Tea for Health (And Hedonism)

Immortal Peach Yixing Pot
Immortal Peach Yixing Pot

It seems we get a different kind of customer at the Botanical Gardens outpost than we do at our main teahouse here in Tucson. At the teahouse we tend to get what Zhuping calls “tea people,” those who know tea and drink tea for the sensual experience, the taste, the aroma, the story (or sometimes simply to just enjoy a nice atmosphere with free Wi-Fi). It seems that most of the people who come into the Botanical Gardens tea room, however, are more interested in the health benefits than anything else.

I was talking to Austin about this the other day, and he talked about the joys of drinking great tea for purely hedonistic reasons. That got me thinking about the tea ceremony. In the traditional Chinese Oolong tea ceremony (which I can perform for you outdoors in the Grove of Peace and Harmony here at the Botanical Gardens, by the way) we use special utensils and techniques specifically made to engage and enhance all of the senses.

People get really excited when I show them how to use a fragrance cup for oolong tea, or when we show them how to “bake” the tea by putting the leaves into a Yixing pot that has been heated with boiling water and then emptied. Using the fragrance cups, they get to experience the natural tea fragrance in a much deeper and hedonistic way, soothing their senses with warmth and beauty. Using the little tasting cups, people get to experience the three unique ways to fully experience oolong tea – the aroma, the taste, and the fabulous lingering finish and after-aroma soothing the throat and sinuses. In this way, tea is fully experienced rather than simply being consumed. And the health benefits are simply an afterthought – if even thought about at all.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the health benefits of tea. But as a lifelong student of tea, growing up with a grandmother who did the Omotesenke Japanese tea ceremony, I learned an early appreciation for the richness of tea culture and the depths available in the full sensory banquet tea so generously provides to us.

Now, after several years of studying tea on my own and with Zhuping, I have learned myriad ways to enjoy great tea, whether by making the tea leaves dance in a gaiwan as a gesture of thanks for the divine gift of green tea, or by boiling black Puer in a traditional Yunnan copper pot to release the natural date-like sweetness found in great Puer teas – a sweetness that continues to come out even after a couple of days infusing the same leaves again and again!

All of these add up to a truly hedonistic experience with its own inherent value apart from the health benefits. Sure, research is showing that white tea can be extremely effective in treating inflammation, out-performing Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs in some lab tests. But wouldn’t you rather enjoy the almost rose-like flavor and intoxicating aroma? Wouldn’t you rather see the tiny crystalline hairs dancing in the cup, reflecting the light like a snowglobe? And yes, green tea is loaded with anti-oxidants and may prevent cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, but wouldn’t you rather just drink it for pure pleasure?

Well, one of the great things about tea is that you don’t have to choose one over the other. You can lose yourself in the sensory pleasures tea affords, AND you can experience better health because of it. And heck, I think pleasure is probably healthy in and of itself.

Be well, and enjoy life!