Over the past several millennia, tea has been at the center of many legends, tales, and stories. It’s not surprising that the most consumed beverage in the world, next to water, would be the topic of some amazingly creative stories. Though these are not historically accurate stories, they are a part of the tea culture that many have come to love. Many stories can be shared, but the ones below are about some of the most popular teas sold: Orange Pekoe Black Tea, Earl Grey, Iron Goddess of Mercy, and Genmaicha.
Orange Pekoe is a term used to define the grade of the largest tea leaf. Grading of tea has nothing to do with quality, but that of the size and look of the leaf. Orange pekoe is also not associated with orange flavor. There are a few stories that try to explain why the tea is referred to as “Orange” and “Pekoe.”
The first explanation for the “Orange” aspect of this tea’s name comes from The Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau. Legend has it the Dutch East India Company performed a central role in bringing tea to Europe and may have marketed the tea as “orange” to suggest a royal warrant. Another tale attributes the name “Orange” to the copper color of a high-quality, oxidized leaf before drying, or the final bright orange color of the dried pekoes in the finished tea. The orange color is produced when the tea is fully oxidized.
“Pekoe” may have derived from the transliterated mispronunciation of the Amoy (Xiamen) dialect word for a Chinese tea known as “white down/hair” (peh-ho). This is how “pekoe” is listed by Rev. Robert in his Chinese dictionary, in 1819, as one of the seven sorts of black tea “commonly known by Europeans”. Pekoe refers to the down-like white “hairs” on the leaf and to the youngest leaf buds. The word could have also derived from the Chinese baihua “white flower”, refers to the bud content of pekoe tea. Sir Thomas Lipton, the 19th century British tea magnate, is widely credited with popularizing, if not reinventing, the term for Western markets. Hence why each bag of Lipton tea is stamped with orange pekoe, though it is technically not correct as it doesn’t contain the largest leaf grade.
Earl Grey tea is the most popular flavored tea throughout the world. The flavor of bergamot fruit is added to just about any style of tea, though most popular on a black tea base. Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is sort of a sour orange. This citrus fruit is most likely a hybrid of Citrus limetta (sweet lime/sweet lemon) and Citrus aurantium (bitter orange). Commercially, bergamot is grown in southern Italy, in Calabria, where more than 80% of this fruit is cultivated.
The simple combination of bergamot and tea has been at the center of many stories, disagreements, and legends, as to its origin. The one common thread throughout all the stories, is that it is somehow related to the British Prime Minister from 1830–1834, Earl Grey. One story goes that, while on a mission to China, Earl Grey saved the life of a mandarin nobleman and was given the recipe as a symbol of gratitude. Another origin story says Earl Grey was given this tea as a gift at the end of a successful diplomatic visit to China. Some argue Lord Grey’s men saved a mandarin’s son from drowning and he was presented with this flavored tea in gratitude.
This tea might have also been developed to imitate the more expensive types of teas from China, like Keemun teas, and served by the Grey family. Or, Lord Grey developed the recipe for this flavored tea himself and gave it to a local tea house in London to produce. Some say Earl Grey was presented this tea by an envoy on his return trip from China. Others say that on the way home with its load, a trading ship was hit by a horrible storm. The tea and bergamot fruit mixed together and the tea was ruined. But, Lady Grey liked the flavor and served this unique exotic tea while hosting. Or, the tea was flavored specifically for Lord Grey by a mandarin to suit the local water of Northumberland to offset the taste of lime (calcium) in the local water.
Iron Goddess of Mercy (Ti Kuan Yin)
Iron Goddess of Mercy (Ti Kuan Yin) is a premium oolong from China originating in the 19th century. Ti Kuan Yin production is a very complex hand-crafted tea that is produced twice a year (spring and winter). Legend tells of a pious, poor farmer Wei, who would pass a rundown temple which housed the statute of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Being poor he couldn’t do much, but one day he brought a broom to clean up. Twice a month for several months he did this, until one night Guanyin appeared in his dreams. She told him of a gift she had left for him behind the temple that he should share with others. There he found a small tea plant which he planted in a nearby field. The tea plant flourished and cuttings were used to plant more tea bushes. The area prospered with the selling of this fine tea and the temple was restored and became the beacon of the region.
Genmaicha, or brown rice tea, is a Japanese green tea blended with roasted brown rice. This tea is sometimes referred to as popcorn tea due to the grains of toasted brown rice popping during roasting, resembling popcorn. But there is typically no popcorn in this tea. A variation on this tea adds matcha to the blend. The history of this tea is the stuff of legends.
In 15th century Japan, a samurai was planning a military campaign. His servant, Genmai, was serving him green tea, a luxury in that time, and a few kernels of rice fell out of his sleeve into the samurai’s cup. In a fit of anger the samurai drew his katana and beheaded the servant. As the samurai drank his tea he realized the rice added to the flavor of the tea and became remorseful. He ordered that this new tea shall be served to commemorate his late servant. To honor his memory, he named the tea Genmai-cha. Another story puts the origin of Gen Mai Cha at about 100 years ago, when a small tea shop in Kyoto created a more affordable tea for the people using a late harvest bancha tea blended with rice to mask the tea’s flavor.
These are just a few of the many stories told over the years about Tea. It is incredible that modern consumers can still buy and drink such a historically rich beverage.