Not long after my last post, I was looking at my site statistics and looked at the list of search terms that brought people to my site. In the month leading up to that date, more that a quarter of the people coming to my site arrived because their search included the word “caffeine.” Some wanted to maximize caffeine (“how to get the most caffeine from your tea”) while others wanted to minimize it (“how to get rid of caffeine from tea”). Still others just wanted to know about it (“caffeine tea second brew” or “amount of caffeine in a cup of tea”). Some didn’t specifically mention caffeine…but I could tell that was the intent (“tea can’t sleep”).
Why this obsession with caffeine? Is that really why Americans drink tea? Some to get more caffeine and some because it has lower levels that soda or coffee? I’m not so sure.
To my mind, there are three basic reasons to drink tea. Perhaps the most pedestrian and simple reason is because you want a beverage. Thirst-quenching is something tea can do, and so people drink tea. Leaves, hot water, and a cup/bowl/mug/trough/etc. is all you need. Guzzle it down like a water buffalo or sip daintily with your pinky extended, it’s all “beverage.”
The second basic reason to drink tea is for a “reason.” You can drink tea “because it’s good for you.” Or “because I need a pick-me-up in the morning.” Or “because I feel sophisticated having tea with my friends.” This is a deeper category of tea drinking. It requires that you’ve thought about tea a little bit and have decided that because of some criteria, tea is the best choice. I think the caffeine-obsessed among us fall into this category: “because tea has lower caffeine” or “because tea doesn’t make me jittery like coffee.” However, it can still be somewhat one-dimensional. Isn’t tea more than that one criterion, really?
Finally, the third basic reason is as an experience. This is the spirit from which tea ceremonies come from. It’s where people get their intellectual or spiritual kicks from. When people speak of the “spirit of tea” or the “way of tea” it’s in this category of drinking. Here, subtleties and variation are paid attention to. Environment and teaware are important. The chosen company and chosen leaves have great weight. It’s perhaps the most sophisticated of the three basic reasons. At the very least, the tea drinker needs to be somewhat self-aware and centered in the present moment to enjoy tea in this third way. Additional study and experience only enhance tea-as-experience, because it allows for the experience of “I didn’t expect such-and-such flavor from this particular tea!” or “Oh, I’m excited to try that–I didn’t know they made so-and-so in that country!” The more you know, the more you can detect, express, and enjoy.
Are any of these reasons for drinking tea wrong? Absolutely not. However, I think lots of conflict about tea comes from not understanding that other people drink tea for other reasons. “Beverage” people see “Experience” people as tea snobs. “Reason” people see “Beverage” people as doing it wrong. To someone who want so experience the subtle flavors of a particular award-winning batch of wulong, adding milk and sugar may seem like sacriledge –an outrageous violation of teaness. To a person who wants a comforting drink, milk and sugar in grocery store teabag tea may be the perfect thing.
It’s very easy to get caught up in your own reasons and assume other people should drink tea for the same reasons. But for different tea-drinking reasons there are different “better” and “worse” ways of going about it. If you’re a Beverage person, Chinese gongfu cha probably isn’t a very good choice. Lots of fiddling with utensils and very tiny cups of tea at the end. On the other hand, if you’re an Experience person, the fiddling becomes a way to play with a particular tea and see how many different flavors you can get out of it–perfect for getting a full experience of a particular batch of leaves.
So next time you’re thinking someone’s doing it wrong, or is snobby, or can’t pick tea, take a moment to think of whether you’re imposing your own reasons for drinking tea on them. And remember that drinking tea is good, no matter what your reason.