Thousands of years ago, there was not a word for “tea.”
When Camellia sinensis (tea) was first used in Chinese medicine, it was referred to as tu (荼), the same word used to generally describe any medicinal plant. Only when craft and ceremony started to surround tea in the Han dynasty did the plant get its own specific character (茶）cha. In recognition of its cultural importance, there was a deliberate attempt in the language to elevate tea. At this point, diverging craft and tradition separated teas as unique and distinct from other herbs that would have been dried or eaten directly.
Today, the weight of that distinction is a line in the sand between the simpler herbal teas – picked, dried and steeped out in large pots – and the “real” tea, Camellia sinensis, that requires meticulous finishing and craft at every stage and has inspired an entire aesthetic culture of teaware, ceremony and tasting.
For many of us, this line is clear. It seems easy enough to say that “real” tea is Camellia sinensis while herbal tisanes encompass everything else.
Here’s the problem with that distinction.
By putting all the cultural value that the word “tea” inspires behind one species of plant, we are missing the opportunity to appreciate the craft, devotion and subtle taste experience that can bring out beauty in other plants.
I’d like to submit to the tea community at large that the cultural weight of the word tea should be awarded based not on plant species, but on craft. After all, it was the craft of tea that originally made it necessary to distinguish 茶 and 荼.
It is rare indeed to find those herbs and flowers whose craftsmanship and finishing are as meticulous and intensive as Camellia sinensis. Most herbal teas are made with ingredients that are picked and then air dried without heat-fixing, curling, roasting, fluffing, aging or any of the other processes that make tea so beautiful.
Yet, there are exceptions to the rule, exceptions that are so stunning that they make me completely rethink the way I use the word tea. These exceptions are coming from two of our closest partners in China, the He Family in Laoshan, and the Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai.
The He Family lives at the foot of the Laoshan mountains, a protected parkland full of wild herbs. For years, He Qingqing’s mother has been a devoted herbalist wild-foraging medicinal herbs like Goji Leaf, Jujube Leaf, Mulberry Leaf, Huai Flowers, and even Dandelion Leaf.
She used to dry these herbs to brew as fortifying tonics for those long days in the workshop and in the fields picking and finishing her family’s stunning teas. Yet, in the last few years, the He Family has been taking these much further, experimenting in their workshop by taking the fresh leaves and flowers and giving them the same treatment as their teas.
All of these “non-tea” leaves are spread in bamboo baskets to wither, quickly heat-fixed to lock in their flavor and efficacy, curled to bring out deeper complexity (breaking down plant cell walls and creating a light oxidation effect), and finally, dried over controlled heat in woks and tumblers to bring moisture down to about 3% as quickly as possible. This last step prevents hydrolysis reactions from changing the flavor and keeps the finished leaves food safe and shelf stable. The heat and finishing that the He Family bring to their herbs locks in a different portrait of these herbs’ natural flavors, bringing out their sweetness, eliminating bitterness, and coaxing out their hidden complexities.
Over hundreds of years, people realized that tea was sweeter and more delicious with processing than it was fresh or simply dried. Now, this insight being applied to other herbs by people like the He Family. The results are what I would argue go beyond our understanding of herbal teas and instead cross over into what should rightfully be called “real” tea.
The Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai is so remote that a generation ago even their Camellia sinensis var. assamica was too undervalued to be worth picking any more than staple food crops. In only the last few decades, the demand for their wild-forages ancient tea tree pu’er has skyrocketed as the domestic market realizes what a rare opportunity teas from Qianjiazhai really are. This means that the craft of tea is still new, and still being taught and shared with new craftspeople across the area by community leaders like Master Zhou.
This living memory of perhaps the last region on earth that hadn’t yet truly drawn a value difference between cha and tu means that people here are much more open-minded about finishing techniques and more respectful of all the plants that they can forage.
This open-mindedness has led to an “herbal” tea awakening in the area, with distant caffeine-free tea relatives like Camellia crassicolumna being wild-foraged, withered aged, and pressed into cakes just like sheng pu’er picked from Camellia assamica trees. The result is that over the last few years, demand for wild crassicolumna has begun to exceed demand for “real” tea.
Indeed, with its long aftertaste and sweet, rich texture, Crassiclumna is just as nuanced and complex as “real” tea. The devotion that Master Zhou, the Li Family and the whole cooperative put into foraging for this plant and carefully finishing it is at least equal to their “traditional tea.” So if pu’er (made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica) can be called tea, why not its cousin, Camellia crassicolumna?
The He Family and the Dongsa Cooperatives’ wild-foraged experiments are limited and highly seasonal, but they might be new a blueprint for herb farmers across the world.
Why should any small farmer going through the labor of tending their fields and the craft of balancing their agriculture have to have their product treated like an auction commodity, no different from the next field over? Why should mint farmers or tulsi farmers be denied the chance to offer something that goes beyond the commodity market and in doing so, creates a more economically sustainable model?
The introduction of finishing craft is a path forward towards this vision, a way for small farmers to tap into the culture of tea and offer the world something new and beautiful. We look forward to seeing what the future brings!
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