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The Tea Ceremony: Passing through Customs

by Chris Cason

Samovar

Chanoyu

How do you take your tea?

As the second-most popular beverage in the world, it is not surprising that many practices have developed worldwide to enjoy tea. In this installment of TeaMuse, we'll take a journey through the world of tea (no passport required!) and explore the many customs that have been infused into different cultures.

In China, the original homeland of tea, a cup of Oolong or green tea is the customary way to welcome a guest. In fact, if tea is not offered immediately by the host, it is clear that he is being either intentionally or absent-mindedly rude.

In Ireland, where people drink more tea than anywhere else in the world, they take their tea regularly at 11am, 3-5pm and 6pm. And the Irish make it a strong cup (insert your favorite "too many Guinnesses" joke at your discretion). The custom is to add the milk to the tea cup first, then pour in the tea. Irish breakfast tea is often a strong blend of Assam and Ceylon that most people would only drink for breakfast, though the Irish would enjoy this tea all day long. Even during the traditional Irish wake, after a family member has passed away, it's expected that a pot would be continuously boiling to make tea for company.

Likewise, in Russia, to make certain that there was a constant supply of freshly brewed tea available, the Russians developed their own way of brewing-- a samovar. The large boiler, which is like a giant kettle, keeps water hot all day long. A small teapot is filled with a tea concentrate sits on top. This way, a cup of hot tea is available anytime by simply mixing a small amount of concentrated tea with the hot water.

In Morocco, shopkeepers greet prospective customers with a glass of sweet, mint-flavored green tea which has become known as "Moroccan Mint." This can either be served hot or cold and at various levels of sweetness (probably depending on how big the sale).

It was the British (or to be more precise, Anna, the seventh duchess of Bedford), who introduced the delectable custom of afternoon tea to the Western world in the early 1800s. At that time, the English only ate two main meals a day—a hearty breakfast and enormous dinner. Somewhere in between these meals, Anna experienced a "sinking feeling" and so began to prepare small snacks accompanied by tea. The trend quickly spread and grew into a popular tradition.

Another remarkable tea custom is the Japanese tea ceremony. Chanoyu, or "the hot water for tea," has become an important part of Japanese culture. This ritual, first introduced to Japan over five hundred years ago by Buddhist monks from China, was once exclusively practiced by men. Fortunately, it is now accepted that both men and women are welcome to study and perform. The Japanese consider the tea ceremony an expression of the synthesis of man, spirit and nature (and, of course, tea), where simplicity brings wisdom.

There are specific guidelines to drive every aspect of the ceremony, from the choice of food, utensils, and topics of conversation to the selection of guests. The sprinkling of water around a host's entry gate informs guests that preparations are complete and they are welcome to come in. As they remove their coats and shoes, slip into sandals, and walk down the garden path to the teahouse. Every gesture by the host and his or her guests is part of a preordained ritual. The host or hostess places a small amount of powdered green tea, called "Matcha," into a tea bowl and, using a bamboo whisk and water, and whips it into a light green froth.

Whether tea is tea is sipped slowly, offered enticingly, or chugged "on-the-go," it is clear that tea has saturated deep into the essence of almost all cultures in this wide world. These practices were created out of tea's great enjoyment and the longevity of the customs is testament to the delicacy and delicious variety available with this wonderful plant. This month, my loyal readers, I urge you to try something new. Whether that is a new custom or simply a different tea, you'll be pleasantly surprised with your discovery.