Tea is more than just leaves and water. Dating back centuries, tea is one of the most versatile beverages, with many varieties said to have health benefits. Katharine P. Burnett, associate professor of art history, directs the UC Davis Global Tea Initiative, founded in 2015 to synthesize interdisciplinary global research on tea and draw together researchers in the field. Here, she shared more about the popular drink.
Burnett, former director of East Asian studies, said that according to Chinese legend, tea was discovered around 2800 BCE. “It was a medicine, then a soup ingredient, then a beverage,” said Burnett. “Buddhist monks drank it to stay awake during meditation.” Tea’s reach expanded to Western Europe in the 17th century when maritime trade spread and European nations cemented economic relationships with China.
SE Asia Connection
Burnett is currently studying Southeast Asian tea cultures. “Because tea grows indigenously from southwest China across Southeast Asia to northeast India, it is reasonable to suppose that these areas developed their own tea cultures,” she said.
Flavor profiles are affected by where tea is grown. Burnett likened tea to wine: “A green tea in China tastes different from a green tea in Japan. But they all have virtues. Like wine — sometimes you want a Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia instead of the U.S., and sometimes you want a black tea from Sri Lanka instead of India.”
Theanine, found in tea, is an amino acid that is said to have a relaxing effect. “Even though tea has caffeine, it also has this calming component that almost nothing else has,” said Burnett.