Some days it seems like passionate tea drinkers belong to one of two camps – those who prepare their tea looking to the past and those who brew their tea racing to the future. Simplicity is embraced by neither group as elaborate props and preparation steps set the stage for a cup of tea, while tea itself fights for a moment in the spotlight. Ironically, the history of our coffee cousins demonstrates that, in many cases, they have already moved on from the romantic coffee history of the past to the bright, shiny espresso machine of the future.
The retro tea drinker envisions sitting in the stillness of a small tea house, high in the misty mountains of an ancient tea culture, a cast iron pot over hot coals boiling the water, all the proper artisan tea utensils ready, and a tea pot chosen to pair perfectly with the small ceramic jar of prized tea to be enjoyed in reverence. The gentle smell of blossoms just outside the tea house, the gurgling of a nearby brook, and the occasional sing-song of two birds gently echo in the silent room dedicated to tea. This is their way of tea. To appreciate tea is to approximate as best as one can the conditions, the tools, the preparation, and the mindset of centuries ago.
The tea gadgeteer has little patience for the quaint – yet maddeningly lengthy – process of brewing tea according to historic pomp and circumstance. With precious few minutes to waste w-a-i-t-i-n-g for the tea to brew, they are mesmerized by any and all manner of time-saving tea infusion technologies. Why not use a tea bag or make an instant tea, or flash brew it, or steam it with elaborate equipment that hisses and presses the promise of a perfect cup of tea in a few seconds? Tea pods work too, or cute small K-cups to fit a universal brewing machine (tea, coffee, cocoa – it doesn’t matter). Then there are those tea travel carafes that brew the tea while you are on the go, so you never have to stop moving – speed and tea perfection are so, so close at hand.
That giggling in the corner? That’s from the coffee drinkers watching these scenarios play out all over again with tea. They’ve seen it before: origin coffees, brewing espresso the “correct” way, retro European-style coffee houses, roasting one’s own beans at home, ground coffee in a can or in foil bags, instant coffee, and coffee packets. And what is one of the biggest coffee trends now? Single cup, gravity brewing – put the coffee in a filter cone, add hot water, drip into the cup below, and drink.
Only after the rocket science can we appreciate it’s not rocket science. Does following a tea ritual that opens a path to the past really make for a better cup of tea or is it really more about preparing our minds to better appreciate a cup of tea? If the tea preparation went on behind a green curtain, Wizard-of-Oz-like, and wonderful cups of tea were served to you on the other side of the curtain, does it matter how the tea was made? Old or new, the steps in preparing a cup of tea must be effective and result in a good cup of tea. If the technique achieves the desired result, there is plenty of room for personalization. While there will never be one true path to tea, hopefully, there can be at least a small bridge between the tea past and tea future. Cross over sometimes and visit your friends on the other side.