My hands were trembling, my chest pounding with what I feared was an ill-fated case of tachycardia. My right knee bucked up and down in rapid, fidgety undulations. That’s when it hit me: I had had too much tea.
We were seated in a classroom at the Japanese American National Museum waiting for James Norwood Pratt’s presentation “Tea Treasures” to begin. His was just one of several special workshops featured at the First Annual 2011 Los Angeles International Tea Festival. And I was jittery because I had already tried at least 15 varieties of tea.
Upon arrival, each guest receives a special festival tasting cup and goodie-filled tote bag before being unleashed on the exhibitor floor, a compact space filled with everything and anything tea.
You can wander the floor and buy a handmade Victorian-style floral teapot cozy, or taste test Korean long-leaf hydrangea tea from a glass brewing pot. Eavesdrop on ABC Tea House’s Thomas Shu as he gives a lesson on what makes high quality tea: the right water temperature, the right timing of infusion and the right amount of leaves.
Then head toward the largest booth manned by Chado Tea Room, where you can buy everything from t-shirts to sleek brewing instruments to specialty tea tumblers and authentic maté gourds. Chado co-owners Tek Mehreteab and Reena Shah run one of the most popular tearooms in Southern California and offer patrons over 300 varieties of tea. As one of the festival’s organizers, Mehreteab puts her business savvy and passion for tea to good use.
Directly adjacent to Chado is Shamila Chand pouring several of her Ayurvedic Herbal Blends at the Tea Traditions booth. Sample three blends of these Indian teas, their ingredients-licorice, chrysanthemum, saffron, marigolds-carefully selected by Chand for both flavor and medicinal properties.
Each of her teas, Chand says, is calorie and caffeine free and is designed to stimulate all six of your taste buds (who knew we had six?). Pay close attention to which tea you like best, she says, because taste buds are linked to our organs and naturally tell us what our body wants and needs.
Chand promotes tea as preventative medicine; she travels all over the country giving presentations, visiting senior living facilities, and teaching people about how to incorporate healthier living practices into their lives. She also works as a licensed hypnotist, teaches meditation and works to reduce noise pollution.
Ayurvedic Herbal tea blend-chrysanthemum, saffron and marigold
As it turns out, the health benefits of tea are one of the biggest coups for its most passionate proponents. In her “Drink Tea, Be Healthy” presentation, UCLA internist Dr. Mary Hardy outlines the chemical properties of tea-green, black, white and oolong-that make it worth integrating into one’s everyday health regimen.
Hardy, who treats mainly cancer patients, took an interest in botanical medicine and particularly the catechins, or anti-oxidants, found in tea plants that are easily absorbed by the body.
Catechins found in green tea, for instance, protect DNA from breakage, making them effective agents against cancer development. In one study, prostate cancer patients taking three tea pills a day for a year experienced ten times less cancer growth than their untreated counterparts.
Additionally, both green and black tea are known to help fight against heart disease-a major medical issue in the US. Green tea can also help lower cholesterol, control high blood pressure, prevent gum disease, protect skin from aging and treat burns and inflammation.
But guests on the exhibition floor can discover another side of tea as well-tea made not merely for sipping. Like leaf-shaped, anti-oxidant rich green tea mints in flavors like Delicate Pear, Lively Lemongrass and Morning Lychee. Or fresh desserts served by Robert Wemischner, author of Cooking with Tea and The Dessert Architect.
Wemischner first took an interest in green tea as a college student studying Japanese. He graduated and moved to France to hone his culinary skills in fine dining restaurants before diving into the world of tea.
He began his research by visiting tea plantations, learning how to grow and process tea. Tea, he says, is made with such great care and requires so much attention to produce and prepare, which appeals to someone like Wemischner, a detail-oriented chef with a classical cooking background.
He went to work experimenting with green tea and then with black tea, hoping to modernize the classical uses of tea in Japanese and Chinese cooking for a more contemporary audience and cuisine. Green tea, for instance, has a grassy, vernal quality that nicely complements fresh goat cheese.
Wemischner is the self-proclaimed crusader for tea as a legitimate cooking ingredient, exposing tea lovers to a completely different side of their beloved, often underappreciated beverage. He’s ready to convince any unbelievers with his streusel-topped, tea-poached plum cooked in black tea syrup with a dollop of crà ¨me fraiche-a deliciously tart and refreshingly sweet treat.
But despite tea’s increasing popularity amongst health and culinary professionals, American culture is still not predominantly a tea-drinking one. If that’s the case, then what makes tea drinkers so enthusiastic about a beverage often eschewed by wine-sipping, coffee-cup-toting consumers?
“We like how it makes us feel,” says James Norwood Pratt when his “Tea Treasures” presentation finally begins. “No matter what the circumstances, it calls for tea.”
It’s not just the comfort of routine or the warmth of the liquid as it slides down the throat. Tea, Pratt explains, is the only substance in nature that both soothes and stimulates the drinker. Whether tea lovers are aware of the 400 to 500 chemical constituents at work, they know well tea’s unique ability to relax (due to the chemical theanine) and energize the body (due to the caffeine).
Pratt is certainly the embodiment of his favorite topic. Dressed in a neatly pressed vanilla linen suit with a light blue shirt and fuchsia tie, Pratt has the poised, quiescent disposition of a long-time tea drinker, but his curly, unruly crown of gray hair is just a small hint of his indefatigably energetic personality and sense of humor.
Pratt never expected to be one of the nation’s leading tea historians and teachers. He can recount the earliest legends of tea’s origins in Taoist and Buddhist tradition and the beverage’s migration to and industrialization in Europe. He can speak at length about Lu Yu’s first book about tea released and circulated in 780 AD and the development of various tea preparation techniques in China and Japan.
But Pratt’s first book was on wine, which, he says, was the perfect preparation for writing about tea, because they are both agricultural products that can become works of art.
After his first book was released, his publisher began pressing him for a second, to which Pratt would respond, “Well, I’m not drinking wine. I’m at home drinking tea.”
“Then write me a book on tea,” blurted his publisher in frustration. The result was The Tea Lover’s Treasury, considered by industry professionals to be the Bible for tea, and the first serious effort at understanding tea in 50 years since it was first published. The most recent edition is the accumulation of his 30 years dedicated to the subject.
Pratt has spent so much of his life trying to transform the US into a tea-drinking society through what he glibly calls an American “tea renaissance.” Over his career, he has watched the total national tea consumption skyrocket from just half a billion dollars a year up to $10 billion a year projected for either this year or next.
The growth of tea drinking in the US is what makes a festival like this one possible. The key, Pratt says, is relationships. Once you become immersed in the tea world, you learn from tea-drinking friends from all cultures and walks of life. And then you want to share that with people, introducing more and more people to the worldwide tea community. If music is the international language, he says, then tea is the international beverage.
The truth of that statement is clearly evident here. At the festival you can rub shoulders with Asians, Caucasians, African Americans and Latinos, all sipping samples of teas from China, Japan, Korea, England, Africa, and India. Everyone suggesting their favorite tea to the stranger next to them or swapping stories about how they first started drinking tea.
The tea lovers here aren’t like wine connoisseurs or coffee snobs, who often treat their drink of choice with casual nonchalance. Like Pratt, these tea drinkers are perfectly, endearingly obsessed with tea. They’ll talk your ear off if you let them, and tell you far more about tea than you ever wanted to know, and then pour you a 16th or 17th cup, because you have to try this one.
Despite my best efforts, I’ve found myself repeating the stories, facts and tidbits I picked up at the festival to everyone and anyone who will listen: “Do you know the difference between green tea, black tea, white tea and oolong? Do you know which beverage is tea’s biggest rival? Do you know why tea is so good for you? Let me tell you.”