Many a “tea master” certification program will tell you that there’s a rule to what is and is not “tea”: All “true tea” comes from the same plant. This rule is an easy way to distinguish tea from herbal infusions/decoctions. However, as people get rooted in the traditions of tea, they often come to know (intellectually and/or experientially) that tea does not simply come from one plant. Recently, I have been soaking this in on both the intellectual and the experiential levels, and I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve absorbed with you in the hope that it will be of benefit to your tea practice.
Through visits to tea plantations and farms over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to see many different “cloned” tea varietals (which are more like grafted plants than the laboratory creations that the term “cloned” tends to evoke). There are numerous variations amongst these tea plant types. Some can be easily recognized by their appearance, such as leaf shape and edge serration, leaf size, leaf color, bud / leaf downiness and plant structure. Additionally, many a plantation manager or tea farmer will point out the major differences in their heartiness, drought resistance, growth rate, yield, etc. And many a buyer will notice differences in the cup: a richer color from one varietal, a more nuanced taste from another, more brewing patience in a third, and so on.
I must admit that compared to other aspects of tea, the traits of different clonal varieties is only of mi- nor interest to me. After all, these plants are primarily used for monocropping across entire fields or, in some areas, enormous swaths of land as far as the eye can see. And monocropping has a history of generating monumental failures, such as the Irish Potato Famine and the massive coffee blight that (on the upside) led Sri Lanka to become a tea growing nation (yet, as an obvious downside, did not prevent the widespread practice of monocropping tea there). While the idea of generating plants to meet specific producer/market needs was intellectually interesting to me for a time, neither the idea nor the practice fed the needs of my soul. And the potential for the large-scale downfall, well… harboring or reacting to this kind of fear is the antithesis of Being. So, when people began to talk about different clonals and their properties, my mind listened, but my soul did not.
Until recently, I took this lack of enchantment to be something broader than it is. Clonals didn’t generate a spark in me, so I didn’t place high importance upon learning about or experiencing tea varietals in general. And then, I started drinking the Purple Tea we sent out a few months back, and everything changed.
At the risk of discussing one wonderful tea while ignoring another equally wonderful tea as it sits right in front of us, please allow me to explain how Purple Tea helped me understand and appreciate tea varietals more fully. Purple Tea is ancient. As you may have felt from drinking Purple Tea, its spirit speaks of an age that predates mankind. To me, it conveys the moment of a dawning day at a time long before humans were around to observe the phenomena of celestial cycles. It is an expression of the beauty that existed before we did, perhaps simply for the sake of existing, or perhaps in preparation for human observation to reflect its beauty back toward it.
Suffice it to say, this is not the kind of radiance you are likely to encounter in a cloned plant.
Around the time I was sensing the splendor of Purple Tea, a package arrived. It contained a large quantity of forest-grown Puerh. Like Purple Tea, it is from an older, wilder type of tea plant than the vast majority of the tea out there. And like Purple Tea, it speaks to the soul in a powerfully different way from a plantation-grown clonal tea.
Shortly thereafter, I had the chance to visit Sun Moon Lake with Kaiya and Antonio, a longtime supporter of Tea Sage Hut who recently visited us from Barcelona. At Sun Moon Lake, we walked around the local tea research center’s tea garden, where hundreds of seed-propagated plants grow freely. Each was an Assamica tea plant, yet each was distinct. Each was an expression of the plant’s genetic mixing through the sexual reproduction inherent to seed propagation. Similarly, when we visited one local tea farm, we saw a field of seed-propagated plants with varying colors, shapes and textures—a markedly different sight from the seemingly perfect uniformity in the fields of clonal, monocropped plants that make up the majority of tea production today.
End of Part One. Part Two, Tea Varietals Part 2, will publish next Wednesday, January 14, 2015.