Steeped in controversy

The politics and style of artisanal and organic teas
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These days everyone is a gourmand, and caring about the earth is so cool it's made even Al Gore popular. The time is ripe to give a fuck.

But all this focus on artisanal and organic products is complicated. What's easiest for the consumer to understand isn't always correct. Stickers can't always be trusted. And — certified or not — nothing holds a candle to family tradition.

It's true for tomatoes. It's true for tangerines. And, according to Winnie Yu, director of Berkeley teahouse Teance, it's especially true for tea.

That there is controversy or politics involved with tea is nothing new (Boston Tea Party, anyone?). But the most recent debates have centered around two primary issues: the practice of using lower quality teas in tea bags (versus loose leaves) and the consequences of labeling tea as organic.

But before we get into all that, first the basics.

CONFLICT BREWS

The beverage as we know it is said to have been discovered when tea leaves blew into the hot-water cup of early Chinese emperor Shen Nung. Cultivation started simply enough, under the fog on steep hills, where harvesters engaged in the art of fine plucking, or gently twisting the buds of Camellia sinensis at precisely the correct moment of the correct day. This knowledge was a biorhythm, pulsating in the bones, passed from one generation to the next.

But it wasn't long before this Chinese medicinal crop changed everything. The British East India Co. — originally chartered for spice trade — spread opium through the region just to get its hands on the stuff. This bit of naughtiness made it the most powerful monopoly in the world, prompted wars, and left legions addicted to another intoxicating substance: tea.

Smuggling rings, high-society occasions, and ever-increasing taxes spiraled around the precious crop. The long journeys from China to Britain led to the glamour of clipper ship races, but below deck fighting the rats was another problem altogether. One piece of tea lore explains how cats were employed to catch the rats, and after an entire shipment of tea (already stale from the journey) was infused with cat piss, it was discovered that the pungent bergamot oil, popular at the time, masked this stench quite nicely. Earl Grey was born.

Next came Thomas Sullivan, New York tea merchant, good-time guy, and miser to the core, who decided to send some tea samples to faraway clients. Instead of packing his gifts in tins, as was common at the time, Mr. Tightwad decided to use some silk baggies he had lying around. The people who received these pouches assumed they were to dip them into boiling water and throw away the debris. Sullivan had unwittingly invented a no-mess solution to tea. The orders came pouring in. A few years later the Lipton tea bag was born.

BONES ABOUT BAGS

Eventually, it was learned that smaller pieces, or finings, brew more quickly than full leaves. But when leaves are broken into finings, the oils responsible for their taste evaporate. This leaves a bitterness that can only be countered with cream and sugar. And the tea farmers in China kept on keeping on, despite the series of near-triumphs, well-intentioned buffoonery, and colonial rebellion that resulted in the western side of the tea-drinking world forever asking, "One lump or two?"

According to tea connoisseurs, this is when the fine crop began its slide down the slippery slope into pure crap.

Far from an obsolete issue (or a localized one), bagged tea — both its quality and its form — has sparked a very modern worldwide debate.

In Sri Lanka as recently as Feb. 12, D.M.

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