The Unfathomable Mystery of Tea

Oriental Beauty Taiwanese Oolong
Oriental Beauty Taiwanese Oolong

Sometimes I am amazed at how much bad information there is out there about tea. I can’t even tell you how many people come in to Seven Cups or the Botanical Gardens with their friends and want to look intelligent by saying something about tea, and it turns out that what they say is completely wrong. Someone once said that the British invented tea. (That made me laugh, but they were serious.) Dozens of people have come in and confidently declared that white tea is simply the new buds of green tea, or that white tea has no chlorophyll (including one so-called “tea expert”). And even more people have said that they heard that green tea had more caffeine than coffee and will keep you up all night if you have just one cup!

The fact of the matter is that tea is a vast and unfathomable field of study. For example, there are over a few hundred different kinds of Long Jing (Dragonwell) with different names and coming from different regions and different bushes, each with its own character, so how can anyone give a blanket statement to all green tea?

And it’s not just that the average American doesn’t know tea because he or she grew up in a culture that doesn’t really appreciate it. Even tea experts often get it wrong. And sometimes we do.

Last month I was walking by the chrysalis room at the Botanical Gardens and had an idea: let’s have a special event during Asian Butterfly Month where we teach people about how the green leaf worm is an essential part of the production of Oriental Beauty, one of my favorite Taiwanese oolongs. I talked to the powers that be at the Botanical Gardens and they got so excited about it they called the local news stations, all of whom asked for an official press release because they all wanted to do a story on it, and even asked if Zhuping and I would be willing to give live interviews on air.

My idea was an instant hit. Word about it spread like wildfire, and the curator of the Butterfly Exhibit excitedly told me that she had written to her entomologist friends in Asia to ask them to send more information. It was a win for us, a win for tea education, and a win for the Botanical Gardens.

But then we hit a wall. As I started doing my research to prepare for the event, I started coming across some information about the green leaf worm, which everyone had said was essential to the Oriental Beauty production. I wanted to find the scientific name, and when I found it and looked up pictures I was horrified – this green leaf “worm” wasn’t a worm at all. The local people used a word that can be translated as worm, but in reality it was the Tea Jassid – a type of cicada. The real name of this little creature that helps make this tea so special was “Smaller Green Leaf Hopper,” and was nowhere close to being a worm-like creature. Not even in its larval stage.

When I told Zhuping about it she was incredulous. But sure enough, after some more research with her, we discovered that the Chinese character for worm could be interchanged with the word for hopper in some regions, and so a vital detail was lost in translation.

Well, this launched us on a quest to start fact-checking some of our own resources, and thankfully, Zhuping is considered one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese tea. (By the way, Zhuping is certified as a tea scholar, but she considers herself a “Tea Ambassador” because she thinks it is impossible to truly ever know all of the teas and their history.) She’s actually been to just about every tea growing region and has personally studied with the farmers and tea masters there.

The only way this bad information fell through the cracks was for political reasons; Zhuping has never actually been to Taiwan to verify the information on the few Taiwanese teas we sell. Austin does the sourcing for us in Taiwan. Zhuping is now able to go because she has American citizenship, but was previously not allowed to visit. By and large, our information is probably the most correct information out there, but we were both mortified and amused when we started looking into some of the bad information we found on other sites and resources.

Even some of the most famous tea “experts” have loads of bad information, and Austin recently read a book on tea that was so full of errors he felt embarrassed for the author. In fact, Zhuping says that there is no way to ever learn about tea enough to truly call yourself a master, because every year things change in the tea culture and tea industry, and politics and marketing drive huge amounts of misinformation. One can never get “the truth” from a book or online; the only way to really know something about tea is to experience it in person, whether by drinking the tea, examining the leaves, or visiting the farms themselves. And you know, this whole thing not only taught me the importance of fact-checking and how deeply mysterious the tea trade can still be, but it also taught me a cultural lesson.

China doesn’t have a history of our Western black-and-white dichotomous paradigm. The Chinese culture, by and large, doesn’t see truth and falsity as absolutes. So to the local people in some parts of Asia, it’s totally accurate to call a cicada a worm because it munches on tea leaves. I’m not sure I can take myself far enough out of my own cultural blinders to really wrap my head around the idea that something can be true even if it isn’t, but there’s a lot of that in the tea industry, so while some of us may get up-in-arms about outright lies (like that white tea has no caffeine), part of embracing the wonder of tea is also embracing its mythology – and when one gets into myth, lines between truth and fiction begin to blur.

Be well!