Tea and conspiracy have made strange but regular bedfellows, from the Opium Wars and the tea fuelled socialist revolutions to the Tea Tape Scandal in New Zealand last month. There is a tea conspiracy brewing though that is perhaps more sinister than ever before.
Each sip of tea echoes a tradition of millennia, which harks back to the apparent discovery of tea by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC. The medicinal herb that Lo Yu writes of evolved into the most popular beverage in the world (after water) and is unique in that throughout its 5,000 year heritage it has been the focus of social, political and business gatherings, formed a catalyst for war and political protest.
Tea has been celebrated by royalty, yet enjoyed equally by commoners. The development of tea from 2737 BC to the present though has not always been for the greater good. More sinister than the revolt that manifest itself in the Boston Tea Party, more sinister even than the Opium Wars was the perversion of tea and its commoditization at the hands of big business.
A herb that is inextricably linked to the rhythm of nature and therefore infinite in its variety, requires dedication and expertise in its mastery. ‘Dedication’ and ‘expertise’ are two features that are so notably absent in the make up of the corporations that operate on the principle of ‘conquering ‘categories’, ‘winning share’ and ‘delivering shareholder value’ that their domination of tea, through acquisition mind you, and not success, has created a dangerous new dynamic that threatens tea and tea drinkers alike.
The first step in this distortion of tea was the assault on the prized tradition in tea by the giant corporations that bought out those once noble tea companies. Their actions in substituting ‘profit’ and ‘dominance’ for the defining aspects of ‘dedication’ and ‘expertise’ robbed the teas they offered – still in the guise of the brands of great teamen – of authenticity, quality and integrity.
The financial might, marketing savvy and strategy of dominance amongst these corporations have entrenched their reinterpretation of tea in most countries, their qualities dictated more by the demands of their Quarterly Financial Reports and a misguided notion of Shareholder Value, than by quality and goodness in tea. One of the features of this trend is the new, trader definition of ‘tea’. To Teamen who know anything about tea, it is ‘the tea that is not really tea’. Witnessing the phenomenal growth in awareness and preference for tea amongst their customers, yet lacking knowledge in tea and unable to cope with the constantly changing nature of the beverage, the same corporations have devised a plan. In the US, across Europe in the former CIS, the same brands that robbed tea and tea drinkers of pleasure in tea, seek to rob ‘tea’ of tea.
Emulating the deception that saw once respected tea brands used as ‘trojan horses’ by the corporations that bought out the dedicated teamen and tea families, ‘big tea’ seeks a profitable substitute for tea. Tea drinkers regaled by the unmatched story of tea, awed by the science that has to a large extent proven that tea is as much a medicine as a beverage, are offered ‘tea’ that are in fact either infusion or inferior teas masked heavily by flavour. Tea is derived from the plant camellia sinensis. An attempt to tame the wild variety and individuality in tea led to the development and adoption of the CTC style of manufacture in the 1950s. Sacrificing the spectrum of textures, colours, strengths and flavours in tea, CTC produces a handful of homogenous, constant and mostly unchanging teas which are eminently compatible with the priorities of the new owners of the formerly great tea brands.
Most of the teas on supermarket shelves today are poor or average teas of CTC manufacture, unknown to tea aficionados. The few real teas from brands like Dilmah that dedicatedly remain true to quality and tradition, are relatively more expensive than the inferior and cheap CTC teas, and cannot command the same presence in stores due to the dominance of the multinational corporations and their monopolistic tactics – usually price. Lacking the choice of real tea and rarely experiencing the pleasure in tea, tea drinkers are simply enticed away from tea.
At the same time, the spin doctors and marketers in these mighty corporations have conjured up a variant on their earlier use of a trojan horse. In the guise of fine tea, they presented green tea labelled ‘white tea’. White tea is a superior indulgence in tea and having convinced the few remaining tea persons in their organisations to ‘reconsider’ their documented opinion on white tea, they presented another deception.
White Tea, hailed as a rare luxury, offered at $1.99 for 25 teabags on special. The tactics are familiar, the product is beyond perverse for it is wholesale deception. Let us assume that this was simple ignorance on the part of the recently inexpert masters of the fortunes of the formerly great tea brands. Naturally, they added insult to this injury to the art of teamaking by then presenting the same deception in a range of flavours.
More recently the giants have a new scheme. Tea that is not really tea. In the same tradition of ignorance as ‘white tea’ that is really green tea, innovations have been presented – ‘Red Tea’ (Rooibos, the needles of a shrub that has no relation to Camellia Sinensis), Teas that are in fact infusions, Teas that are loudly advertised as ‘real fruit’ teas, containing dried fruit pieces with associated risk of bacterial contamination, and no benefit to customers over the more authentic tea with flavour.
Once again adding insult to injury, the profit motivated tea brands announce with apparent relish the demise of black tea – real tea – and its replacement by herbal and fruit ‘teas’. Of course, if they as the apparent ‘leaders’ of the tea category fail in presenting quality tea to consumers, and tout as tea their growing offerings of peels, flowers, dried fruit and the like, they will sell. Especially when accompanied by equally misguided advertisements suggesting that these ‘natural’ ingredients can be wonderfully healthful.
Distant from the truth again for only camellia sinensis has the protective health benefits that ancient herbalists and more recently modern science have attributed to tea. Superficially this is no cause for alarm for greater deceptions have been practiced in the name of profit. What makes this a tragedy that is seen only by the few remaining dedicated and expert teamen is the fact that it deprives another generation of tea at a time when they need it most.
Tea began as a medicine. When tea first arrived in England it was promoted as a medicine. Science confirms that tea offers protective benefits against every lifestyle disease of the 21st Century. Tea offers its drinkers significant protection from stress, aiding recovery, from this condition that is said to be the major cause of premature death in the West. Tea offers protection from diabetes, said to be the major cause of premature death in the East. Antioxidants in tea protect the body from cell damage which can lead to cancers, protect from cardiovascular disease and a host of ailments including dementia. Daily the body of evidence grows with new revelations about the goodness in tea.
There is a more formidable and more compelling case for increasing consumption of real tea today than at any time in its 5,000 year history. Certainly more compelling than the desire of the few multinational corporations that have acquired dominance of the tea category to continue to report quarterly profits.