Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Laughter in Lexington, KY

“We are the world’s new tea drinkers…”

Day 6: November 15th
LEXINGTON, KY: Downtown Public Library

Lexington boasted a substantial crowd, with between 70 and 80 people attending the screening at the Downtown Public Library. James Norwood Pratt, author of the esteemed “New Tea Lover’s Treasury” attended the screening, and he graciously joined Scott onstage for the question and answer session, lending an air of authority while simultaneously injecting quite a bit of fun and humor to the scene. Norwood explained that there are six types of teas: green tea, black tea (which the Chinese call red tea), Pu’er (a tea fermented in caves), white tea, red tea, and yellow tea ,“which the Chinese keep to themselves”. Norwood, in his characteristic lilt, added, “There are these wa-a-ays of approaching different teas. We [Americans] are the world’s… [pause]… ne-e-e-w tea drinkers. While Moroccans have their way, the English have their way. We have all of these ways; and they’re thriving.”

Then Scott described the essential qualities of water, which “has life”. He said that the best water for tea comes from a rushing stream. When you’re using tap water, it is preferable to filter the water to remove any impurities. In addition, one should never boil the water twice, because then it will become “dead water”. If you must boil the water again, always add a bit of fresh water to the pot before you do so. Norwood joked, “Here in Kentucky, they have the best water on Earth. Taste their bourbon!”

This audience was very challenging, and we got some feedback that departed from that of the previous five screenings. One woman asked, “Where did Americans get the idea of putting lemon in tea?” Both Scott and Norwood had to admit that they did not know. Another man offered up some criticism of the film. He said that as an Englishman, he felt that the film did not do justice to England’s culture of tea. He was in fact quite charming, explaining, “Tea is a drink that I have had since I was little. It is essential to daily life, and we use it as a transition between sleep and wake.” He was all the more endearing when he added, “I bring my wife a cup of tea at her bedside every morning.” He concluded by asking, “What I can’t understand is where did iced tea come from?!”, which got a laugh from the audience. Norwood responded that iced tea was invented at the St. Louis World Fair in the 1904. (Later that evening over supper, we learned from Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas that Cold tea recipes began appearing in community cookbooks such as The Kentucky Housewife (1839) and Housekeeping in Old Virginia(1879).

Next came a discussion about green versus black tea, prompted when a woman asked, “How do I tell what is green tea when I’m ordering it?” She had recently had an experience of ordering a Pu’er that she was told was green, but when she received it, the tea didn’t look at all green. Norwood explained that, in fact, there is a green and a black Pu’er. The difference is that green tea is made when you simply take the leaf and heat it. However, if you take the leaf, bruise it, expose it to air (oxidize it), and then apply heat, it becomes black tea. He also explained that halfway between green and black is Oolong tea. So, it depends how you treat the leaf. His advice on the question of how to find out if the tea is green or black before buying was, “Find yourself a tea purveyor with whom you can discuss these obscure matters!”

Scott interjected to explain how there are actually two plant constituents in tea. One is caffeine. The other is called L-Theanine. The latter is an anti-oxidant. As a result of these two chemical constituents, tea not only awakens your mind, but it also calms you down. Then he offered a Chinese saying: “Better to miss eating any food for three days, than miss a single cup of tea”.

Norwood gave some additional information on the treatment of tea leaves. He explained that, counter intuitively, you shouldn’t give the plant the best conditions, or it will grow like crazy. “In order for it to be exceptional tea, the bush has to struggle and suffer. Higher elevations, cool air in the nighttime, combined with warm air in the day; this stresses the leaf. Even wind is a factor. More stress equals more flavor. In fact, the best Oolongs have leaves that have been attacked by tiny little insects that change the chemistry of the leaf.” Interestingly, this phenomenon is depicted in Scott’s next project, a short silent film (set to music) about the cultivation of a white Oolong called Oriental Beauty. An extremely close macro lens was used to capture an image of the insect, which is not visible to the naked eye. Everyone laughed at Norwood’s closing statement about the treatment of tea plant: “If it’s as happy as a hog, it should be put in a Lipton tea bag!”

The tea conversation continued over dinner at Bombay Brazier, a wonderful Indian restaurant in downtown Lexington. Norwood and his wife Valerie joined us, as did Bruce (below, far right) and Shelley Richardson (above left) of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Benjamin Press (one of the leading publishers of tea media). Bruce is one of America’s leading tea experts, and both he and his wife have a long-standing commitment to educating people about tea as a lifestyle. More tea talk transpired, and we left dinner feeling full and happy after a relaxing reunion with friends.