Tea: The Art of a Region
Tea is right up there with chocolate, the color orange, and rainy weather, in a list of my addictions. Tea has vastly different connotations for different people. For some tea is black and bitter, a “healthier” alternative for coffee when it comes to morning caffeine requirements. For others, tea is a soothing remedy for sore throats and addition to the medicinal regime when one’s sick. However, for me, tea is a powerful punch in the morning when I need to wake up, a flavorful relief in the afternoon when I get home, and an herbal medley at night when I begin to wind down. I realized that if tea was going to be such a large part of my life, I should be truly aware of what tea is.
I discovered that tea comes from the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. Various parts of this plant make up the backbone of every tea. On the Numi Tea website, I learned that it’s the harvesting and processing of the various parts of this plant that determines if that tea will be black, green, white or oolong. Further, while tea is often used to title anything steeped to let out its flavor, true teas are those that come from the Camellia, and herbal “teas” are made from dried flowers, herbs, fruits or spices and are usually caffeine free, unlike tea from the Camellia.
Zhena’s website (of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea) explains that the Camellia grows where it receives a lot of rainfall in addition to a mix of hot and cold temperatures. High elevation enables this plant to grow slowly and develop flavor. Originally, and still most dominantly, grown in India and Asia, tea is also grown in parts of Africa and South America. Growers in the United States are increasingly trying to cultivate tea. Tea is similar to wine in that it forms a terroir distinct to its region. Local climatic and environmental conditions all work to create the unique taste that tea develops. Since tea is so influenced by its growing conditions and is frequently obtained from different nations, I believe it is important for me to understand where my tea is coming from and how it got to me.
I’ve come to realize that products that come from less developed regions have a greater chance of coming from exploited workers than products that come from the United States. While injustices are present everywhere, including developed nations, products such as tea are especially conducive to poor labor conditions. This is because tea is frequently grown in areas with less labor regulations and more people seeking to make a living any way that they can. Tea could be picked by farmers who are toiling long hours in the hot sun for very little pay. Or tea could be picked by farmers who are working hard in the sun, but also taking necessary water breaks and getting a decent wage for their labor. Fair trade certified tea is going to come from the latter. Sometimes I am wary of claims that some eye-catching logo that may cost me an extra dollar or so is actually making a difference for people in different nations. However, when investigating this concept of fair trade tea I discovered that the websites of some of my favorite tea brands could show me exact pictures of their tea gardens in China, India, and even Egypt. They explain that the fair trade tea importers pay the premium directly to the community of tea workers, which allows them to vote and determine how to use the funds to improve their communities. From retirement funds for tea workers to scholarships for their children, there’s a variety of ways that these workers are using this premium.
Tea absorbs the flavor of the environment in which it’s grown. When I sip my tea I taste a variety of flavors in each mouthful. Knowing that quality tea is truly an agricultural art, I will enjoy the finished product much more if I am confident that I am tasting the fruits of honest, fair, work, and not the unjust tears of another’s labor.