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Myths & Legends At Last!

Myths & Legends Header Since I first announced I was working on a book called Myths & Legends of Tea, a lot has happened. For one thing, the project got delayed, interrupted, and re-prioritized for almost two years. For another, it was broken into four volumes. I am pleased to announce, however, that Volume 1 is done! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are available now. I’ll be posting some free excerpts and news about the book over the next week, interspersed with all of my World Tea Expo posts. This first volume in the series features six stories, each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story, and a prologue that sets the stage. The stories are:

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761 During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives… I am particularly excited about the cover of the book, which uses a photograph by Nicholas Han of the sunset over a tea plantation in Taiwan. Myths and Legends of Tea cover

Five bits of tea trivia that are WRONG!

Tea Trivia That Is Wrong

I suppose tea trivia is like any other kind of trivia. Some of the most fascinating trivia is also some of the least accurate. I did a little bit of searching around the web for tea trivia, and found some that were a little bit off, some that were just badly phrased, and some that were flat-out wrong. Here, for your reading enjoyment, are four of those inaccurate gems I dug up.

1. Iced tea was invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by an Englishman named Richard Blechynden.

WRONG! This was the first “fact” in the top Google search for tea trivia (“51 Tea Facts Every Tea Lover Should Know“). The present a compelling explanation that it was hot, and his tea wasn’t selling, so he poured it over ice, thus inventing iced tea!

That’s a cool story — and it’s one you can find all over the Internet, but it’s all ruined if you happen to take a peak at Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree. It was published in 1877, proving that iced tea had been around long before the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Iced Tea Recipe

Excerpt from page 64 of Housekeeping in Old Virginia

As a side note, Mrs. S. T. wouldn’t have had to “correct the astringent tendency” if she had used cooler water and not left the leaves sitting in them all day long.

2. The only tea plantation in the United States is located in South Carolina.

WRONG! Or at least quite out-of-date. This is the first piece of trivia on the tea page at There is, indeed, a fairly sizable plantation called the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, but they are far from being the only tea plantation in the U.S. There are also producing tea plantations in Washington (I have some of their white tea), Oregon, and Alabama. There are dozens of small growers in Hawaii, and new plantations that aren’t in production yet in various other states.

3. Tea bags were invented in 1908 in the United States by Thomas Sullivan.

WRONG! We’re going back here to the “51 Tea Facts” website from our first false “fact” above. This is their second piece of trivia, and so far, they’re batting zero. Again, they tell a fun story, but the story doesn’t address United States Patent #723,287, which was filed in 1901 and issued in 1903.

Tea Bag Patent

This pretty clearly indicates that Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren invented the teabag well before Thomas Sullivan supposedly sent out little fabric pouches of tea that confused people put in their teapots.

4. Restaurants in Georgia are required by law to serve sweet tea

WRONG, but with a kernel of truth. Georgia Representative John Noel (D-Atlanta) did indeed file a bill with four co-sponsors just before April Fools Day 2003. He said it was “an attempt to bring a little humor to the Legislature.” The bill never made it out of committee. It said:

(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”

Although I have a lot of friends in the South that would have supported this bill, it definitely did not become law.

5. The tea dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773 was in bricks

WRONG! I’ve seen this picture all over social media today with the caption, “This is what the tea looked like that was dumped into the Boston harbor.”

Not the Boston Tea Party tea

No. No it isn’t. As this excellent debunking points out, historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum say that the three ships that were raided that night contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas)–all in loose-leaf form. Not a brick of compressed tea to be seen.

While writing this post, I’m enjoying a cup of wild shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which has been out of stock in my tea bar for months. I’m very happy that we just got it back in. It’s a 6-year-old pu-erh that comes in brick form (unlike the tea at the Boston Tea Party), and it is one of the richest, earthiest, most complex shu pu-erh teas I have. I love this stuff.

Ice, Ice, Baby!

Valerian Steel - Iced

An iced cup of our
Valerian Steel tea.

When starting up a new venture, it’s a good idea to minimize the amount of cash you put in until you’re sure it’s going to work. In keeping with that philosophy, when we started our tea bar at the bookstore, we bought what the health inspector said we had to buy (e.g., a triple-basin sink and a sanitizing hand soap dispenser) and what the state said we had to buy (a Federally-certified and State-inspected scale that cost ten times what a standard kitchen food scale costs), but we were careful beyond that.

Oh, we bought a Zojirushi machine to keep our tea water at exactly the right temperature and some IngenuiTEA brew pots to prepare the tea for our customers. We did not, however, buy any other fancy equipment. We decided to spend the money on tea instead. One of the things in the “fancy equipment” category was an ice machine.

We figured we would sell some iced tea in the warm days of summer, but our bookstore had a waitress station in the back corner from the old days when the building housed a restaurant. That waitress station had an ice bin. We decided to just buy bags of ice at the grocery store and put them in the ice bin. Our old freezer in the back could hold an extra bag or two, so we’d be all set, right?

We soon discovered the error of our ways. The not-too-well-insulated ice bin allowed the ice to melt all too fast, and we served a lot more iced tea than we had anticipated. The grocery store is just far enough that you can’t really make an ice run when there are customers waiting, so we often bought more ice than we really needed. Bags of ice are pretty pricey at the grocery store, too: about $1.70 for a 7-pound bag. When you’re going through two or three bags a day, it really adds up.

Then we realized that the liquor store right next to us had an ice machine. Perfect! I negotiated a price so we could just run over there with a bucket, fill it with ice, and have them put it on our tab. More convenient for us, a better price for us, no work at all for the liquor store. There were a few minor inconveniences, like the fact that they opened later in the morning than we did and they are closed Sundays, but we could easily deal with that.

Then things began to get surreal. We’d run over and the scoop would be hidden away somewhere. We’d have to wait while someone found it. They shut the ice machine down for a week (without telling us), so there was no ice available. We found ourselves having to run over to the grocery store anyway. And still, we were spending $4 or $5 per day for ice.

I decided to start shopping for ice machines. I got an email from Sysco that they were having an ice machine sale. What perfect timing! Until I found that the sale price on their cheapest unit was close to $2,000. I searched high and low, and then my friend Martha, who runs the Café Regis, suggested a fellow named Mike who deals in used kitchen equipment.

Hoshizaki ice machineAfter a whole bunch more research and several discussions with Mike, we finally settled on a Hoshizaki counter-top ice making machine. It was still pricey, although the $875 we spent is a lot less than the $2,800 list price, but it makes us independent. I know we’ll spend less on ice in the winter than we do in the summer, but I still figure that machine will pay for itself in less than a year, and it’s far more convenient. Not only that, we can put a filter on the line and gain control over the quality of the water used to produce the ice.

Unfortunately, I don’t deal well with plumbing. After three hours of fiddling around and running back and forth to the hardware store, we still didn’t have a functional water line and filter. I ended up having to get a plumber just because none of the connectors would mate without leaking (I still can’t believe you have to fabricate custom hoses and connectors to hook up a water filter to this line — it boggles the mind).

So, at last, we produce our own ice. Nice little pellets of ice — not the big cubes we were using before — which cool the hot tea down swiftly.

Postscript: Just as I finished typing this, I got a call from the bookstore (it’s my day off). The machine is leaking all over the floor. *sigh* I hate plumbing with the burning passion of 1,000 leaky hot-water lines. I really, really do.

Our boba tea (“bubble tea”) experience

As my friends discovered that we were opening a tea bar at the bookstore, special requests began to pour in: Can you get me a first-flush Darjeeling? Will you have lapsang souchong? You’ll have gunpowder tea, right? Will you be stocking silver needle white tea? Are you going to have herbals? Can you bring in something good with ginger?

We selected our teas with a focus on “real” tea (Camellia sinensis) and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, and maté. A few carefully-chosen herbals rounded out the mix. Then a friend asked if we were going to carry boba tea. Little did I know what that request would lead us to.

Now serving boba teaStories vary, but the consensus seems to be that boba tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and took its sweet time (no pun intended) finding its way to the United States and picked up the nickname “bubble tea” because of the way it’s prepared. In Taiwan, it was called boba milk tea (波霸奶茶 or bōbà nǎichá), but it has many other names around the world. I have no idea whether there’s any truth to Boba Loca‘s story that “boba” is a children’s slang word for “nipple” in Mandarin.

Like chili or meatloaf, it seems that no two shops make boba tea the same way. What they all have in common is tapioca balls (“pearls”) sitting in the bottom of a chilled drink, and a fat straw big enough — just barely — to suck the pearls through. The “hip” places often use very sweet flavorings, similar to the ones used in sno-cones, and many of the boba “tea” drinks have no tea in them at all.

Typically, boba tea uses a base drink — typically a green or black tea — with milk and sweet syrup. This is placed in a shaker with ice and shaken into a bubbly froth (hence the appellation “bubble tea). The frothy mix is poured over tapioca pearls in a clear glass or plastic cup and served. As you drink the tea, the pearls randomly ride up the straw, and you find yourself with something chewy in your tea. It’s a joy watching people’s faces as they experience this for the first time!

I started asking people from the coasts, where boba is most popular, whether they thought it would make a good addition to our tea bar. The three most common answers were, “what the heck is boba tea?”, “yes, because then you’d be a real tea bar,” and “no, real tea bars don’t serve that stuff.” Given this massive lack of consensus, my wife and I flipped a coin and said, “What the heck? Let’s give it a shot.”

First decision: Since we are a tea bar, all of our boba would use real tea. After a bit of experimentation, I picked a nice black tea (organic English breakfast) and a jasmine green tea to use as a base. Two options should be adequate, right? How naïve I was!

Second decision: We’d keep the sweet syrup as basic as possible, and prepare it in advance. Since boba tea isn’t exactly a diet drink, we’d make it with real brown and white sugar, but we wouldn’t make it overly sweet.

The day after we launched our test in the store, a friend from the west coast told me that boba with chai tea is quite popular in Seattle. Coincidentally, we had recently brought in a new organic fair-trade chocolate chai for the tea bar, made with pu-erh tea and yerba maté. We gave it a shot, and it was an immediate hit. My attempt to simplify choices by only offering two base teas went right out the window. By the end of the day, we were making boba with any of the 80 teas we have at the bar.

We also found that special requests didn’t stop at the base tea. Miss Amber, a good customer of ours from another shop down the street, is from the South, and she likes her tea very sweet! We now have a “Miss Amber Boba,” made from cinnamon orange spice tea and about three times the normal amount of syrup.

Boba tea has turned out not to be the novelty drink we expected it to be, but a mainstay of the menu, especially on hot days. Some experiments in our store turn out to be wild successes and some turn out to be dismal flops. I’m going to give boba tea a “success” rating, and start looking for the next experiment. Thai red tea, perhaps?

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