I asked myself a question recently; a question that every human being really ought to ask themselves at least once in their lifetime: is it possible to drink too much tea? The answer to this essential question is: yes, but only in extenuating circumstances. An extenuating circumstance might look a little like this.
Recently, I forsook my Sunday morning ritual of porridge and yoga and negotiated weekend public transport to arrive at my very first ever tea festival at 10am, sharp. At 1.30pm, I staggered from my first ever tea festival, with a belly full of tea and very little else. My teeth were gritty and coated in tannins, my mouth was dry and I felt strangely jittery. I had spent three and a half hours solidly tasting tea. That is, undoubtedly, an extenuating circumstance. And I loved every minute of it.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure of visiting a tea festival, let me describe it for you. On entering the venue, I was given a small Japanese-style tea tasting cup. Then, laid before me were around 50 tea stalls with inviting names like Storm in a Teacup and Change Chai. Each stall had several different teas ready for tasting. I was, for instance, able to try a rare yellow tea from Larsen & Thompson. The Travelling Samovar Tea House gave me my first taste of the ethereal pu-erh tea. As the day wore on, the crowds at each stall grew fatter, until at around lunchtime, elbows and a certain degree of tenacity were required to wrangle oneself to the front of each of the stalls.
This was the first time Melbourne has hosted a Tea Festival. Sydney has been doing it for a couple of years (typical). The idea for these festivals came from two Australian tea companies – Perfect South and The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar. And thanks be to them for their visionary aspirations for tea.
Strangely and most definitely unexpectedly, seeing hundreds of tea lovers gathered in one place was a life-affirming experience. There were literally queues of people waiting to get in through the doors; folk chattering animatedly over cups of tea in the communal spaces and scores of people enrolled in each of the workshops. How wonderful that all these hundreds of people could connect over a humble tea leaf! It also confirmed my suspicions that are tea drinkers are, on the whole, an earnest and perhaps slightly introverted bunch.
However, my overwhelming impression of the inaugural Melbourne Tea Festival is that tea merchants are the unsung heros of our modern age. Each tea stall was manned by the owners of the respective tea companies and everyone I spoke to, owners and their staff, were incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge. It was evident that each and every one of them was at the festival because of their shared passion for tea.
I may be about to betray my ignorance, but I’d like to share the one standout fact that I took away from this event. It blew my mind. I still can’t get over it. Anyone I tell can’t believe it. Are you ready for this………..?
All tea comes from the same plant. All tea. From the same plant. Yes, your smokey lapsang souchong, your Japanese Sencha, your gently rolled Jasmine Pearl Tea, your Earl Grey. IT’S ALL THE SAME PLANT. All of them come from the Camellia Sinensis.
White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are harvested from this tree, but each are processed differently to produce what we buy from the merchants’ shelves. It hinges on the processing, and most importantly, the oxydisation process. Since this moment of realisation I keep asking myself, in an italicised shouty voice, how did I not know this before?
I intend to excavate this more thoroughly, but let me impart this – it’s exactly like wine. All wine comes from grapes but the final taste depends on the terroir, the altitude, the climate, the rainfall, the processing and the mixing. So it is with tea.
We’re constantly instructed on just how exquisite and unique and special coffee is. It might well be, but tea is equally so. My jittery limbs and tanniny teeth are testament to that. I learned a lot at the Melbourne Tea Festival – not only about tea, but about the earnestness and likeability of my tea drinking comrades. Most importantly, I also learned the limits of my tea drinking ability. Next year I fully intend to again test my mettle. Bring. It. On.