The Agony and Ecstasy of Tea

The Agony and Ecstasy of Tea

by William Lengeman III

People who tend to wax a bit on the overly lyrical side about the pleasures of drinking tea sometimes talk about “the agony of the leaves.” This refers to those moments just after you’ve poured boiling water on your tea leaves (can’t do this one with tea bags, friends) and they’ve begun to unfurl and contort in what some have supposed to be like the contortions of one in great pain. Well, maybe so and maybe not.

For me there’s a different sort of agony that comes with tea – fortunately there’s some ecstasy that goes with it. Let’s take the ecstasy first, for once you’ve discovered the pleasures of drinking really good tea, and once you’ve trained your clunky palate to respond to some of the less subtle nuances of a fine tea, then it truly can be an ecstasy – of sorts.

I have drunk teas – not many, mind you – that have caused me to give forth an involuntary exclamation of delight as the liquid washed over my palate and the signals rushed along my nerve channels and exploded in the synapses of a pleasure center in some deep, dusty corner of my brain.

This, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, is why we drink fine tea. This is why we’d never dream of going back to those one–hundred–for–two–bucks packets of wood shavings and monkey dung that some try to pass off as the real thing. This is why we’re always searching among the almost infinite varieties of tea for the one that’s going to elicit that voluntary exclamation, and damn the cost – and damn it if I’m not waxing a bit on the overly lyrical side here. I tried so hard no to.

So let’s put the brakes on this nonsense and get to the agony part. For you see, if I were one of those people who always did what was best for himself (there are people like that, aren’t there?) I’d never permit a drop of tea to venture past my lips. Unless it was decaffeinated – and then you might as well just go back to the sawdust and monkey dung and forget that you’d ever heard of such a thing as quality tea. But I digress.

For you see, the sad fact is that I don’t do caffeine so well. No, not so well at all, which is kind of a bitch since any tea worth its salt (no sugar, cream or lemon for me, by the way, but I digress again) contains caffeine. Which, when ingested, makes me feel like I’ve been dragged beneath a train for about a half-mile or so. Not that I’ve ever been dragged beneath a train, mind you, but I’m guessing that this is what it would feel like.

If you want to get clinical about the whole caffeine sensitivity thing you could tie it right in with hypoglycemia, an annoying blood sugar condition I was diagnosed with a couple of decades ago. An annoying blood sugar condition that – to oversimplify things – makes my system bark and snarl at the introduction of stuff like sugar, white flour, and yes, caffeine.

This then, is my sad tale of the agony and the ecstasy of tea, though not necessarily in that order, depending on what kind of day it is.

So what am I ultimately going to do about this mess? Am I going to go straight, do the right thing, give up on this tea connoisseur stuff and look back on these days with nostalgic fondness?

Not so fast, Darjeeling Breath. Pass me the tea catalog. Everyone’s entitled to at least one irrational, slightly self-destructive behavior and this is mine. Now, what have they got in a nice single-estate Assam…

Photo: Kelly Cline

Food writer William I. Lengeman III spends his days drinking tea, eating peanut butter and trying to dodge the train. He maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a web site devoted to the appreciation of…you guessed it.