Et al. presents: Brewing communitea

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Photo by Ben Gotchel.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis

This piece made possible by the thoughts and insights of Elijah McCready.

It was a cold Decemeber night at the Boston Harbor. The wind whistled across the water, seasoned with the creaks and groans of tired ships. Suddenly, shouts. A group of men burst onto the docks, beeline to one of the large merchant ships and hastily board. A minute passes, and then, a loud splash. Then another. And another. The men's cries grow louder and more impassioned as they pitch crates of tea off the deck of the ship into the inky depths of the Boston Harbor.

Every red-blooded American is familiar with the events that conspired that night in 1773. Our rejection of Britain's unjustly-taxed commodities was a catalyzing event of the American Revolution. And that's all well and good. But is it possible that, after 240 years, we still hold a grudge?

In America, 4.2kg of coffee are consumed per capita, compared to 0.33kg of tea. I’m not saying that this is a result of persisting bad blood between the Motherland and her ex-colonies… but I’m also not not saying that. Whatever the reason for this dramatic statistic, I think there is a powerful case for Americans adopting tea into its beverage culture. (This is a lofty goal, so I’ll settle for just convincing you to give it a shot yourself.)

First, a brief history. The roots of tea drinking reach as far back as 1500 BC in China during the Shang Dynasty. From there, it spread in popularity for its medicinal uses until it found audience in Britain as a casual drink among aristocrats during the 17th century. Today, it is the second most consumed drink in the world. It’s also chock full of good stuff like dietary antioxidants (enemy of toxic free radicals) and theanine (a natural antidepressant and stress-reliever). Teas that contain caffeine have lower, healthier doses than an average cup of coffee – not enough to send you to jitter-town, but definitely enough to keep you going on that late-night paper-writing rampage (trust me on that one).

Most importantly, tea is a fundamentally community-oriented drink. Let me explain: when you walk into a Starbucks, you can feel the buzz. There’s a man in the corner tapping furiously on his keyboard, and across the room a business meeting is wrapping up. There’s a steady stream of customers beelining from the door to the counter to the door. It’s a hive of activity that represents the best and the worst of American culture.

Now let’s look at the alternative. When you walk into a teahouse, time moves a little slower. No one seems rushed; instead, they lounge at the tables and couches, chatting quietly, reading or just enjoying the peace. You’ve entered a haven for conversation and connection. Tea is calming and relaxing. It invites you to take a breath and enjoy a moment or two of respite from our hyperactive culture, and hopefully share that moment with a friend. Tea is a drink of peace, fellowship, and rejuvenation. But don’t just take my word for it.

I met with Elijah McCready, Global Engagement Coordinator and resident tea connoisseur at King's, to hear his insights on the matter. He talked about his travels to countries like Turkey, China and Uganda. Here, he observed cultural traditions that revolve around taking time to sit down and drink tea with others. Tea is used as a catalyst to meet friends and new acquaintances on a deeper level. “Tea says: ‘Come sit with me, let’s connect,’” Elijah explained. “It’s a way of showing hospitality and community.”

Elijah was first introduced to tea by Verna Hamilton, who held various positions at King's from 2006-2011 and is currently president of Tea Philosophy. Verna would make tea every day at her desk and bring cups to people around school, and use it as an opportunity to acquaint herself with students and co-workers. “We would talk,” Elijah said. “The tea was a way of connecting and talking and getting to know her. It was the medium that allowed us to connect.”

I’m not saying that coffee culture is the antithesis of community. I’m not even saying it’s a bad choice of beverage. I’ve enjoyed great conversations in coffee shops, and I don't have anything against a piping hot caramel macchiato when it’s time to get some work done. What I am saying is that tea culture caters to community in ways unequalled by its coffee counterpart. Each drink has its speciality – and some big players are starting to realize it. Just a few months ago, Starbucks opened Teavana, its first tea house in Upper Manhattan after acquiring the tea company in December of 2012. The sun is setting on the Age of Java, and rising on a new world of coexistence between the East and the West. Long live tea, and long live American tea culture.

Want to learn more?

Lifehacker has a quick and easy guide to getting started with tea.

The Octavia Tea Company has a much more in-depth tea guide, if your thirst for knowledge persists!

Questions for further pondering:

1. Tea or coffee? Why?

2. Do you agree with my characterization of coffee culture?

3. Are there certain benefits of coffee that tea cannot match?

et al-Ben Gotchel