A Big Launch for the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

Global Tea Initiative starts at UC Davis
Global Tea Initiative

The colloquium launching the UC Davis Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science featured scholars from around the world talking about the chemicals and compounds in tea, types of tea, the Japanese tea ceremony and a kind of ceramic that for 500 years has been considered the best for making tea.

About 250 people attended “The Basics of Tea” colloquium on May 12. The event attracted students and faculty from many disciplines at UC Davis and other colleges and universities, representatives of the food and beverage industry, tea experts, tea scholars, tea shop owners and employees and people who are simply serious about tea.

Katharine Burnett, art history professor and director of the East Asian Studies Program at UC Davis, leads the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science. The initiative includes affiliated faculty from many colleges at UC Davis, as well as members from other UC campuses and sites and reference librarians.

“This initiative is a natural progression of what we already do on this campus,” Burnett said. “Global in conception, global in intention, and global in approach, this initiative will help UC Davis become the world’s leader in comprehensive and holistic tea studies.”

Teaware with 500-year history

Wingchi Ip, from the LockCha Tea House in Hong Kong, spoke about Zisha ware or Yixing ware, a type of unglazed ceramic long considered the best for making tea. The sandy clay it is made from derives from the Yixing region and produces microscopic holes in the fired pot, helping retain heat and enhancing the color, fragrance and taste.

“Through use it becomes more beautiful,” he said, referring not just to the outward appearance but the kind of tea it makes.

Zisha ware developed in the early Ming Dynasty (14th century) when there was a switch from tea cake and powder to loose leaf tea, Ip explained.

“That brought a big change from tea bowls to teapots,” Ip said.

Zisha ware has gone through many changes during its long history. Ip showed examples of early pots in the shapes of bamboo and squash with later pieces becoming more massive, curved and heavily decorated, followed by geometric shapes with flat planes for calligraphic incision. War, economic downturns and political upheavals took a toll on its production, but the ware is going strong now, Ip said.

“Many of those making it now have formal training at art institutes and universities,” he said. “There are many new designs and encouragement to explore new techniques. It’s being passed on to a younger generation.”

All teas from the same plant

Yaoping Luo, dean of the Tea Research Institute at Zhejiang University in China, spoke about the different types of tea, the main ones being white, green, oolong and black. They look and taste different from one another, but all come from the shrub Camellia sinensis that has many cultivars with variations in color and size of leaves.

The different types are created through a processing system. After picking, the leaves begin to wilt, oxidize and darken. The oxidation is halted by heating, he said, and the earlier it is stopped, the lighter the tea.

“There can be significant variations in each type,” Luo said.

Research of health benefits needed 

Carl Keen, Mars Chair in Development Nutrition and professor of nutrition and international medicine at UC Davis, examined health claims made for tea. It has been claimed that tea can do everything from reducing cancer risks to providing positive psychological benefits, but such claims are anecdotal, Keen said.

“When you get down to research data, there’s really very little,” he said. “We need data — not just stories.”

Keen focused on the possible vascular benefits of tea that have been borne out by research. Compounds found in tea have been shown to increase the elasticity of blood vessels, reduce blood pressure and increase the number of cells of the type that are responsible for cell repair and regrowth.

“This is all very promising, but it will be a long time before we get strong answers,” he said.

Ceremony a powerful symbol of a nation

Kristin Surak, author of Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice, outlined the formal elements of the Japanese tea ceremony and also offered some surprises about its history.

The ceremony, originating in the 15th century, includes purifying the hands and mouth with water, bowing to go through the low teahouse doorway, and precisely when to reach for the cup of tea. Choice and placement of utensils often refer to literature, history and the seasons. 

“It takes weeks to prepare and isn’t cheap to do,” said Surak, professor in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. 

Originally for nobles and aristocrats, the ceremony was later taken up by the merchant class and became more widely practiced. It was a male-dominated ritual until education for women was introduced in the late 19th century.

“The tea ceremony is one of the most powerful symbols of Japan,” Surak said. 

Looking forward 

More events from the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science will be announced in the coming months. Long-range plans aim for endowed professorships, courses and workshops for industry and the community, symposia and peer-reviewed research publications, Chinese and Japanese-style gardens and teahouses on the UC Davis campus. 

At the colloquium Darrell Corti, a world-renowned expert on food and beverages of Corti Brothers market in Sacramento, and the person who suggested UC Davis study tea, presented Burnett with an antique miniature Japanese teahouse as a symbol of the initiative’s comprehensive vision.

In its array of presentations, from culture and society to plant science and health, the colloquium demonstrated the initiative’s goal to study tea across the disciplines and with a variety of approaches.

“The colloquium was a wonderful start of what we hope will become a truly global center for the study of tea culture and science,” Burnett said.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science