PHILOSOPHY OF TEA

By Jonathan Robinson
Herbal Tea

I cannot finish any day –– a Monday, a Wednesday, a Saturday –– without first walking into the kitchen for a drink and considering my options. There are the obvious choices: a glass of cold milk, a solid choice although perhaps too conventional; pulp free orange juice, potent yet smooth and sweet yet bitter; a mug of hot coffee, always ready for anything but not everyone’s cup of joe. But what about those days which necessitate the swiss army knife of drinks?

I’m speaking of course, of delicate, refined tea. Tea is not just one hot beverage, as many are led to believe, but rather a family of them, whose origins are, according to legends, 2737 BC China. The Chinese emperor’s drinking water was being boiled when, according to the story, a leaf fell in from a tree nearby. The emperor tried the new, albeit accidental, beverage and was delighted by its flavor. This new drink spread by storm across all of Asia, thanks to its great taste, health benefits, and relative simplicity to prepare. As its following increased over thousands of years, so did the number of flavors and recipes. 

Regardless of the type, be it the tried-and-true traditional iced tea or a creamy sweet matcha latte or something else, all teas share a few central characteristics. They are all created by pouring boiling hot water over some sort of plant part to create a drink containing a suspension of a plant based solid. While traditional teas are based on Camellia sinensis leaves, other types of leaves, herbs, roots, or other plant parts may be used to form tea. These are typically referred to as “herbal teas”, denoting the different plant base and distinguishing them from traditional tea. Different plant parts, as well as fruits or spices, can be added and mixed instead of mere substitution. Milk and sugar can be added as well to form a “tea latte”. There are many types of teas. Traditional iced tea has a neutral taste, with just enough bitterness and sweetness to balance each other perfectly. Black tea is a bit more on the bitter side, but it adds interest, making it perfect for sipping while reading a book. Matcha latte, which is the superior form of matcha, has a very punchy and distinct tea leaf flavor mixed with a smooth, ecstatic sweetness. Thai tea’s spices give it a serene, slightly sweet taste. Chai latte bridges the gap between coffee and tea and could even be mistaken for a spiced coffee to the untrained individual. Oh, and coffee is also technically classified as an herbal tea, and other types of herbal teas can be based on coffee beans. 

Tea is lovely, although it does have a polarizing reputation. In southern regions of the United States, a mixture of tea known simply as “sweet tea” is formed by the addition of noteworthy amounts of sugar which many find to be concerning, but it gives the beverage an unmistakable taste. What some find refreshing, others perceive as dangerous. There’s a stereotype with the sort of person who loves matcha: the Matcha Man, if you feel so inclined, is disapproving and cantankerous, so opposed to joy and pleasure that he must drink the sort of tea that might as well be served with tree bark and causes his face to scrunch together in an equally bitter scowl from the sheer taste. With so many distinct types and ways to create a flavor so well suited to one’s personal tastes, it’s unsurprising that the tea drinker can be quickly read according to the type of tea they drink by those in the know.

I count myself among those in the know, if I say so myself (and yes, I do). As a part-time tea drinker and full-time tea addict, I spend hours a week just looking through the different types of teas in search of the perfect tea for each situation. I can’t always articulate the taste I’m after, only what isn’t working. You can categorize a tea by any number of ingredients and qualities, but its gustatory and emotional impact often comes down to something ineffable –– a vibe. And the vibe of a tea is never quite the same as it’s juxtaposed with the mood of the drinker. You can imagine something like jasmine green herbal tea registering as more casual to someone native to Japan, given its smooth, floral taste. In the Southeast United States –– a region defined by the consumption of sugary beverages like Mountain Dew and sweet tea and extra sweet tea which leave a thick, satisfying feeling on the tongue as they shave a cool ten days off the recipient’s projected lifespan –– that same green tea has a bland, unfun, or unpleasant taste to the unsuspecting victim. Likewise, a matcha would be great for waking up in the morning, as its bitter, robust flavor makes it feel like you got punched (in a good way). 

But we all need to surprise ourselves sometimes. Unlike the Matcha Man, I have found the courage to step outside of my comfort zone and end up pleasantly surprising myself with a new flavor of tea that I haven’t tried before or need to revisit. For a long time I only drank Arizona Sweetened Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey. I kid you not, people actually stopped taking me seriously after seeing the trash can in the corner of my room full of nothing but Arizona Green Tea cans. The amount I was consuming felt natural to me, given that only a few months prior I was drinking Mountain Dew like there was no tomorrow. And yet, as I watched the cans pile up, I found myself uncertain –– lending occasional audience to the low, honeyed voice in the back of my head who questions whether I just don’t have very good tastes at all, maybe?

Then, almost a  year ago, while I was staying late for robotics with Loc, we decided to meander over to the Kung Fu Tea place in downtown Chattanooga. We walked in, and I ordered my first ever bubble tea. With one sip, a tapioca pearl riding a wave of creamy milk tea rushed into my mouth. I nearly gasped. While I was slumped against the wall gagging from being unexpectedly hit in the mouth, my taste buds swelled with new life, and I saw hidden in the plastic cup, behind an army of tapioca balls, the reflection of someone else, someone whose presence was to be taken seriously. 

It’s a little ridiculous to have to trick myself into trying new things, and even more ridiculous that I can be surprised so easily, like a crawling infant cornered in the washer and dryer room with a roomba all of a sudden. But much of the time making the jump between finding a new favorite drink and merely knowing about it requires taking a risk –– sort of like gunning for that heavenly matcha latte knowing that there is a real chance that you’ll be getting a matcha without any latte and, in turn, crying yourself to sleep. Sometimes, it’s worth it to relax a bit on the pile of Arizona Green Tea cans, and try a hot Thai latte prepared in an electric kettle. Taking the leap of faith and trying new things is essential to better understanding our tastes and who we are. 

Through diving into the world of teas, I discovered a little bit about myself. Tea has taught me to be open, to try new things, to risk the matcha for the latte, and to find appreciation and enjoyment in both. Tea has taught me to unashamedly like unholy amounts of sugar and milk and caffeine –– and when such things are just not appropriate. I didn’t realize that I was intensely bold until I took a second sip of a matcha. And I surprisingly liked it. Black tea made me realize that I don’t particularly like drinks best suited to slow sipping, and it reminded me to be patient. So I am still drinking tea today and trying new flavors, and by looking into what’s in my glass, I keep ending up seeing my reflection contrasting against a different backdrop each time.