Tag Archives: Tea Culture

Chinese Tea Culture

In trying to explore the tea cultures of other countries, it is difficult to isolate tea from the rest of the country’s culture.  A beverage, especially one as old as tea, makes its way into everything and its use reflects the overall culture of the country.  As the birthplace of tea, China’s tea culture is rich in ceremony and history.  The drink has been part of Chinese life for over 4,000 years.  It has brought great wealth, supported opium addiction, triggered wars, and became part of everyday life.

Tea in a Porcelain Cup

Tea in a Porcelain Cup (Stilllife) by Flicker User Jos Deilis, CC BY 2.0

A fundamental aspect of Chinese culture is Confucianism.  This is a complex set of beliefs that influence many parts of Chinese culture, the largest being the focus on social harmony brought about through each individual knowing his or her place within society and focusing on doing the best job possible in that place.  Tea plays a role in social harmony.  Every Chinese household has a tea set and tea is routinely offered to guests, family, and friends as a sign of respect and love.  Interestingly, in formal settings, it is always the person in the lower social role that serves the tea to the person of the higher social status, like a child serving tea for a parent.

Since tea is considered one of the seven daily necessities in Chinese culture along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, vinegar and soy sauce, it has created entire industries in China around teaware, teahouses, and various methods of brewing tea.  From glazed porcelain tea cups to terra cotta teapots used only for oolongs, there is a wide variety of wares for brewing and consuming teas.  Many of these are built around either the chaou or gongfu brewing methods.  The chaou brewing method is usually done in a porcelain bowl that allows the drinker to both drink the tea and inspect the tea leaves.  There is no strainer, just a bowl with a lid and saucer.  It may be used with serving cups or by itself and is considered an informal way of drinking tea.  It is said that this method was devised as a way for faster tasting by the tea merchants of tea they were considering purchasing.  The gongfu brewing method is more formal and uses a smaller terra cotta tea pot to do multiple steepings of a single tea.  The teapots usually only hold between 100-150 mL or 4-5 oz. The gongfu method varies across regions of China and may also include the use of other instruments like tweezers and various strainers.  Teahouses are everywhere in China and are social gathering places for the exchange of ideas.  Unlike Americans, who either take their coffee to go or bury their head in their laptops at the coffee shops, these teahouses are built around staying to talk and to share a pot of tea prepared by the hostess.

Tea Shop

Back of Tea Shop, Zhuhai Guangdong, China, By logatfer, Flickr, CC BY SA-2.0

Tea also plays a large role in Chinese weddings.  During a wedding, the bride and groom will serve tea to their parents as a sign of respect and thanks.  If the couple wishes, they may do a full tea ceremony which includes serving tea to the rest of the family after serving it to their parents.  Often this could include serving tea to hundreds of people as Chinese extended families are often quite large and all are invited to the wedding.  This full ceremony allows the couple to meet each other’s extended family members that they may not have met while dating.

The idea that an everyday drink can also be given prominence in a special event shows the integration to tea into the lives of the Chinese at all levels and helps to explain why most of their tea does not leave the country.  I don’t believe America has anything like this within our own culture, but given that American culture is centered on the individual instead of the collective society it shouldn’t be a surprise.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we slowed down a bit to enjoy each other’s company over a pot of tea?

Let us know what you think, follow us on Twitter @DominionTea, or like us on Facebook.


American Tea Culture

Photo of Golden Dragon Tea

Golden Dragon Tea

Recently Hillary and I spent a couple weeks in Florida visiting family and having our son spend some time with his grandparents.  As usual we brought our own tea.  During a break we visited a well-known tea house which featured a wide selection of over sixty teas as well as serving salads and sandwiches.  Hillary selected an Earl Grey and Jasmine blend while I selected an oolong described, in part, as rare.  The tea itself tasted great but I felt the tea house left us short.  Specifically, the tea infuser was removed from the pot before it was brought to the table.  We had no option to examine the tea leaves nor have a second steeping.  So is it that odd to expect an institution serving premium tea to provide access to the infused leaves?   And this begs a larger question.  How does one define “American Tea Culture”?

Culture can be defined as “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another.” (Dictionary.Com, 2014)  We are dominated by a coffee culture in this country now, but that hasn’t always been the case.  Early in our history we were primarily tea drinkers, dating back to the early days of the nation and beginning the transition to coffee with the Boston Tea Party at which point it became unpopular to drink tea, lest you be seen as supporting the British.  Over time came wars involving Asia, further eroding the tea as a part of the American way of life.However, tea didn’t fully fade away, and throughout our history we have opened our doors to large numbers of immigrants, a number of which were displaced from their homelands during political upheaval.  For example we helped relocated nearly a million people from Vietnam in the 1970’s after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.  Immigrants from Vietnam moved primarily to Southern California but also Houston, TX, the Washington DC suburbs and a variety of other cities.  The Vietnamese brought with them their language, beliefs, and consumption of hot and iced tea. (Peter Cody Hunt, 2002)

Today the American Tea Culture is hard to pin down, involving a variety of different things.  On the one hand we have tea in a restaurant atmosphere.  We have a growing number of tea houses with fancy tea pots and cups as well as light fare or coffee & tea establishments offering a trendy atmosphere where you can get coffee, tea, bagels, and other food from a counter to sit in or take out.

Brewing Sun Tea

Sun Tea by flickr user SanFranAnnie, CC BY SA 2.0

There is sweet tea, iced tea, and sun tea.  As far as tea in the United States goes it is overwhelmingly iced.  Iced tea is featured nearly everywhere in the south and served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  In some parts it is sweet tea with a good helping of sugar or sweetener added, while in other areas its straight black.  For Hillary, growing up in Arizona only a few miles from Mexico, her favorite was sun tea made simply by adding a few teabags to a jar of cold water and setting outside in the Arizona sun.  A few hours later simply pour over ice and enjoy!

Bubble Tea Varieties

Bubble Tea by flickr user ohallmann, CC BY 2.0

An alternative for many in this country is tea as occasional “get well” drink, often from grocery store teabags, including tea, lemon, and honey to relieve a sore throat, or herbal remedies purported to help overcome sickness.  In fact America, being the melting pot that it is, sees different uses based on different cultural backgrounds.  For many Hispanics “traditional practices include using home remedies (e.g., drinking herbal or spiced teas) and seeking care from relatives, neighbors, community members, or traditional health care providers.” (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012)  Haitians “drink lots of water and homemade fruit juices, coffee in the morning, and tea only when sick.” (Jessie M. Colin)   And there is a significant Asian population in Southern California with shopping catering to the population and bubble tea shops for younger generations. (Medina, 2013)

We have portions of the population who seek benefits from green tea in the form of food ingredients, dietary supplements, facial masks, and a whole host of other uses.

Lastly, there are those of us who enjoy loose leaf tea, the myriad varieties, the historical significance, different brewing methods, blends, scenting, baking, and more.  We can get our fix from specialty tea shops sprinkled throughout the country, online, and regional festivals ranging from the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles International Tea Festivals to the NYC and Philly Coffee and Tea Festivals.

In the end I’m not sure one can really pin down “American Tea Culture”.  Like America there are options for everyone and plenty of room to explore, no matter what your preference.  Is one aspect wrong and another right?  Is one a more worthwhile aspect of tea on which to focus?  What is your preference?  Did we leave out your favorite aspect of American Tea Culture?

Tell us what you think and share this blog with another tea lover…

David at Dominion Tea

Works Cited

Dictionary.Com. (2014, 01 22). Culture | What is the dfinition? Retrieved from Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/culture?s=t

Jessie M. Colin, P. R. (n.d.). Cultural and Clinical Care for Haitians. Betty Hastings, LCDR US Public Health Service, Indian Health Services.

Medina, J. (2013, April 28). The New York Times. Retrieved from New Suburban Dream Born of Asia and Southern California: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/us/asians-now-largest-immigrant-group-in-southern-california.html?_r=0

Peter Cody Hunt, M. (2002). An Introduction to Vietnamese Culture For Rehabilitation Service Providers in the U.S.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Building Our Understanding: Cultural Insights – Communicating with Hispanic/Latinos.

Aged Photo of Tea

Why are there no tea plantations in the US?

You would be forgiven for believing that there are no tea plantations in the United States.  Aside from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya there aren’t any other suitable locations for growing tea right?  If you read our earlier blog about where tea is grown you will note that the US does indeed grow some tea, though at very small quantities.  That got us thinking…  Why is it that American farmers never took up tea?  After all, tea does grow at a wide range of elevations and latitudes.  Much of the continental US from North Carolina and Tennessee southward lies at about the same latitude of Shizuoka prefecture, which leads Japanese tea producing regions.    So why is it that tea isn’t generally produced in the US?  Perhaps the most significant reason dates back to an 1897 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which the author, William Saunders writes “At the lowest estimate, it costs about eight times more to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina than the prices paid for the same service in Asia.” (Saunders, 1897)  This one sentence appears over and over as justification for why tea isn’t produced here in America.  In short, it’s too expensive to compete with the cost of labor in Asia.  A hundred years later this thought process is strikingly familiar, with Asia continuing to produce all kinds of things with dramatically lower labor costs.  But is the lower labor rate really the reason or, as the report also suggests, might it have been the shortage of skilled growers and manufacturers was the real stumbling block to getting tea off the ground in the U.S.

Historical Events from the Civil War to 1900.

US History Timeline Surrounding the Tea Farm Experiment

At the time of the USDA study there was significant upheaval in the United States where the Civil War was still very much on the minds of the population. The American South, which arguably had the better climate for Tea, was struggling to rebuild, had suffered substantial loss of capital, and struggled to adapt to an economy not based on slavery.  Indeed, a report from the Debow’s Review, a widely circulated magazine of the time, published in October 1867, made it quite apparent that landowners felt the freed slaves “have ruined many Southern planters who had but little capital and endeavored to work their plantations on shares.” (Debow, 1867)  With the US Agricultural scene adapting to producing crops without slave labor, the idea of introducing a new agricultural product that required manual picking of leaves and a manufacturing process that was still foreign to the US would be laughable.

The current focus by many US consumers on locally grown or raised produce, wine, and cattle might give tea yet another chance in the US economy.  There are a number of tea growers in Hawaii producing specialty teas including Black, White, Green, and Oolong varieties.  Back on the mainland, there is one commercial operation in South Carolina where tea has been grown and abandoned multiple times since the 1800’s.  More recently the US League of Tea Growers has been formed in an attempt to bring together growers from across the country to share knowledge, develop best practices, identify or create cultivars suitable to the U.S., and to promote the U.S. tea industry.

Aged Photo of TeaAs we close out this blog it’s important to take away that there is tea being grown and produced here in the United States.  Over the coming years there may be greater availability of specialty tea products from across the country.  Perhaps tea does have a place in the American agricultural economy and perhaps, all those years ago, folks should have more fully read the fateful report for the USDA considering “Dr. Shepard stated that if he were twenty years younger he would plant 500 acres as rapidly as he could procure the plants. This indicated his faith in tea raising as a profitable industry.” (Saunders, 1897)

What do you think?  Is there a place for American produced teas?  If they were more expensive, yet locally produced from a farm you could visit, would you seek them out?

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Works Cited

Debow, J. D. (1867, October). Agricultural, commercial, industrial progres and resources. Debow’s Review.

Saunders, W. (1897). An Experiment in Tea Culture, A Report on the Gardens of Dr. Charles U. Shephard, Pinehurst, S.C. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Gardens and Grounds.