belief that tea is healthy, in any circumstances, things have definitely changed. Is that really true though? I think, as with anything, tea is best only in moderation. Claims of the cure to cancer are, unfortunately, probably exaggerated.

Drinking with your body

My friend L from Beijing has come and gone for a quick visit to Hong Kong. I took him around town to take a look at various older shops here, and drank some interesting things along the way, such as an aged baimudan that’s quite good and some 40+ years old tea seeds that have an interesting fragrance to them. If you look hard enough, you can find interesting things in all kinds of places.

L also brought some things himself, including a cake that he sells, made by the same people who were behind 12 Gentlemen cakes that I tried in 2006. They have now moved to a different philosophy of tea making, and L recently went on a trip in Yunnan with them, visiting their own maocha production facility (they only buy fresh leaves, not maocha) and talking to the producers. The idea behind the cakes is that the cakes are produced with the intent to minimize the aroma and fragrance. As L quotes the maker of the tea, “beginners drink tea with their nose, experienced drinkers drink with their mouth, and the connoisseurs drink with their body”. They’re taking it to the next level, so to speak, by trying to make teas that don’t possess fragrance or aroma, and in so doing taking out the distractions. More on their tea another day.

This is by no means a unique insight –  I have both heard similar things from others, and have also witnessed this myself. It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word because it means little to those who hasn’t experienced it, or you can call it energy, or whatever you fancy. Yes, every tea has qi of some sort, although I don’t think many will actually be strong enough for you to experience it. In fact, any time a vendor talks too much about qi it is probably a sign that s/he is up to no good, and the tea is really not very good at all, which is why I prefer not to use the word at all – it needlessly adds to the learning curve and there’s a high potential for the Emperor’s New Clothes here.

Yet it is true that beyond a certain point, what distinguishes between a good tea and a great tea is the energy the tea has. Fragrances can be manufactured – they’re mostly the product of the post-plucking processes and can be easily manipulated by the tea processor who’s skillful enough to do the deed. It is much harder to fake energy. The best teas will give you a sensation of a current running through your body, but not in a way that makes you nervous, jittery, or uncomfortable. The 1997 brick I tried recently that made everyone at the table feel jittery was not a good tea in that sense – it was not something I’d consider drinking any time soon, if ever. On the other hand, genuine, good old tree teas tend to provide that energetic sensation in a way that is pleasing and comfortable. It’s hard to describe it, but once you’ve tried it you won’t forget it.

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So with that in mind L brew me some tea. We tried a number of things over the course of two days – one of the produced cakes, some maocha they collected (with him seeing in person the entire process from plucking onward) and also a number of other things. The cake that they produced was, indeed, very bland in the “no fragrance, no taste” sort of way, but it does interestingly enough have some decent energy. He insists on drinking the tea quietly, without comments, which of course helps you focus on the tea in question, but once again, might cause an Emperor’s New Clothes problem.

I think in general this is a good idea – experimentation, even failed ones, are probably good for tea in general. Someone who has a new idea and who wants to produce a tea based on it, and actually having the ability and the skills to do so, should be encouraged to do his best. I still remain a bit skeptical of the end product, but I certainly applaud the general direction in which they’re going. I would also much prefer to drink their bland tea than a newly produced tea using boring old plantation leaves. Now, if someone can figure out how to satisfy all three parts, then you’ve got the perfect tea.

Moderation

One of the biggest pet peeves I have when I see people advertising tea is some sort of mystical, magical health benefit that pretty much promises it will do anything other than raise the dead.  Accompanying this is the pretty frequent sighting of posts on various tea forums from newcomers who say things like “I want to get the health benefit of drinking tea — which tea is best for X?”  Stores like Teavana then capitalize on this sort of thinking, and invents, without any sort of rationale, a whole series of “health benefits” of various kinds of tea for different parts of the body, with the clear implication that if you want a full body benefit, well, you better buy all of their teas.

There’s only one problem – all this talk of health benefits, etc, ignores the fact that just like pretty much anything else, there comes a point when there’s too much of a good thing.  You can, indeed, overconsume tea.  An analogy can be drawn with wine — while a glass of red wine a day may be good for your health, two bottles a day is pretty much certainly going to cause you health problems.  While it is not clear where tea’s “health threshold” may be, it has to have one.

In my experience I have had two unpleasant encounters with drinking too much tea.  The first was an instance in which I drank too much tea while pulling a near all-nighter in college trying to finish a paper.  I remember my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I’m pretty sure it was due to caffeine overdose of some sort.  The second was actually much more scary — I was drinking lots of tea in the run up to my general examinations for me to proceed on my dissertation research, and one night as I was getting ready for bed, my heart started beating at a rate and strength that was very unnatural — I thought I was getting a heart attack or something.  It calmed down, eventually, but not before it really scared me.  Doctors, of course, found nothing wrong, and suggested I consume less caffeine and sleep more.  Recently, a tea friend here in Hong Kong told me that he had something very similar — heart rate that was abnormally fast (140-150 bpm).  Doctors couldn’t find anything either.  We both agreed that tea, specifically strong, young puerh, and lots of it, may be the culprit.

I have been mostly on a “one tea a day” regimen for the past 6 years, and I haven’t had another such episode since then.  I think lots of people get the impression that I drink lots of tea every day.  The fact is, I don’t unless I’m visiting a shop and hanging out with tea friends.  Yesterday I stopped by Best Tea House to see some old friends, and I know I drank a little too much as I started feeling uncomfortable.  Like a person who is getting tipsy but who doesn’t want to get drunk, I stopped.

I know I’m going to get people here who will poo-poo the idea that too much tea can be bad for you, or that drinking only greens or young puerhs exclusively will yield anything other than pure bliss.  I’m not saying that everyone will get the same reaction — some people may have much higher tolerance for such things, but at some point, you can, in fact, overconsume tea, and at that point it will no longer be a health benefit, but a health hazard.  Tea and health is mostly a marketing hype, as I’m pretty sure that drinking pesticide laced CTC brewed bottled iced black tea flavoured with artificial flavouring agents and lots of sugar is not going to give you any health benefit whatsoever.  Drink in moderation.

Health benefits

I’m ready to kill somebody if I see another tea website with a big section on “health benefits of tea” and why you should drink more tea.  I saw a blog post today (to which I will not link — sorry, I really have no desire to link to such rubbish) that has the title “Infusing tea could cream HIV”, makes suggestive comments about how drinking more tea is good for you, and then linked to this article.  If you read the whole thing… in fact, if you read the first two paragraphs, you’ll see that this is all about how EGCG, the polyphenol that we’ve all heard about, can aid in blocking HIV infections through vaginal intercourse from the semen to the woman’s cell.  Adding EGCG to a vaginal GEL or something similar may help slow HIV infections.  That is, of course, great news, if it works.

Except that it has NOTHING whatsoever to do with DRINKING tea.  Sorry for all the cap letters, but I’m annoyed.  Pretty soon we’re going to be hearing that drinking tea raises the dead, cures cancer, solves global warming, and lead to everlasting world peace.  The fact is that this study, from the excerpt provided in that little WebMD article anyway, has nothing to do with EGCG in your body and everything to do with EGCG acting as a chemical that helps destroy a compound that makes HIV more effective in infecting cells.  So please, stop trying to sell tea because it provides health benefits.  We drink it because it tastes great, because it’s interesting, because it’s a good conveyer of caffeine.  Sure, some people drink it for health benefits, and that’s fine.  But surely, you must be able to sell tea, good tea anyway, without having to resort to “this is good for you” and “drink this and it will make you live longer”?  Or maybe, the tea you’re selling is so terrible (or terribly overpriced), that’s the only way to sell it.  If that’s the case, I’m sorry.

Tea and physiology

I’ve been drinking some cooked puerh recently, not wanting to kill my stash of aged baozhong too quickly. It was fine for a few days, but I’ve noticed something — my body’s not reacting to it kindly with some digestive issues. At first I thought it was something else causing it (bad food?). I drank some of my aged baozhong today…. and I realized just now that the issue is gone.

This is like me having trouble with black tea and headache…

So, maybe like Chinese medicine, we should think of tea drinking as something that needs to suit your body, and not just randomly picking up any kind of tea and drink to your heart’s content. Some teas, at least for me, just seem to work better than others.

Subsistence

The past two weeks were mostly spent drinking bad tea. Aside from one or two chances to drink decent tea, the rest of it was consumed by travel, last minute planning, etc, and had no time to drink much that’s good. Much black was consumed, and in between, some aged oolongs and some other random teas I had with me. Drinking my way across little teashops was an interesting experience, because talking to some of the owners or shopkeepers, you really get a sense of what people actually order. For example, talking to a person who works at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, I found out that aside from a few people, the vast majority simply order what’s on the “simple” tea menu, which is not surprising, but the end result is that the “better” teas are often not very fresh, and in the case of the Assam which I wanted, was adulterated with the smell of some other herbal stuff and thus brewed a cup that had a strong hint of peach or some other fruit. The people who work there have no clue what an Assam is supposed to taste like (ditto Darjeeling), so they really have no way of telling if anything’s wrong with the tea.

I think it is safe to say that despite the hulabaloo about tea becoming more popular, etc, the “tea” that is really becoming popular is the “RICH IN ANTIOXIDANTS! SLIMMING TEA!!” variety. People drink tea for the perceived health benefits, and unfortunately are probably drinking low grade, pesticide soaked leaves, instead of what might actually be good for them. The few stores I went to that sells decent teas also show the other kind of tea that is popular with your average tea crowd — the “Vanilla butterscotch mint cinnamon rooibus” kind. One store, called Lupicia, has a wonderful looking store with very nice packaging, and basically every flavour you can find under the sun. I think one out of every twenty of their teas was actually unflavoured, and if you are willing to shell out $1 for two grams of tea, you can buy some ok looking Taiwanese oolong, overpriced, to say the least.

What I feel is very much lacking in all this is any sort of real education going on. You can’t fault somebody for selling tea — they have to make a living, after all. It doesn’t mean that we should just leave it at that. I feel that there is often no effort being made to try to show the average consumer what a wonderful drink tea is. It’s not a spiritual thing, it’s not Eastern mysticism, it’s not some hollowed age old tradition — on the most fundamental level, tea is simply a beverage to be consumed and appreciated. Nothing is wrong with flavoured teas, mind you (I drink my occasional Earl Grey), but so much more is out there. Unfortunately, they are either not available, or marketed as some rare, exotic, Oriental, mysterious, or even sacred, with the attendant price tag that goes along with such labels. I am continually amazed at the kind of markup some people get away with simply with a nice back story and pretty salesgirls (or boys, or website). The “Monkey Picked” stuff comes to mind…

Anyway, I’m rambling, so I’m obviously too sleepy to write anything more that’s coherent. Maybe to be continued.

Switching teas

My body seems to be protesting my drinking of young raw puerh. Today for dinner there was some (crappy) longjing that I drank, and I felt really unwell. I think until my body gets better and the weather gets warmer, it’ll be mostly Wuyi teas and high fired oolongs, plus a bit of cooked puerh for me for now.

In the spirit of that, I had some cooked puerh today, along with a Hong Kong style milk tea, which is basically super-boiled black tea plus some heavy evaporated milk. Good stuff.