Taking Tea... Online

By Melanie Uy

Flash back to 1993. I'm standing behind the counter of the coffee shop, surrounded by twenty-pound bags of just-roasted coffee. The morning rush line has formed and under a flurry of orders, start pulling shot after double shot of espresso, foaming milk in large stainless steel pitchers, and mixing it all together in the frenzied joy that is coffee bartending. Cappuccino, large double mocha, small skinny latte... tea, please. The customer repeats his order and it seems as if the world has suddenly paused.

Flash forward to 2000. I'm now sitting behind a computer, in the stillness that is telecommuting, with a large jug of just-roasted coffee sitting beside me. Idly surfing web sites while on a "coffee break," I stumble onto About.com (when .com was still part of the site's name) and a flashing "Apply Now" button beckons to me beneath the title "Coffee/Tea." Eureka, I think.

Except I don't know much about tea. I know that tea, in gourmet coffee shops, consists of strangely named shrink-wrapped boxes of tea bags that a barista pulls off of the top shelf. I know that tea is what you make at the slightest sign of a sniffle or a cold bottled drink for hot summer days. That, I confess, was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of tea.

Over a thousand cups of tea later (green tea and pu-erh and oolong oh my), however, I have emerged from a journey that transformed me into a very big proponent of tea, and along the way have met (virtually) a cast of tea aficionados as varied and colorful as the leaves themselves. They've helped show me a glimpse of the mystery and beauty and elegance that is tea, why the world can pause at the mere mention of tea, and why learning about the beverage is in many ways learning about others and one's self.

We say "tea culture" and the images that may most immediately spring to mind are those of elaborate yet refined ceremonies in Asia. Yet there is a very real and very different tea culture being carried along on the waves of technology today. We are the rec.food.drink.tea and tea message boards lurkers and posters. We are the subscribers and readers of newsletters devoted to tea. We are the messengers of tea recipes, tips, stories and other tidbits via email. We are, in short, the reason why hundreds of sites on tea exist.

The first person I met in this virtual trip from coffee to tea asked me for advice on a fundamental tea question: "What is green tea?" Since then, I've fielded questions ranging from the very obscure and specific ("What is the chemical composition of tea?") to the very obscure and general ("Where can I find information on tea?"). Other questions and the interests of the Coffee/Tea site's visitors prompted much delving into the tea corners of the Internet, consultations with tea authorities and those in the business, and many, many more cups of tea.

My next experience with the online tea culture brought me into contact with some of the people I think of most fondly now in relation to the Coffee/Tea site. They were a group of aficionados or would-be aficionados willing to taste test free samples graciously provided by Adagio Teas (it was not hard finding volunteers for such a project). Among them were a business consultant who made tea with the precision of a lab chemist, a freelance writer who only occasionally drank tea, a woman with cancer who drank tea daily, and others. They all had just one thing in common: a desire to taste it.

Although it may be best to always avoid generalizations, here is one I would like to make anyway: tea drinkers - serious tea drinkers - are, as a whole, a kind and curious lot. The many I met were all more intelligent, generous, and personable than most other net denizens. Similar to coffee fans, they came to the site to meet others like them and to find places to buy or read about their favorite beverage. But as serious as they were about tea, they were not, like a few of their coffee counterparts, slightly sardonic about the other drink or argumentative about the fine details of tea-making (I've had many arguments with a few coffee drinkers, yet none, to date, with tea drinkers). It's almost as if the essence of tea, when drank regularly, is imparted on one's character. Tea type preferences, styles of making tea, circumstances for drinking tea, and so on also seemed to indicate much about the drinkers' personalities.

An average day writing about coffee and tea for About consisted in "meeting" such tea-fellows and their coffee companions, trying to write about both beverages fairly and equally, and immersing myself in all of the tea literature offline and sites online I could find. There were many and many things to learn. In trying to write for visitors new to tea, I learned that the adage "To teach is to learn twice" is wonderfully true, and I became confident in my basic knowledge of specialty tea though never over-confident. In finding and collecting resources about coffee and tea for the site, I found that, collectively, we were building a sort of homage to the beverages, which bring consolation, inspiration, respite from the weather and other daily pressures, and occasional moments of clarity. Besides being a remedy for just about any condition, the power of tea is so strong it can pull people together from all walks of life.

Though I've since resigned from writing about coffee and tea for About and there are still many more things to learn about both beverages, the thought that someone, somewhere is taking tea as he/she reads this is inexplicably comforting. Because announcing your preference for one drink or another ("coffee or tea?") may still be akin to announcing your political party patronage, I'll just end this by saying that I went in a coffee drinker and came out a coffee and tea lover.