Sometime during the 10th century B.C., someone in China poured hot water over a dried tea leaf and an industry was born. Camellia sinensis - the tea plant - came to be traded like gold while expanding throughout Asia and charting the course of the British Empire.
Tea helped shape the history of the world, and is now revered as much more than just a beverage - it's an elixir for good health, a reason for socializing and an important cultural ritual. Used alternately as a wake-up brew or a relaxation tonic, tea has been consumed for centuries, becoming part of the daily life of people worldwide.
Although early Americans took a brief detour from tea while protesting British taxes, and despite the current proliferation of coffee shops, tea remains a strong competitor in this country. Accessible in hundreds of flavors and forms, the choice of which tea to use, how to brew it and serve it remains a mystery to some. We talked to three local experts for the scoop on the leaf.
Herbs were on Linda Quintana's mind while she was growing up on a homestead near Fairbanks, Alaska. Her early interest in plants now serves her well as the owner of Wonderland Tea & Spices in Bellingham.
After volunteering at the store while in high school, Quintana boldly purchased the shop in 1976, working during the day and taking college business classes at night. The store remains a family affair, with daughter Terra working as assistant manager.
Wonderland's inventory reflects the enormous selection of teas and herbs in demand, with hundreds of jars lining the walls with carefully chosen bulk product.
While all teas originate from the same plant, differences in harvesting, drying, curing and flavoring create abundant choices. Herbal blends have no caffeine, while English teas and others that come from specific estates have different flavors and caffeine levels.
"The majority of tea still comes from China, Japan, India and Ceylon, but Africa is now a big contender," Quintana says. "Some of these tea plants in China are 100 years old."
Adding fruit, flowers or other tastes create flavored teas.
"Americans love flavored teas; favorites are ginger peach or tropicana with mango," Quintana says. "Chai is a popular black tea enhanced with spices, sugar and milk."
Studies touting the health benefits of tea add to the appeal.
"Every time Dr. Oz recommends a tea or an herb, we are mobbed," Quintana says.
"We're in a tea revolution," she says. "Tea is not just for hippies or students, it's a mainstream product."
Long before the 1970s, when Americans discovered there was more to tea than Lipton, English tea, both the drink and the meal, was firmly entrenched in British culture.
Though born in Canada, Anne Whinfrey's English parents took her on summer visits to family in England, visits that later inspired Whinfrey's Abbey Garden Tea Room in Fairhaven, where English tea is served, she says, "the way one would have it at home."
In contrast to a Victorian tea, with ornate sweets with champagne that one might order at The Farimont Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Abbey Garden offers English tea as a meal, like the British would serve in the afternoon.
"Low tea" and "high tea" are often confused with social classes, but high tea actually refers to the height of the table on which it is served, akin to a dining table. High tea usually includes a hot dish and is sometimes called "meat tea."
"My dad's family served 4 o'clock high tea as our dinner," Whinfrey says. "The aristocracy would have served low tea, or afternoon tea, on a coffee table in the parlor, having dinner later at 8 p.m."
Food with English tea combines the sweet and savory, with such delicacies as curried turkey or salmon salad sandwiches, quiche or pasties. The more contemporary Abbey Garden serves those homemade, along with salads, fresh scones, lemon tarts and more.
The restaurant offers a large variety of loose leaf teas - don't use a tea bag, admonishes Whinfrey - including such best-selling black teas as Earl Grey and English Breakfast, plus green and flavored teas. She sells her popular blends in four-ounce packages.
Blends are important, and so is the preparation.
"We brew the tea for you rather than leaving the tea in the pot because it will get too strong," Whinfrey says. "We remove the leaves at the appropriate time. The longer it sits the more bitter it gets and the more caffeine it contains. It's all about timing."
CHADO: JAPANESE WAY OF TEA
Even as a child in Seattle, Shelley Thomas was intrigued by all things Japanese. She immersed herself in Japanese film, art and, of course, tea, while obtaining two degrees at the University of Washington.
In 1986 she travelled to Kyoto to live at a Zen temple for several months to study chado - "The Way of Tea." Since then she has travelled several times to Japan to study chado and Zen.
"Serving tea to another and receiving it with gratitude is the Way of Tea; a living art form and a lifelong study," Thomas says.
After moving to Bellingham in 1999, she studied with a respected tea teacher in Vancouver, B.C., and completed a master's in adult education at Western Washington University. Her thesis linked how the brain works and methodology in the Way of Tea to enhance learning.
Thomas has earned a second-degree license to teach, a highly respected position in the tea world. She teaches at WWU, offers private lessons and public demonstrations, and participates in tea ceremony lessons in Vancouver.
Since the 1500s, tea in Japan has evolved into two types of ceremony. Chakai is a relatively simple course of hospitality that includes confections and thin tea. Chaji is more formal, usually with two preparations of charcoal to heat the water, a full-course meal followed by confections and thick tea and thin tea. A chaji can approach five hours and feature seven courses of food.
"A chaji can loosely be compared to a formal dinner party," Thomas says.
While most Americans will never delve into the intricacies of a formal Japanese tea ceremony, the drink is enjoyed here, best made with hot (not boiling) water, powdered tea (called Matcha), and a whisk. Like good wine, the price variation is considerable, from $30 to $150 for a 40-gram tin.
"The Way of Tea is very much alive in Japan," Thomas says, "and we can enjoy our own versions here."
BREWING THE PERFECT CUP
Linda Quintana at Wonderland Tea & Spices recommends using loose leaf tea rather than tea bags, unless the bag is a thin meshlike silk and contains whole leaf.
"Tea bag teas are generally not the best quality product," she says.
While some people use tea balls, the popularity of teapots or cups with a built-in infuser is growing. No matter the process, timing is the key to the perfect cup, she says.
Herbal teas should steep 5 to 15 minutes with boiling water. Cover the teacup while steeping.
Black teas use boiling water, one teaspoon per cup, and steep 3 to 5 minutes.
Green teas use not-quite-boiling water, a teaspoon per cup, steeped 2 to 3 minutes.
Japanese tea uses not-quite-boiling water, a teaspoon per cup, stepped 1 to 2 minutes.
Oolong uses boiling water, one teaspoon per cup, steeped 3 to 5 minutes.
Japanese, Chinese and oolong teas can be brewed up to three times with the same leaves.
Wonderland Tea & Spices: 1305 Railroad Ave., Bellingham. 360-733-0517.
Abbey Garden Tea Room, 1312 11th St., Bellingham. 360-752-1752.
Shelley Thomas: 360-599-1949; firstname.lastname@example.org
Taimi Dunn Gorman is a Bellingham freelance writer.