10 questions about tea you may or may not have asked yourself

By Margaux

You dreamt of it, the Tea Crew did it. Sit down comfortably, brew yourself a cuppa, and enjoy reading the answers of these ten, non-essential questions about your favourite beverage.

How the heck does tea grow?

Let’s start with a simple one. That’s a long story that I’ll try to sum up for you darling. Tea was first produced in China around the 3rd century AD. Throughout the centuries, the technique almost stayed the same. The ‘jade queen’, as it was called, needs water, sun, and altitude to grow. Before being planted, the seed is dried and mixed with moistener and sand, then covered with straw and put in baskets for the nursling period. Our little seed is then planted in a rocky ground, to allow the water to be drained, with 5 to 10 of its buddies in the same hole. Now if you ask me, the tea seed is slightly too demanding: high maintenance is not chic anymore wee dove. In addition to the perfect weather condition to make it grow, it needs water that has been mixed with rice and manure, made of silkworm dung. Bon appétit. Two years after, they can be pruned for the first time, and the official picking for consumption starts 18 month later. Even longer than the production of Game of Thrones’ season final, for a cup of infused hot water.

There was usually four pickings a year, operated by women and girls. They weren’t allowed to eat fish and certain meats so that their breath would not affect the bouquet of the leaves. Let’s pretend this fact makes sense and move on together.

There were different techniques to prepare the tea afterwards, but they were all based on a drying system. When the British discovered the plant in China, only three kinds existed: oolong, black and green. The difference basically comes from the time of fermentation, from the least fermented (green), to the strongest (black). Within the categories there are varieties, depending on the tea’s origins, the time of its plucking and the size of the leaf. I guess size matters after all…

tea field

Can you overdose on tea?

As I’m looking at my flatmate drinking her fifth cup of tea and mimicking a happy seal (yes, for real), the question naturally crossed my mind. And actually, yes you can overdose on tea. Obviously, you’re not going to choke on foam, but it can be as lethal as any other product you would excessively consume.

First, let’s talk about water. Scientists, doctors and other very important and intelligent people around the world advise you to drink six to eight glasses of water per day, that is roughly two litres. However, if you drink too much water, your kidneys can’t excrete the excess water, which is going to dilute the electrolytes in your blood and create a hyponatremia. Long story short, it’s not good news for your body. But you would need to drink 10 litres of water in a ‘normal’ environment, e.g. not the desert, to get that effect. Now I don’t know how committed to drinking tea you are, but having around 40 cups of tea in a day would be a “No thank you Susan” for me.

In addition to the ‘drowning your body’ situation, you would ingest a very high amount of fluoride, a substance you can find in your toothpaste, but also in the tea leaf. An average adult should have a rate of 4mg per litre of fluoride in their blood. If you’re suddenly craving a litre of very dark tea made of 100 teabags, you would ingest 20mg of fluoride. And this fluoride could lead you to develop what is called a skeletal fluorosis, creating sharp pains in your bones and making you lose your teeth. Fortunately, this disease takes years to appear, if confronted to a daily overconsumption of fluoride. Which gives you time to change your habits if your tea tends to be darker than your soul.

You after 30 years of tea overconsumption…

Why should I lift my pinkie when I have a cuppa in the UK ?

As a French person who’s been raised by my nation in the traditional rivalry with the UK, I’ve always pictured English people taking their tea with the pinkie proudly raised in the air, for absolutely no apparent reason. Now that I’m here and that I actually drink tea with English people, I’ve realised no one does this. Was it just a lie to discredit the cunning British enemy? The time has come to unravel the mystery, dear reader.

After a quick search on the Internet, it clearly appeared that no one knows for sure. They’ve tried to pin it on the French, who may have developed this technique to recognise the ones who had contracted a venereal disease, and would therefore be unable to raise their pinkie, as a result of a muscular impairment. I call shenanigans on this.

Amongst other bizarre reasons, raising the pinkie could have been a discreet manner for distinguished ladies to show which noble man had won their sexual favours. In other words, raising a pinkie would have been the 17th Century Facebook poke. Even if I really enjoy that explanation, it is more probable the upper class developed this habit as a mark of refinement, outstanding this way the simple manners of the common folk. That makes sense, add a corgi, a cucumber sandwich and a raised pinkie, then you’re suddenly suitable for the house of Lords.


What’s the weirdest world record about tea?

I’m actually very disappointed. I was excepting something very crazy. As it turns out, humanity can be pretty basic sometimes. Give nonetheless a round of applause for Glasgow, who has organised the largest tea dance in 2010 (because apparently, it’s a thing). 306 couples took part in that event, which involves traditional dances, tea and sandwiches (cucumber flavoured undoubtedly).

Let’s also appreciate the giant tea bag of 250kg (551 lb 2.56 oz) from Saudi Arabia, and the giant teapot (4m high) from Morocco. Before I start imagining the most ambitious crossover of history between these two giants, let’s switch to another question, shall we?


Why would people try to read their future in a cup of tea?

Yes we know, curiosity killed the cat (whose cat though? I’m curious about its backstory). But if you had the occasion, wouldn’t you be tempted to discover your future? I would.

Divination is primarily based in oral traditions and due to its associations with witchcraft, it was often considered taboo and unacceptable in society for most of its history. As a result, little is known about its origins.

Tea leaf reading, or Tasseography, was first attributed to people in China who have held a deep adoration of tea and its beneficial qualities for centuries. Fortune tellers began to notice patterns and shapes left in their cups after drinking tea and interpreted them as prophecies and messages of the past, present and future. This spread and developed during the 17th century when Dutch merchants introduced tea to Europe. As a cheap method of fortune-telling, it only required a cup of tea so became increasingly popular as both a means to tell the future and a method of entertainment. In English folk culture during the Enlightenment, lower classes were quick to use tea leaves instead of some of their cumbersome and often dangerous methods of divination, such as the use of molten metal (molybdomancy), hot wax (carromancy) or the entrails of animals (haruspicy). For most people divination and prediction were just an enjoyable break from the daily routine. The Victorian era is when tea leaf reading really had its heyday. Victorians were fascinated not only by the occult, but by the idea of self-analysis, brought on by the work of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer during this time. Tea leaf reading, still used today as a major divination practice, is then a response to superstition, psychological explorations and appeal for mysteries. Just like when people ask for a bangs when they have curly hair.


Why is a tea cake called a tea cake?

Maybe I’m the only one who cares about that detail, but why on earth did Tunnock’s named their little treats ‘tea cakes’? Is there an official rule somewhere telling these wonderful cakes have to be eaten during tea time? If so, I’m a total criminal, because I could eat them all day long.

My internet research hasn’t taken me that far for this one. Apparently it’s just a marketing strategy, to suggest that these wonderful treats would be the best companions of a cup of tea. However, I am shocked to discover while I’m writing these lines, that another type of tea cakes exists, which doesn’t involve chocolate, meringue or shortbread. Has my whole Scottish experience been a blatant lie?



How much caffeine does black tea have?

Not that it would make a big difference for me, since I’ve never left the sloth/teenager state of my life where I can sleep anytime, anywhere. But for your information, a cup of 8 oz. of black tea contains 25 to 48 mg of caffeine. In comparison, 1 oz. of espresso contains 47 to 67 mg of caffeine. That might explain why it’s called caffeine and not teaine…

You obviously needed to see the caffeine structure for the sake of this article.


What’s in chai tea?

Let’s run an autopsy on the ultimate hipster version of tea. Chai means tea in Hindi, a derivation of the Chinese word cha… which also means tea. But in the case of our chai tea, it involves mixing the tea leaf with strong spices (such as cinnamon and cloves), which can vary depending on the place you take it. Since it gives a very strong taste, it is sweetened with milk and sugar or honey, which would be perceived as a total heresy for the Chinese, the Japanese, or the French (bonjour).



What is rooibis tea?

Say hi to that South African tea, naturally caffeine-free (because apparently people do care about this kind of details). Spoiler alert : IT IS NOT A TEA PLANT. THEY’VE BEEN LYING TO US. The rooibis (which means red bush) is a plant only growing in the Cederberg area of South Africa, stubborn enough to refuse to grow anywhere else (who doesn’t like a strong independent plant?). More than 300 years ago, the original bushmen of the Cederberg area discovered rooibos. They would pick the leaves, ferment them then dry them (giving them rich brown colour), which is very close to today’s production.

This ‘tea’ has to be brewed like any other (real) one, and can be mixed with milk, sugar, honey… But then again, why would you want to do that?


Does tea have any medicinal qualities?

Let’s start with the obvious. There is no such thing as detox tea. Yes it is sad, because they clearly taste amazing and give good conscience after a night of various excesses, but ‘detox’ is only a marketing social construction. Your kidneys are your best detox friend, and if they’re not doing their job, you have to go to the doctor my friend, before your skin turns as yellow as a Simpson.

Tea in itself is not exactly a medicinal plant, even though it was originally used as this during the Shang dynasty in China (16th century BC – 1046 BC). Most of the time it was mixed with other herbs which have medicinal values. Even today, herbs are more important than tea in medicinal teas. For instance, thyme can help fighting infections while lavender soothes a cough. Again, our whole drinking system is based on a lie, and I don’t know if I can handle that discovery peacefully.


Now that these ten crucial questions have been answered, you can return to your regular life, shine in Society with all your newly acquired knowledge, and spread the word around you that the tea crew will be hosting a tea tasting session on May 18th.