My Cuppa

My British lunch companion cringed when I poured sugar in the cappuccino. Not because one does not add sugar, but because one does not, apparently, add white sugar. “I can’t [pronounced ‘cahnt’] believe they gave you white sugar. That is for tea, brown sugar is for coffee.” I’d never heard that, and asked him to share more tea imperatives. Turns out I’d done it wrong all along. You are “supposed” to pour milk, add the tea – and in India the milk and tea is brewed as one – then sugar to taste. The rules are obscure, but violations bring physical discomfort to my colleague.

In Hanoi, I learned the role of Vietnamese green tea in business. While not an elaborate tea ritual per se, the role of this strong tea in business meetings was driven home when the beverage was poured at the formal outbrief. This was not something made available in case I craved a hot beverage on a torrid June afternoon in Vietnam – I was expected to share the teapot with the government deputy minister. As may be true around the world, the boss’ tea was much superior to that shared by his staff earlier in the week.

In Beijing, I knew to order green tea and was not disappointed. In Mumbai, I learned there was something called Assam, in addition to Darjeeling, etc. I craved Irish breakfast tea, and was told, gently, that what I wanted was black or Assam tea. In retrospect, adding the brown Demerara sugar was a violation of my friend’s first principle regarding color coded sweeteners. By the time I reached Australia, I became used to ordering ‘black tea’ with milk and sugar.

But when I ordered it like that, just like that, on a United airlines flight, the American flight attendant was not amused. Back in the land of Lipton, I had forgotten that ‘black tea’ at home means no milk or sugar. We do not differentiate among the many teas available, unlike the majority of humanity. So when I ordered ‘black tea, milk and sugar,’ I received a withering glare in return. It took me a second to realize my error. How could she have known I spent much of my summer receiving the equivalent of a semester in tea education?

Tea is a pretty basic commodity, the cultivation and distribution markets established hundreds of years ago. Manuals no doubt exist to help the new worker understand how to continue the long tradition, bringing this product to market. Manuals, however, will fail in the final application. The local enjoyment of the product, that activity which drives demand. This final, critical routine is rich with local context. You may decide you can write local manuals, but my dapper British colleague is of Indian extraction. His preferences, as emotionally laden as they appear to be, are personal and unshakeable. The value of the tea cannot be pre-determined by manuals or engineering diagrams – but by respecting the shifting context that defines the experience for the individual tea-drinker.

I’m certain this applies only to tea, though.

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