Tea is like the East he grows in,
A great yellow Mandarin
With urbanity of manner
And unconsciousness of sin;
All the women, like a harem,
At his pig-tail troop along;
And, like all the East he grows in,
He is Poison when he's strong.
(from) A song of right and wrong G.K. Chesterton
Tea is a soft drink made by infusing the dried leaves of camellia sinensis in hot water. From such unlikely origins comes the most widely consumed drink in the world.
Tea drinking seems to originate somewhere in the China/India/Burma/Tibet area some time before the 10th Century BC (the point at which the earliest records appear) but by the modern era it has spread to almost every culture on the planet (with the exception of those like the Mormons who have specific taboos against it).
How exactly tea is prepared depends on the culture consuming it - a lot of the final flavour will result from how much the leaves are allowed to 'age' between picking and drying, the lightest "white" teas being dried almost straight away and strong flavoured "black" teas being allowed to ferment before drying. Teas are also served in many cultures mixed with spices (as in India's masala chai) or dairy products like salted butter (in Tibetan po cha) or milk (in English Breakfast). Sweeteners of various kinds are also frequently added to counteract the bitterness of many teas. Infusion times and water temperature will also vary by culture and many peoples attach significant ceremony to the preparation and consumption of tea.
Whilst tea is generally served hot, there are also many ways of serving it cold and/or iced, sometimes as a mixer for alcoholic spirits.
A variety of medical benefits are ascribed to tea, with varying levels of credibility - some of these, particularly the topical ones, may result from no more than the fact that it is boiled water with a mild astringent in it.
On the subject of medical uses "teas" may also be prepared from herbs besides camellia sinensis - possibly as dietary variations or possibly as part of a prescription from a practicing herbalist. Many of them are also no more than alternatives to "regular tea". These are generally known as "herbal teas" or "tisanes" to avoid confusion.
As already hinted at, the cultural significance of tea can vary widely - in some it is consumed with quasi religious ceremony, and even where it is not, rituals like "afternoon tea" are generally accorded high social status. Against that, tea has also been known to penetrate to the very lowest rungs of society - in 19th century Britain, it was said that the very poorest seemed to live on nothing but bread, potatoes and tea.
Dried teas can keep practically forever if stored properly and are likely to appear in iron rations for an appropriate culture serving, if nothing else, to make sure your drinking water has been properly boiled. Their ubiquity can also make them a common ritual gift. The Tibetan food tsampa - something of a staple for travellers, herdsmen and the like as well as many monks - is made by adding flour to a bowl of po cha tea.
For what happens when tea is weaponized by the armed forces, consult tea khaki drab.
Game and Story Use
- If your PCs don't come from a tea using culture, this can make for good flavour when they first encounter the stuff.
- Drinking unusual tea can be a good characterization for an NPC.
- An example of tea giving as a gift can be found in Patrick O'Brien's novel The Thirteen Gun Salute wherein Stephen Maturin presents the abbot of a Malayan monastery with gifts including a package of tea in return for hospitality whilst he studies the local wildlife. The opposite end of the tea drinking spectrum is seen earlier in the same season during The Ionian Mission as Stephen complains about the poor health of recruits who have lived for some time on little more than bread, potatoes and tea.
- Any PC (or NPC) who is a herbalist is likely to spend quite a bit of time making up herbal teas - and may even use "regular tea" in his practice.
- At various stages this material has been a significant trade good and may turn up in treasure or as part of an escorted cargo.