Why Do You Drink Tea?

Not long after my last post, I was looking at my site statistics and looked at the list of search terms that brought people to my site.  In the month leading up to that date, more that a quarter of the people coming to my site arrived because their search included the word “caffeine.”  Some wanted to maximize caffeine (“how to get the most caffeine from your tea”) while others wanted to minimize it (“how to get rid of caffeine from tea”).  Still others just wanted to know about it (“caffeine tea second brew” or “amount of caffeine in a cup of tea”).  Some didn’t specifically mention caffeine…but I could tell that was the intent (“tea can’t sleep”).

Why this obsession with caffeine?  Is that really why Americans drink tea?  Some to get more caffeine and some because it has lower levels that soda or coffee?  I’m not so sure.

To my mind, there are three basic reasons to drink tea.  Perhaps the most pedestrian and simple reason is because you want a beverage.  Thirst-quenching is something tea can do, and so people drink tea.  Leaves, hot water, and a cup/bowl/mug/trough/etc. is all you need.  Guzzle it down like a water buffalo or sip daintily with your pinky extended, it’s all “beverage.”

The second basic reason to drink tea is for a “reason.”  You can drink tea “because it’s good for you.”  Or “because I need a pick-me-up in the morning.”  Or “because I feel sophisticated having tea with my friends.”  This is a deeper category of tea drinking.  It requires that you’ve thought about tea a little bit and have decided that because of some criteria, tea is the best choice.  I think the caffeine-obsessed among us fall into this category:  “because tea has lower caffeine” or “because tea doesn’t make me jittery like coffee.”  However, it can still be somewhat one-dimensional.  Isn’t tea more than that one criterion, really?

Finally, the third basic reason is as an experience.  This is the spirit from which tea ceremonies come from.  It’s where people get their intellectual or spiritual kicks from.  When people speak of the “spirit of tea” or the “way of tea” it’s in this category of drinking.  Here, subtleties and variation are paid attention to.  Environment and teaware are important.  The chosen company and chosen leaves have great weight.  It’s perhaps the most sophisticated of the three basic reasons.  At the very least, the tea drinker needs to be somewhat self-aware and centered in the present moment to enjoy tea in this third way.  Additional study and experience only enhance tea-as-experience, because it allows for the experience of “I didn’t expect such-and-such flavor from this particular tea!” or “Oh, I’m excited to try that–I didn’t know they made so-and-so in that country!”  The more you know, the more you can detect, express, and enjoy.

Are any of these reasons for drinking tea wrong?  Absolutely not.  However, I think lots of conflict about tea comes from not understanding that other people drink tea for other reasons.  “Beverage” people see “Experience” people as tea snobs.  “Reason” people see “Beverage” people as doing it wrong.  To someone who want so experience the subtle flavors of a particular award-winning batch of wulong, adding milk and sugar may seem like sacriledge –an outrageous violation of teaness.  To a person who wants a comforting drink, milk and sugar in grocery store teabag tea may be the perfect thing.

It’s very easy to get caught up in your own reasons and assume other people should drink tea for the same reasons. But for different tea-drinking reasons there are different “better” and “worse” ways of going about it.  If you’re a Beverage person, Chinese gongfu cha probably isn’t a very good choice.  Lots of fiddling with utensils and very tiny cups of tea at the end.  On the other hand, if you’re an Experience person, the fiddling becomes a way to play with a particular tea and see how many different flavors you can get out of it–perfect for getting a full experience of a particular batch of leaves.

So next time you’re thinking someone’s doing it wrong, or is snobby, or can’t pick tea, take a moment to think of whether you’re imposing your own reasons for drinking tea on them.  And remember that drinking tea is good, no matter what your reason.

Caffeine Psychology

Cha Psi

Recently, I heard another iteration of something I find fascinating. A person complains that they can’t drink tea in the evening because the caffeine keeps them awake, but they don’t like the taste of decaf teas and herbals don’t suit them. What are they to do?

Then a tea shop eager to sell them some tea tells them that all they have to do is do a quick 30-second steep, which removes most of the caffeine, pour that out, and re-steep the recommended length for a great low-caffeine cuppa for the evening. The customer follows this procedure and voila! Evening cups of tea AND sleep ensue. Victory!

I’ve heard this story on a number of occasions and it always makes me laugh a little, as well as getting curious. Because as I’ve mentioned on other posts and in the TeaGeek wiki, the 30-second decaf thing is a common tea myth. A majority of the antioxidants come out in the first 30 seconds, but perhaps less than 10% of the caffeine. This is based on the results of a couple of tea studies (which, if you’re interested, you can find references to via the links earlier in this paragraph).

Why do I laugh and become curious? Because if you put the customer story and the tea science together, you have to ask a question: Given that the customer slept well after a process that as been shown NOT to remove much caffeine, what’s the explanation for this phenomenon?

Personally, I think it’s psychology. First off, I think that most people first blame any sleeping problems on any caffeine they might have had. Tea and coffee come first as perceived sources of caffeine, even though some chocolate desserts can have more caffeine than a cup of tea, and are regularly enjoyed in the evening.

Next, I think that the 30-second decaffeination ritual invokes a kind of placebo effect. The customer believes there is no caffeine in the tea. Maybe it actually helps decrease the effect of the caffeine that is present, in a similar way that college students get impaired reactions when drinking alcohol-free beer that they believe to be normal beer. Or perhaps it just helps the customer choose other reasons for troubled sleep–that chocolate cake, or stress, or noisy neighbors. After all, it couldn’t be caffeine because it had all been removed in the 30-second rinse.

Either way, it becomes easier to think that the caffeine-disrupted sleep problem has been solved. And this could happen even if nothing had changed at all.

Another thing to look at is whether something besides caffeine has changed. For example, I have had evening tea and slept like a baby (last night for example). Other times, I’ve had evening tea and slept poorly. It’s easy to remember the times when you sleep poorly after having tea, but there’s no reason to pay attention to whether you had tea late in cases where you sleep well. So the poor-sleep nights stick out in the memory, seeming to get a prominence not warranted by their actual frequency.

(There’s a term for this particular flavor of cognitive bias, but I can’t recall it at the moment. I do know it’s mentioned in Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. It’s a fascinating read even if you’re not a tea geek. This same bias is why it seems that your line at the grocery store always goes slowest–when the line goes quickly, you don’t pay attention to it, but when it goes slow it sticks in your memory.)

Now, I’m not a psychologist and I don’t have the facilities to carry out the research that would be necessary to verify my hypotheses (sleep studies, testing caffeine extraction rates, etc.) but it seems likely that psychology plays a big role in how we perceive caffeine and its effects in ourselves.  Of course, I’m open to other ideas about why so many people’s perceptions and experiences are at odds with the scientific evidence in this area.  Leave a comment if you’ve got one!

Taiwan or Bust

Well, it’s official.  Tickets have been purchased.  I’ll be in Taiwan for the first two weeks of November.  If you’ve got a hankering for something Taiwanese, especially tea or teaware, let me know.   Itinerary isn’t set yet, but I’m hoping to make at least one or two major growing regions (probably Pinglin, Wenshan and then perhaps something in Nantou county).  I’m hoping also to get some experience picking and/or processing, so stay tuned.

Of course, if you’ve been there and have suggestions on places I need to see or things I need to experience, I’d love to hear them as I set up the trip.