After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Even in its most basic, original form, steeped in hot liquid, there are so many variations. The wide choice of beverages that are tea-based or that include tea as an ingredient illustrates both its versatility and the creativity of marketers exploiting the benefits harbored in the humble tea leaf.
I got to thinking about what makes tea ubiquitous after perusing an article this week in Food Business News; "Tea - the original plant-based beverage." The range of new ready-to-drink tea products underscores just how far afield from a "cuppa tea" innovators have ventured. Purified water with an essence of tea (no caffeine). An energy drink caffeinated with green tea extract. A kombucha-infused carbonated water (kombucha is twice-fermented tea). Bubble tea with tapioca pearls. Hard tea. Tea with hops (non-alcoholic). Sparkling wine infused with organic tea.
Tea offers a lot. It delivers a milder caffeine boost than coffee. Tea adds better-for-you credentials to any proposition because of the antioxidants. It helps that hot tea is imbued with the powers to cure the common cold. Its acrid flavor is "bracing" or "brisk" or "crisp" which makes iced tea a great thirst quencher.
I came to appreciate tea's versatility when I was a Lipton tea brand manager. I worked on getting America to try tea bags that brew in cold water; not a huge idea, but the convenience of it has made it stick. This was "real" tea. I also spent time marketing Lipton iced tea mix, which is on the other end of the "real tea" spectrum. Iced tea mix is mostly sugar, with enough ground up tea to give it a distinctive flavor and make it a step up from the belly wash served to keep kids entertained and hydrated over the summer.
What makes tea particularly intriguing to me is that it can both put a spring in your step and it can sit you down in a comfortable spot to mellow. There is, of course, enough caffeine (or theine) in a cup of black or green tea to make it the pick-me-up choice for a decent percentage of the world's population. The ability to calm or soothe is not only associated with herbal teas like chamomile or a mint infusion. Black and green tea seem to be able to put you in pause mode as well.
I'm not sure how much of this capacity to slow things down comes from its physical properties and how much flows from the rituals we've constructed around making and drinking tea. The elaborate tea ceremonies in Japan are very much about slowing down to appreciate the here and now. Drinking tea with friends at a sidewalk cafe (yes, coffee can do this too, but not as convincingly, I think, because so many of us rely on coffee to move us forward, to pick up the pace) makes you take the time to catch your breath and to catch up. The traditional English afternoon tea cements a break in the day. Time to decelerate. There are so many more rituals...I recall a Moroccan slipper merchant in the Rabat souk snapping fingers at his assistant to get him to bring us tea. It was ready. He brought out a small table and placed on it an ornate silver tray and teapot and two glasses. The mint tea (Gunpowder tea from China made specifically for the North African palate) was thick with sugar. The merchant wanted to sell me a story to go along with the slippers. Buying the slippers could have taken ten minutes. I stayed closer to an hour.
There's got to be something about tea that makes you want to pause. Just enough of a boost, but not too much, I guess. Your senses are sensitized to seize the moment and savor it.
So, which one is it for you most often? Does tea move you forward, or put you on pause? The magic of tea is that it facilitates both. Perhaps the magic is really in our ability to channel the raw, physical effects of drinking tea to whichever emotional or spiritual need the situation or our mood dictates. Mind over matter.