Savor the Moment: The Art of Tea

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Tea, a beverage derived from the plant Camellia sinensis, represents a sense of ceremony, history, and tranquility to people around the world. The practice of making a good cup of tea and learning about tea’s history are gaining popularity in the United States as people recognize both the physical and mental benefits of incorporating the art of tea into their daily lives.

Historically reserved for society’s upper echelon and closely connected to religious practices, tea ceremonies have been adopted by many cultures and adapted to fit various lifestyles. Today tea is the world’s most popular beverage next to water. And although schools of thought differ on the art of tea, most agree that, at the root, a good cup of tea begins with the leaf, a deep breath, and a few moments of quiet.

“The entire event of brewing and drinking [tea] can have a beneficial effect on your health and mental well-being,” says Jane Pettigrew, author of several books on the art of tea, including The Tea Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide (Macmillan, 1997). “Tea calms and focuses you.”

The quiet elegance of the tea ceremony–both the ritualistic and formal Japanese tea ceremony and the more social Chinese version–speaks for itself. The simplicity of the ceremony, whether performed in a traditional teahouse or at home, imparts a unique sense of serenity while it opens a door to another time and culture. A growing number of people who appreciate the history and grace that tea brings to their lives have created tea rituals of their own. “Everyone develops his or her own tradition,” says Stephanie Klausner, owner of Red Crane Teas in Denver. “Ceremony is what you make it.”

In general, tea ceremonies provide an opportunity for the body and mind to focus on one task and release other elements of the day. “It’s a mindful process that brings us back to ourselves,” says tea instructor Donna Roberts Fellman, manager of the TeaCup in Seattle. “It’s a way to create a sacred space in our lives, to take time to stop and be mindful of the process of making a cup of tea.”

Brewing a cup of tea

There are three basic tea categories: black, green, and oolong. They’re all made from the same plant but processed differently. Black tea has been fermented (oxidized) and has a dark color and hearty flavor. Green tea skips the oxidizing and is instead steamed and parched; the flavor is more delicate, and it is light green/golden in color. Oolong, popular in China, is semi-fermented and is a cross between black and green in color and taste. Herbal teas contain no “true” tea leaves but are created from flowers, berries, peels, seeds, roots, and leaves of many different plants.

The thousands of teas available range in price from $4 to $3,000 per pound. Yet even a tea that costs $100 per pound is only fifty cents per cup, making it one of life’s more affordable luxuries. “Nobody ever thinks they like tea until they have a good cup,” says Klausner.

Steeping a pot of tea is a contemplative process that begins with the selection of tea leaves, extends to the preparation of water, and culminates in the experience of holding a warm cup, inhaling the tea aroma, and savoring the tea’s flavor. True tea drinkers discuss the process of making tea with a sense of awe; it is an art form that has been passed from one generation to the next and used as a venue for preserving family traditions. Tea aficionados pay close attention to this art of preparation, which results in a superior cup of tea and provides the mind with a respite from the day’s emotional clutter.

Although a good cup of tea requires a mere ten to fifteen minutes to make, creating that time for pause and reflection represents more than an investment in tea. “It’s a comforting indulgence, a delicacy that’s good for your head and your body,” Klausner says. “It’s what I do for myself.”

Not everyone’s cup of tea

The most commonly recognized formal tea ceremony is the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu), which can last four hours and follows a prescribed set of rituals. For some, the ceremony is a magical experience.

“The order and choreography of the ceremony made me feel like I was looking at the world through different eyes,” Fellman recalls. Her husband, however, hated it. “The rigidity and formality of the ceremony was too much for him.” He is not alone. Chris Chantler, owner of Vail Mountain Coffee and Tea Company, says that the mystique surrounding tea ceremonies can intimidate people and deter them from enjoying good tea on a daily basis. In tea classes Chantler introduces students to the beauty of the different tea leaves. “People get too hung up on the ceremony of tea,” he adds. “They picture immaculate cucumber sandwiches and lace tablecloths and assume that they don’t have enough time to enjoy a good cup of tea. The reality is that you don’t have to take a half hour out of your day to enjoy a good cup of tea.”

Many tea drinkers say that drinking tea is not the sole purpose for the ceremony. At the Rocky Mountain Tea Festival, an annual summer event hosted by the Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, Colorado, tea professionals from around the country impart information on ceremonies and tea varieties. At the heart of every presentation is the message that the spirit of tea (chado) is intricately linked with simplicity and calmness.

Fellman, a busy woman who values the sense of well-being she derives from tea, strikes a happy medium between a to-go mentality and a traditional tea ceremony by preparing two spots in her home with an electric kettle, canisters of loose tea, and a cup or teapot. Selecting her spots carefully to provide “something nice to rest my eyes on that feels nourishing to me,” Fellman can enjoy a good cup of tea in twenty minutes. When brewing tea, Fellman listens to the water bubble and watches for steam. She looks carefully at the amount of tea used, breathes in the gentle fragrance of the leaves, and waits for the warmth of the teacup to pull the tension from her shoulders. “The mindful process of making a good cup of tea,” she says, “helps me take time to stop and focus.”

It’s no coincidence that elements of tea preparation are reminiscent of meditation. Buddhist monks served tea in places where a rogi, or path, had to be crossed in order to reach the tearoom and, in essence, leave the cares of the world behind. Today, tea drinkers focus on the art of brewing tea to separate themselves from daily concerns.

Tea professionals suggest taking classes to learn the basic elements and history of the tea ceremony. “You can’t read a book and understand it,” says Austin Babcock, a member of the Washington, D.C., branch of the Urasenke Foundation, who likens tea ceremony education to mastering a martial art or learning to play an instrument. “It’s about getting it with your body. It’s an experience.” The Urasenke Foundation, a school of tea that offers classes worldwide, was founded by sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who is credited with establishing tea as a social and spiritual practice.

“There is a Zen quality” to tea ceremony, says Babcock. It creates “a calming, meditative space that allows you to open up your heart to another person. It is a powerful act of sharing . . . and of savoring the moment.”

Steeping suggestions

Storing tea

Teas, which vary in delicacy, must be stored in airtight, opaque containers and enjoyed within specific time frames, which is why tea professionals suggest buying four-ounce quantities (sixty cups) of tea at a time. Black teas can be stored for one year, whereas green teas should be drunk within three to four months and oolong in six.

To your health

Studies show that tea consumption can prevent heart disease and cancer and prolong the lives of heart attack sufferers. New research from a doctor at Harvard Medical School shows that heart attack survivors who drink fourteen or more cups of green or black tea weekly prolong their long-term health. Patients who drank fourteen or more cups of tea per week had a 44 percent lower death rate. The health benefits of tea have largely been attributed to its antioxidant properties.