Sunday, April 11, 2010

Week 15: The Wonders of Tea

Distribution Source:
Content Source: The History Channel
Format: Video
Length: 44 minutes 23 seconds
Link: Tea

Since graduating from college, I have come to love tea. At my first job I had to be on the desk by 6 AM, and caffeine seemed to be a must. So I started with coffee... I quickly decided that for an already stressful job that involved staring at blinking screens all day, consuming large quantities of a strong (and in my opinion foul-tasting) jitters-inducing substance was less than ideal. Our kitchen's free green tea machine was my gift from heaven. That is, until facilities maintenance became unwilling or unable to stock adequately our floor's green tea supply. At this point, my Econ 101 professor's droning lectures kicked in - it was clear to me we were a floor full of green tea drinkers and that demand had eclipsed supply. And what does a supply shortage typically encourage? Hoarding. And hoarding, of course, induces even greater scarcity. This was serious - I was facing the very real possibility of a devastating negative feedback loop resulting in a structural green tea shortage. I had to act quickly. Purchasing green tea was not an option, as I had neither the time or the money as a first year analyst to go to Starbucks each day - the Flavia machine was my only viable option. Then I thought about the problem a bit more strategically; if a shortage of green tea were imminent it would make sense that the floor with fixed income traders would be the first to exhibit these supply and demand dynamics. After all, it's what they did - supply and demand. Bonds... green tea... the principles are the same. However the bankers on the fifth floor (if they were even in the office that early) were more likely to be pricing green tea sales into some spreadsheet for Lipton's management than thinking about an office tea shortage. So I went to the fifth floor kitchen, where sure enough there was an abundance of Flavia green tea! I took a full box back to my desk, and over the course of the ensuing green tea shortage became known by many senior and junior salesmen and traders as "the kid with the green tea." If I wasn't the smartest or the most hard-working analyst, at least I had cornered the third-floor green tea market.

But enough long-winded storytelling - why is tea an interesting topic? Aside from being a pleasant and healthy drink, tea has been symbolically significant to political revolutions (recent and historic), helped drive colonial power and profit, ignited war, and has for millennia represented a philosophic, religious, and of course cultural significance for a large portion of the human race. Oh, it's also the second most common drink on the planet; only water is consumed in larger quantities. Humans drink 1.5 trillion cups of tea per year. And yet it is still in many ways an enigma; while its antioxidants are supposedly able to reduce the risk of cancer, this has not been decidedly proven. The paradoxical qualities of tea further add to its aura; as one tea expert said on the video "if you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are warm, it will cool you; if you are excited, it will sooth you; if you are lethargic, it will stimulate you." Not too shabby.

I was particularly interested to learn that the US is well behind the rest of the world in tea consumption. Anecdotally I sensed this was the case when I recently busted out this nifty tea-drinking contraption, a birthday gift from my dad, and only my colleague from Hong Kong had any idea (or interest in) what it was. In the United States, tea is only the fifth most consumed beverage, behind water, coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol. Americans consume only 50 billion of the 1.5 trillion teas drunk each year. Also distinctive to American tea drinkers is that 80% of all tea consumed in the US is iced tea (as opposed to the globally far more popular hot tea). We also tend to drink tea primarily using tea bags; tea bags are somewhat of a taboo in China, where it is thought that the full flavor is inhibited if you drink anything other than the loose-leaf tea. But it is not hopeless for the US; specialty teas have become increasingly popular in recent years and tea consumption in the US is said to have doubled from 2001 to 2006. Meaningful tea production in the US is limited to South Carolina and Hawaii, the two states that can exhibit the semi-tropical, high levels of rainfall necessary for tea to thrive.

Globally, tea is produced mostly in East Asia, India, and parts of Africa. India is the largest producer, representing 30% of the global tea supply. In aggregate, 30 billion pounds of tea plants are harvested each year, resulting in six billion pounds of drinkable tea (apparently five pounds of plant are needed for one pound of final tea). On the consumption side, it is the Irish who lead the world. The Irish, perhaps to match their four pints of beer per day, drink on average four cups of tea daily. (This is about how many cups I drink each day, for those keeping score.)

I was surprised to learn that the three major teas - black tea, oolong tea, and green tea - all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference between the three has only to do with the oxidation process following harvesting. Green tea has no oxidation, while oolong has about half the oxidation of black tea, the most oxidized tea. The longer the tea leaves oxidize, the greater their caffeine content. Accordingly, black tea is the most caffeinated, with about 40mg of caffeine per cup (roughly half the caffeine in a cup of coffee). However from these basic three teas come over 1,500 varietals. Tea sommeliers go through years of training to learn how to distinguish the various flavors and characteristics.

The two remaining tea topics that caught my attention were its incredible history as well as its medical powers (perceived and actual). The historical side is fascinating because of tea's seeming ubiquity and relevance, whether in China almost five thousand years ago, in Egypt and Iran where tea is the national drink, or in England where it was once simultaneously the drink of the elite, a key driver of the economic growth of the British empire, and a major source of contention with the Americans, the Indians, the Chinese and even lower-class British citizens. As for the medical benefits of tea, there is a similar laundry list; among other diseases tea is thought to protect against obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease, gum disease, and cancer. I can't speak to the veracity of these claims, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the historical significance and the health benefits of tea are linked. The fact that the Bronze Age Chinese did not have powerful microscopes to examine and understand tea at a molecular level does not mean they were wrong about its contribution to a healthy, tranquil life. I will leave you with a quote from the show that summarizes succinctly my current view of tea, namely that there is "no pleasure simpler, no luxury cheaper, and no consciousness-altering substance more benign than our simple tea."


  1. Nice work! I read this post over my morning cup of tea (this morning it was of the green tea/pomegranate varietal). My tea-drinking start also was during a time of early morning stress and need for college I worked part-time as a lifeguard...the pool had to be clean and ready to go by 6 am...quite early for any co-ed. Cheers!

  2. Watch out for your urethra buddy! Any thoughts on the kidney stone?

  3. There are conflicting reports - some suggest drinking green tea actually prevents kidney stones...

  4. I lika the tea - iz very nice!

  5. Good column! My introduction to green tea came via erva-mate (more widely known by its spanish name, yerba mate). I'm not even sure it's "accepted" as tea since Ilex paraguariensis is a species of holly (f. Aquifoliaceae). All I know is that I first drank the cha (tea) mate somewhere in Rio, from a gourd, sipping it through a metal straw. Eventually, in Buenos Aires I bought a fancier version with a bombilla made of silver and the cuia (gourd) decorated with a stylized version of the yerba mate plant. Later I learned that this "infusion" is very popuar in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Recently, in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso while looking for green tea all I could find was guarana or cha mate.

  6. Thanks for the link to the travel tea-mug...Reminds me that I've meant to find and buy one. Several friends have switched from canned carbonated drinks and carry these around all day...

  7. I've gotten made fun of more than a few times for my "thermos" - but I'm completely ok with it. It's functional, holds more tea than the styrofoam cups, and allows me to drink loose tea (which is allegedly much better).

  8. Do you think america's propensity for coffee would change if corporations gave equal weight to coffee and tea? My place of employment has 7 different varieties of flavia coffee and one variety of tea - the green. Which is the chicken and which is the egg?