Chapter I. Tea Leaves.
"Pray thee, let it serve for table-talk." Merchant of Venice.
"A cup of tea!" Is there a phrase in our language more eloquently significant of physical and mental refreshment, more expressive of remission of toil and restful relaxation, or so rich in associations with the comforts and serenity of home life, and also with unpretentious, informal, social intercourse ?
If rank in the scale of importance of any material thing is to be determined by its extensive and continued influence for good, to tea must be conceded a very elevated position among those agencies which have contributed to man's happiness and well-being.
Most remarkable changes have occurred in the production of tea during the past century. About sixty years ago all the tea consumed on the globe was grown in China and Japan. Our knowledge of the growth and manufacture of tea was then of an uncertain and confused character, and no European had ever taken an active part in the production of a pound of tea. To-day, about one-half of the tea consumed in the world is grown and manufactured upon English territory, on plantations owned and superintended by Englishmen, who have thoroughly mastered every detail of the art, while nearly all the tea drank in Great Britain is English grown. Twenty years ago, the suggestion that tea might yet be grown upon a commercial scale in the United States was received with derision by the Press and its readers; but one tea estate in South Carolina has during the past year grown, manufactured, and sold at a profit, several thousand of the tea of good quality, which brought a price equal to that of foreign fine teas.
A natural taste for hot liquid foods and drinks is common to all races of men, and they may be traced in the soups of meat and fish, and in their decoctions or infusions of vegetable leaves, seeds, barks, etc.
Hot " teas " were in habitual use as beverages among civilized nations long before they ever heard of Chinese tea, of coffee, or of cocoa. The English people, for instance, freely indulged in infusions of Sage leaves, of leaves of the Wild Marjoram, the Sloe, or blackthorn, the currant, the Speedwell, and of Sassafras bark. In America, Sassafras leaves and bark were used for teas by the early colonists, as were the leaves of Gaultheria (Wintergreen), the Ledums (Labrador tea), Monarda (Horsemint, Bee-balm, or Oswego tea), Ceanothus (New Jersey tea or red-root), etc. Charles Lamb, in his essay upon Chimney Sweeps, mentions the public house of Mr. Reed, on Fleet street in London, as a place where Sassafras tea (and Salop) were still served daily to customers in his time, about 1823. Mate, Yerba, or Paraguay tea has been a national beverage for millions of people in the central portions of South America for several centuries.
With the exception of Mate, not one of the above named substitutes for Chinese tea contains the peculiar nerve stimulating and nerve refreshing constituent upon which depends the physiological value of Black or Green tea, the Theine: nor do they possess the characteristic flavoring principle or essential oil which distinguishes commercial teas from all other known plant products. The Ledums are indeed accredited by Professor James F. Johnson (Chemistry of Common Life) with stimulating and narcotic properties, but the same may be said of tobacco.
A comforting, stimulating and healthful beverage, which has been in habitual use by the most extensive nation of the globe for more than a thousand years, and which has at length become a necessity as well as a luxury for seven hundred millions of people, or of a majority of the inhabitants of the earth, is certainly worthy of more than the passing thought which accompanies its daily use in the form of "cup of tea. "
Douglass Jerriold, writing of tea, some 50 years ago, said: - " Of the social influence of Tea upon the masses of the people in this country, it is not very easy to say too much. It has civilized brutish and turbulent homes, saved the drunkard from his doom, and to many a mother, who else have indeed been most wretched and forlorn, it has given cheerful, peaceful thoughts that have sustained her. Its work among us in England and elsewhere, aye, throughout the civilized world, has been humanizing and good. Its effect upon us all has been socially healthful; peaceful, gentle and hearty. "
There is no article of common use about which so little is popularly known, or of which " we know so many things which are not so." The very names of the various kinds of tea which we use are mysteries of meaning to those who have not made special researches into the subject. And the cause of the distinctions in the qualities of different teas, as of black and green, are still matters of uncertainty and controversy among many dealers of teas, as well as among unscientific travelers and some untraveled scientists. The enthusiastic collector of writings upon tea by self qualified experts, will find himself involved in a maze of contradictory assertions and opinions from which there is no escape save by the exercise of judicial powers, by an independent exercise of his own judgment, in separating truth from error. And unless he is a proficient in physiology and chemistry, he will find himself baffled at last, because several important scientific questions concerning Tea are still unsolved by adequate authority.
Then there are otherwise sane persons who profess to discover in the habitual use of tea by whole nations a cause of national deterioration. We record the fact as one of the curiosities of mental perversity in an age of general intelligence.
How the inestimable qualities which lie latent in the green leaf of the Tea tree or bush were discovered and developed by the Chinese is one of those mysteries which we shall never solve. For it is a remarkable fact that neither the green leaf of the tea plant, nor the tea leaf dried without mans agency, conveys to human senses any hint of the agreeable or valuable qualities for which tea is esteemed, and which have been developed by the art of man. A leaf of any one of the mints, or of the sassafras tree, or of the wintergreen vine, after being bruised in the hand and applied to the nose or the mouth, makes instant impression upon the senses of taste and small, and at once informs us of its distinctive qualities. Not so with the tea leaf; a hundred valueless plants impress those senses more vividly than the leaf which is worth them all. Infuse the green leaf of the Tea plant and the prized properties of " Tea " are still wanting, but in their stead, positively deleterious qualities are said to appear in the infusion. Commercial Tea must be regarded as an artificial production. A certain degree of artificial heat, of manipulation, and induced chemical changes, are the agents which develop the flavor and aroma of the tea leaf. And the nature of man's treatment and manipulation determines in large measure not only the desired flavor, but the distinguishing character of the tea, its rank as a green, a black, or an " English Breakfast Tea," all three of which may be evolved by skilful manipulation from the same tea bush, at the same time.
Much has been said and written in contention upon this latter assertion, and books may be quoted upon either side of the question, but we make the statement without qualification and upon unquestionable authority.
As Chinese teas became known to the inhabitants of other parts of Asia, and to Europeans, curiosity and commercial interests impelled other races to seek information concerning the origin and treatment of different Chinese teas. The prices obtained by the Chinese from foreigners for teas two and three centuries ago were most exorbitant, and paid the Chinese Government and Chinese merchants an enormous profit. Quite naturally that sagacious nation saw the danger of letting the truth concerning the origin, manufacture and cost of their most precious commodity pass into the possession of other people, and they strove to prevent foreigners from penetrating to their inland tea gardens, while they plied inquisitive enquirers with fairy tales which were eagerly swallowed. They said that every different kind of tea was the product of a different species of plant, which bore a different name, and that the manufacture was a most intricate process depending upon secrets confined to a very few; that the leaves could safely be plucked only at certain phases of the moon, and at certain hours of the day, and that some delicate varieties of tea leaves were plucked only by young maidens, etc. They even allowed Europeans to believe that green tea was colored by salts of copper, on copper plates, having doubtless learned that their were European merchants who would not be deterred from vending poisonous foods provided a good fat profit attended the transaction. In short, they practiced some of the dissimulation and tricks of trade to which many merchants were addicted.
To particularize further, and yet generalize at the same time, we will say here that the Tea plant or tree is greatly modified in hardiness, in height, in size of leaf, and in the quality of the leaf for a beverage, by soil, by moisture, tillage, and climate. Some soils and some climates develop a tea plant decidedly more suitable for a green tea than for a black tea, and vice-versa. The Formosa Oolong, with its natural flowery fragrance is a product of a peculiar soil, said to be a clay topped with rich humus. Analysis would probably disclose peculiarities in that soil not yet found in other tea districts. In removal to other soils and other localities, the Formosa Tea plant loses its most precious characteristic, its sweet flowery aroma and taste. The total product of this tea is but 18,000,000 lbs. per annum, an insignificant quantity compared with the aggregate crops of Chinese or of Indian tea gardens. If the exceptional characteristics of Formosa Oolong accompanied the plant when removed to other localities, its cultivation would quickly become greatly extended.
What is known or believed concerning the remote history of Tea and of its dissemination among other nations than the Chinese and Japanese, has been told so often that its recapitulation becomes tedious to those who are familiar with the story. But this book is intended for the general reader, and for the purpose of collecting and welding together disconnected and floating facts and scraps of tea literature gathered from many sources.