Tea. Whether a cup of Earl Grey at a British high tea or sipping out of a gaiwan at a Chinese teahouse, tea is a drink of the ages, as it has been deeply embedded within many of the world’s cultures for hundreds of years.
Originating from China, Western tea culture can be traced back to Yunnan, the southwestern province of China where the Camellia sinensis plant naturally grows. First used in China for its medicinal properties, tea was introduced to the West when Portuguese priests and merchants started drinking the steeped leaf. It was not until the 17th century that tea became prevalent in the Old World, as it was then that the British created direct trading routes that allowed the leaf to enter Britain and India.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Charlene Wang, the founder of the Chinese tea company Tranquil Tuesdays, for a lesson on tea history, and also to taste the unique selection of Chinese teas that her company distributes. Beyond the story of tea, Charlene also informed me that all teas, interestingly enough, are derived from the single Camellia sinesis plant; there are only two kinds of teas, namely Pu’er (an earthy Chinese tea) and Assam (an full-bodied Indian tea) that come from the related species, Camellia sinensis assamica. In fact, it is the diverse horticulture (ie. soil quality, harvest time), drying, and scenting/blending techniques that produce the vast variety of teas one might find on the shelves of the famed Fortnum & Mason in London. It is these various techniques that will resultantly influence a tea’s color as a dry leaf, recommended steeping time, and overall “mouthfeel”. For instance, so goes the myth of jasmine tea, a tea commonly found at one’s local Chinese restaurant: originally from Fujian Provence in Southeast China, tea producers once emptied broken and low-quality tea leaves into a basin which they would then scent with the jasmine flower. Scented with a floral aroma, the tea was shipped to the north, where the northerners were supposedly fooled by the swindling southerners.
In between the various interesting facts and myths of tea history, Charlene also introduced me to the line of six teas that her company currently sources from around China. Selling only whole leaf, unblended, unscented teas, the six varietals span from white tea to black tea, green tea to Pu’er, and also two types of Oolong, a personal favorite. It was interesting to see how even Oolong teas could dramatically differ from one to another; the Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong (Tieguanyin) tea, whose dry leaves are light green and rolled, was rich and fragrant, where as the Phoenix Honey Orchid Oolong tea, initially a dark brown and straight loose leaf, was sweet and almost citrusy with a growing complexion after each brew.
Tranquil Tuesdays also sells porcelain teaware that is specially designed for the brand in the legendary city of Jingdezhen. Not far from Shanghai, this town is known for its kilns and teaware artisans, as it was here that a eunuch was sent to oversee the production of the emperor’s porcelain.
The clear passion for and knowledge of tea culture, history, and rituals is evident at Tranquil Tuesdays. Surprisingly, although first cultivated in China and despite a plethora of wealthy Chinese tea collectors and connoisseurs, there are few companies who are packaging and reintroducing Chinese tea as a luxury item in the West apart from those who market it in a Western style, such as Mariage Frères.
Tranquil Tuesdays’ “tea and teaware collections represent a modern take on one of China’s most treasured luxuries,” according to Wang. “We are proud to be part of the movement trying to redefine what it means for a product to be ‘made in China’.”
Tranquil Tuesdays’ six varieties of tea, unique teaware, and gift sets can be found on their website, or in small boutiques and museum shops across the United States and China, including the well-curated Beijing design shop, Wuhao.
Zandie Brockett is a Beijing-based independent curator, writer, consultant, and photographer from Los Angeles. She holds a B.A. in Sociology + Photography from Duke University and a Masters from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. In Beijing, Brockett currently works on several curatorial projects, including the creation of HONG轰, an alternative, self-sustaining platform that provides Beijing-based emerging artists the means to produce, exhibit and sell their artwork.