Simple drink, long history


New book reveals tea's true story

March 24, 2004|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We know it's good. And, increasingly, we're learning that it's good for us. But what most of us probably haven't given much thought to is the profound effect tea has had on civilization.

Tea is a simple beverage - a few leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant infused into boiled water. But along comes a new book to point out just how remarkable a story lies behind "one of the great addictions of history" - an addiction that, on the whole, has been very good to us.

The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the World (The Overlook Press, 2004, $22.95) is the work of Alan and Iris Macfarlane, a British mother and son team whose family has roots in the tea business.

Iris Macfarlane spent two decades on an Indian tea plantation in Assam as the wife of a tea garden manager. Son Alan is now a professor of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, but his five childhood years in Assam sparked his interest in taking a multifaceted look at the beverage that has become "more ubiquitous than any type of food or any drink apart from water."

Together, their experiences and their academic research provide a compelling story.

Consider that some 40 percent of the total liquid intake of the British population is in the form of tea; or that, worldwide, "consumption easily equals all the other manufactured drinks in the world put together- that is, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, sweet fizzy artificial drinks and all alcoholic drinks." That's a remarkable record for a beverage that a mere 2,000 years ago was drunk only in a few religious communities.

More notable, perhaps, are the consequences of the spread of tea. The Macfarlanes point out that for much of recorded history human beings were vulnerable to harmful bacteria that easily gained the upper hand once people began living together in larger groups. Many of these ills were waterborne.

But water is essential to life and finding a substitute was difficult. Water was cheap and plentiful. Milk, on the other hand, was neither plentiful nor cheap. Moreover, it was easily contaminated and not everyone could drink it.

Chocolate, cocoa, coffee, beer, wine and spirits all had their problems.

Tea, the Macfarlanes argue, was perfect. It was grown over a wide range of climatic zones, easy to transport and store, and simple to make. Equally important, it was tasty and comforting. People wanted to drink it - and they could imbibe a couple of pints a day with no harm done to energy and concentration.

Most important, people liked tea enough to go to the trouble of boiling water to make it - thus making the water safe to drink. "Tea drinking may have made it possible to maintain, for the first time in history, a relatively healthy population on a huge scale," the Macfarlanes write.

Part of that effect, they say, is due to the physical properties of tea - the polyphenols and flavonoids and other ingredients that are attracting new interest from scientists.

In fact, the Macfarlanes suggest that without the benefits of a bracing cup of tea - the boiled water, the antiseptic qualities and, not least, the mental and physical stimulation - some of the astoundingly difficult labors expected of the ill-nourished masses in recent centuries may not have been physically possible.

Meanwhile, the upper classes could enjoy tea not just for comfort and health, but also for the elaborate social rituals it fostered.

There are also dark strains in the story of tea - from the deplorable conditions under which laborers have worked on tea plantations to the imperial impulses that sought to control the production of tea. The Macfarlanes give these issues due consideration.

Whatever your interest in tea - history, health, cultural rituals or simply as a connoisseur, you will likely find it impossible to dip into this history and not feel the urge to brew a pot and read some more.

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