On Becoming a Teaist

In reality, cowboys preferred coffee … Arbuckles coffee in the earlier years. But, even then, when alone on the trail it was often quicker and easier to brew a cup of tea than it was to roast green beans in a frying pan over the fire, grind the roasted beans, and finally brew the coffee. So, with that lonely cup of trail-brewed tea in mind, this short essay was written in 2000 and has appeared on a number of web sites over the years since then.

Cup of Tea, what memories that phrase elicits … granddad’s tea when I was five in 1933 … a cup of hot water with sugar and a splash of milk. But that was long ago and with advancing age I have, perhaps, become a teaist now better steeped in the true art of teaism.

The person who would become a teaist must be willing to borrow from others. After all, there are well-developed techniques and strategies in other classes of snobbery and there is no sense in re-inventing them. The secret is to adapt them and apply them to the world of tea.

Thus, the first principle of the learned teaist … to borrow … is itself borrowed, in part, from the historic world of academia. Just think of it. You can borrow, and build upon the strategies developed and honed to perfection by centuries of academic conflict fought in the hallowed halls of Oxford, Harvard, and scores of like and less-like institutions around the world.

To apply these strategies in conversations with the less learned, you must learn to wrinkle up your nose a bit and purse your lips as though you had just tasted a spoiled lemon as you say the most dreaded word of the true teaist — “Lipton.” If you have difficulty with this, go into a locally-owned neighborhood espresso shop and watch and listen to the devotees of latte as they say “Starbucks.” In coffee circles, this is a true art form. It is a wonder that Starbucks has survived that toss of the head, that roll of the eye, and that twist of the lip, as the loyal fans of other roasters cut the competition … Starbucks … into linguistic ribbons. Well done, coffee lovers, we teaists have much to learn.

Yes, we can learn from them, borrow from them. And don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

For many, “Bigelow” is a greater challenge than “Lipton” what with its three syllables and the incorporation of popular herbal blends into the company’s line. But a word of caution — under no circumstances should the teaist open up a second battlefront by challenging the herb lovers of the world. Better to leave that war to others and stick to the products of the Camellia Sinensis. After all, we teaists know that it is only from that one herb that true tea can be brewed!

A warning: Americans should also be rather careful about any obvious depreciation of English teas when communicating with their British friends. Some of these otherwise friends of America are still a bit stiff lipped and sensitive about the departure of the colonies from the Realm and may be somewhat miffed that they were not invited to the Boston Tea Party. Not that they would have liked it. After all, the tea was steeped in salty water  …  more in the Tibetan or Mongolian style than in the “splash of milk” tradition of the Empire.

The world does enjoy the teas of Britain, the land where tea is an institution. Even there, however, great mysteries surround the origin and blend of English Breakfast Tea — is the true tea a pure Assam, a pure Keemun, or a blend of Indian or Chinese teas? The teaist will fix upon one of these and defend it against all argument. A great defense is a slight shake of the head, a deep sigh, and a roll of the eyes to the heavens as some less-learned individual puts forward a different version. The teaist knows but must forever suffer the ignorance of the unlearned masses!

An equally plaguing mystery concerns the origin and blend of Earl Grey Tea. Each of two companies claims to have the “original” version. The knowledgeable teaist will steer clear of the argument. After all, why argue about a tea which is said to be so ordinary that it must be smothered in bergamots and citrons in order to be palatable? And how about that version from the colonies  …  that Earl Greyer Tea? Look again to the heavens.

To become a true teaist (a word which, incidentally, I borrowed from The Book of Tea written in 1906 by Kakuzo Okakura), you must learn the language of the tea aficionado. You must never, for example, brew “a cup of tea.” No, today you must brew a “cuppa!” To add the word “tea” to “cuppa” is a redundant redundancy in the mind of the modern teaist. And, once it is brewed, you must not pour it into a cup and sip it, you must “cup” it. To the true teaist, it doesn’t matter if these words jar the ear, irritate the mind, and defy understanding by non-teaists. “Cuppa” and “cup” will undoubtedly go down in history with such other monumental linguistic achievements as “veggie” and “oleo.”

With some 3,000 teas in the world — all, incidentally, from the same genetic line — an entire language has developed to communicate among teaists. Every nuance of producing, testing, packaging, marketing, brewing, drinking, enjoying, and mystifying tea is covered, discovered, uncovered, and recovered.

Having its own language doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject is boring or stuffy. Quite the contrary. To know and use the words puts the teaist far ahead of the uninformed who’ll never know the words, let alone whether they are being used correctly. But their use can prove that you truly know that the true tea, Camellia Sinensis, can be bright, bold, brassy, full bodied — even pointy and chesty — standing immediately and fully revealed in full bloom, and not at all coarse or dull. So is the language of tea.

In conclusion, the would-be teaist must do as other would-bes have done in other fields — make a science of a simple subject, depreciate the opposition, cloak the topic in undefinable terms, and write quasi-technical dissertations for delivery to their peers. When you can do these things as you “cup a cuppa,” you are well on your way to becoming one of a select few  …  a true teaist!