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1 february 2012

I grew up in a coffee-drinking family in the American Midwest. Tea, my mother opined, was something you only drank when you were sick. Every Midwestern family had a box of dusty teabags stashed somewhere in the back of the cupboard in case of the flu. But actual daily use of the stuff was associated with foppish sitcom gueststars and vicars in English murder mysteries.

My tea horizons, like everything else in my alimentary life, broadened with the new waves of globalization that swept over the world economy in the second half of the 20th century. But even at that, the range of tea experiences described in Helen Saberi's Tea included much that was new to me. Or nearly new. Recently, in a Central Market in Austin, Texas, I saw tea bundles that were guaranteed to be picked by monkeys from the tops of trees high in the mountains of somewhere. Saberi identifies the monkey-picked tea as Puerh, from Yunnan in China. But she downgrades the backstory to a maybe: "Early legends, thought to be inspired by Buddhist priests, tell of monkeys being used to gather the tea leaves" (18). In fact maybe the whole story is an English-language misunderstanding. Just as many European monks make liqueur, many Asian monks grow tea. Did the British mentally substitute "monkey" for "monk"?

Tea takes a bafflingly wide range of forms across the Northern Hemisphere, and down into Australasia through Indonesia. So Saberi's is truly a near-global history: tea doesn't seem to be central to Latin American or subSaharan African cultures, but I'm sure those nations now drink their share of tea too. From its botanical origins in China and Assam, tea circled the globe. Different processes, preparations and additives make for kinds of tea that fill nearly every beverage niche that culture has to offer. Except alcoholic: though again, I'm sure any number of people have mixed liquor and tea on occasion, there's no strong tradition of doing so (Long Island Iced Tea is traditionally tealess).

Tea is the most widespread and varied stimulant drink on earth, and it all comes from Camellia sinensis. I've never seen a tea plant, and until I read Saberi's book, I had never even seen pictures of one. The leaves look vaguely like myrtle or laurel, and are hard to imagine withered down to the little wispy things in teacaddies. All sorts of drying, blasting, smoking, fermenting, and who knows what-all-else are performed on the little leaflets to get them into brewable condition. Tea can appear loose in baggies, resembling nothing so much as marijuana; it can appear solid in pressed bricks that resemble nothing so much as Han Solo in carbonite. It comes in bags, pellets, bombs, powders, and ready-made in bottles; people drink it with jasmine, sugar, lemon, mint, butter, milk, or salt.

When I was young we moved from Illinois to New Jersey, encountering culinary culture shock in those less-homogenous days. Coffee was widely available on the East Coast, of course, but lots of my mother's new friends drank tea: Red Rose for choice, with sugar or lemon or both, so we kept some around for afternoon visitors. When I reached coffee-drinking age, I probably had as much tea, early on, as coffee; by weird chance the teacup of my childhood, a little mug with an image of an Andrew Johnson impeachment ticket, is behind my laptop as I write this, stuffed with colored pencils and an orange stress-squeezer. But I soon gravitated to coffee, and have stayed there mostly ever since. My late ex-mother-in-law made tea all day long in a steel pot on her cooker, adding leaves or water as it got too weak or too strong, and cementing the result with milk for a brew "you could trot a horse on." It was that or nothing in Ireland in the 1980s – coffee was a rare exotic substance obtainable only at Bewley's in the center of Dublin – so I got my morning (and afternoon and teatime and evening) caffeine from loose tea, and learned to make it acceptably according to arcane rituals that never seem to apply to coffee, which is usually made by punching a button on a machine. Later I went through a phase of drinking Earl Grey with honey and lemon in the office, but that was stressful: I was always running out of either lemon or honey or Earl Grey, so I gave it up. Now in the daytime I drink what everyone around me calls "tea," but Saberi rigorously excludes from discussion: various herbals and tisanes of nettle, elderberry, and chamomile.

A "nice cup of tea," anyway, seems to carry with it associations of islands in the North Atlantic where the rain blows sideways and there is no possibility of going for a walk that day. I live in Texas now, and as Saberi notes, when you ask for tea in Texas the counter-question is "sweet or unsweet," and the result is a tall glass on ice. It's good stuff too, but I prefer an Arnold Palmer, and at that, I prefer, as the great Walker Percy put it, "to drink ice water and sweat." Not mixed, mind you.

Saberi, Helen. Tea: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.