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An introduction to tea, the ancient beverage moderns enjoy.

Tea, as a beverage, is older than coffee, older than wine and maybe even older than beer. Some may argue about the latter, since some types of beer may be as old as 10,000 years, while tea has been around for 'only' about 5,000. Fair enough, let's not quibble. Tea is old.

Tea is also enormously popular. That much is obvious at a casual glance. But just how popular is it? Annual production today of tea leaves is in the neighborhood of 2 billion pounds. Yes, billion. Considering it only takes an ounce or so to make a cup, that's a lot of tea. And that is the annual production. Annual, as in: 'every year'.

Well, you say, at least tea has less caffeine than coffee. Yes and no. Tea leaves have about 1-3% caffeine by weight, more than twice as much as a similar weight of coffee beans. But, it's true that a prepared cup of coffee will have about 100mg of caffeine and tea only about 60mg. And, after all, people drink tea and coffee much more often than they eat the leaves or beans.

Beer, wine, coffee and tea all have health benefits some of which are the result of the very same compounds present in the drink. Antioxidants are present in both wine and tea. Caffeine, in moderate amounts, has been shown to have healthy effects.

But, let's face it. For most people it isn't history or economics or science or medicine that creates the huge, centuries-old and present-day demand for tea. Tea is simply wonderful to drink.

Whether you want a robust pick me up in the morning, or a relaxing hot cup at night, tea is - dare we say it - perfect. It clears out the cobwebs and at the same time relaxes. Iced or hot, green or black (or Oolong, which is in between), or even red or white (yes, they exist), tea tastes great and makes you feel wonderful.

Throughout history and up to the present day, drinking tea has been both a delightful experience and a social ceremony. Yes, people will certainly sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee or a mug of beer or glass of wine together.

But in very few cultures is there anything like a 'beer ceremony'. Ok, in a way there are, among college students. But, calling those 'ceremonies' is really stretching a point. Anyway, tea ceremonies aren't exclusive to Japan. In England it's practically an afternoon requirement. New York has clubs devoted to the fine art of tea.

East and west sometimes agree on very little. But all over the world - China, Turkey, Russia, Australia, the U.S. and the UK, and all the points on the map in between enjoy a cup of tea.

There are, fortunately for tea lovers, as many types and blends of tea as there are kinds of coffee. And, that's a delightfully high number!

Being provincial is a natural human impulse. But those with the daring to explore the world are the fountainheads of human progress. Join their ranks and sample some of the planet's fine brews from across the seas. Hoist sail!

So wherever you are, you can now have a Wu Yi in a Yixing clay pot, or a Rooibos in a Danish glass cup. You can enjoy a lemon grass tisane or even a blueberry vanilla Ceylon. What you can't do, if you are among the over one billion tea drinkers in the world, is resist a perfectly brewed cup of the world's finest drink. Tea.

Tea varieties

For the lover of strong brew, there is the Assam black from India - a malty cup that can really wake you up in the morning. The Keemun black from the interior of China is a great alternative for those cold, rainy days of Fall.

There are the smooth Ceylon blacks from Sri Lanka, that make a wonderfully relaxing drink at the end of a hard day. Ceylon is a former name for that country. Or one might try the renowned Darjeeling muscatel from high in the Himalayas.

But many prefer the gentler green teas from throughout Asia. The Japanese generously provide a platter full of options. The Kukicha is a mix of leaves and twigs, just the thing to spice up an otherwise bland drink. China offers a Mandarin with hints of apricot that does that noble country proud.

From the Fujian province in China comes the Pi Lo Chun that no sensible tea lover will pass up the opportunity to test. The White Monkey should be sampled, if for no other reason than to try to guess what the name has to do with this delicious green.

Africa, Kenya in particular, is now one of the largest exporters of black tea in the world. But size doesn't always characterize the country best. The red Rooibos of South Africa is simply delicious. And taste is the final arbiter anywhere.

The Rooibos makes for an excellent drink plain or combined with a broad palette of additives. Vanilla, mango, berry even the perfumey Earl Grey are superb variations on an already first-rate brew.

But, oh, those Oolongs. Formosa Oolong may be the most well known and certainly ranks among the finest, but there are others equally worth tasting. A Wu Yi from coastal China is a must. The Jasmine, with an aroma that brings memories of spring to the mind and delight to the soul, is mandatory.

Darjeeling, India produces an Oolong that does credit to one of the world's oldest and largest producers of fine tea. After all, not everything Asian is Oriental. Heavy domestic demand has limited the supply and therefore raised prices. But a tea this good is worth a little more.

Tea and health