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Unpack history like a tea writer

For a tea writer, the world holds cues to history, culture and craft; one just has to look for them.

The most important thing in writing about tea is to help people understand it in order to make better choices. (Istockphoto)
The most important thing in writing about tea is to help people understand it in order to make better choices. (Istockphoto)

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I never met Peter G.W. Keen. And if I remember right, we only spoke once on the phone. Otherwise, we exchanged emails and messages with fair regularity over the last six- seven years. Tea was a shared interest. As were books. As was history. For a while, we were colleagues and our emails were full of new stories, little anecdotes and discoveries as we sought to piece together the history of tea, one story at a time.

Keen, who died in October 2021, was a US-based professor and business guru but tea had become what he called his avocation. In fact, in the last few years, he wrote prolifically on it. Appropriately, his family held a memorial on 21 May, unknowingly perhaps but aptly choosing International Tea Day to celebrate his life.

It was Keen who introduced me to the memorable nuggets of tea history I have also brought to this column. Like the story of the tea spoon or the one about tea caddies, and even about how the teacup got a handle. Seen through his eyes, the world was dotted with tea motifs; one just had to look for them.

Not long after we made our acquaintance, I figured that all I had to do was ask him a seemingly innocuous question to start him off on research. Eventually, he would return with a long story. He wrote to share his knowledge and discoveries and I looked forward to his stories, which sometimes felt like they had been written with great urgency. Perhaps the urgency was there for a reason; he was suffering from cancer.

One of the things I learnt from Keen was to look at history without venerating the past; he disliked reverence and that made history more relatable. One of my favourite tea stories was about Napoleon, who loved his tea so much that he carried his samovar to war (it was taken out of his tent when he lost the Battle of Waterloo). Napoleon’s opponent, the Duke of Wellington, also carried tea with him to war. Moral of the story, said Keen, was you don’t need to be a nice guy to love tea!

Peter Keen
Peter Keen

Writing on tea is about accepting the backstories, the ugly bits, the messy history, the cultural affiliations, the craft, the need for technology and modernity…all of it. To write about tea is to embrace all it comes with. It’s not about tasting notes or snobbery or those pretensions about how one must drink tea. From writers like Keen, I have come to believe that the most important thing in writing about tea is to help people understand it in order to make better choices, and to enjoy the beverage well. Keen loved myth-busting and he did that especially well with a good dose of his Brit snarkiness.

“Liberate your choices,” he would say, dismissing the fuss around tradition, preferring to study the innovation on the ground and the impact of the business on the lives of people who depended on it. I raise a cup of Castleton moonlight white tea, one of his favourites, to celebrate the life of a friend, colleague and great lover of tea.

Tea reads: Peter G.W. Keen published two books on tea: Tea Tips, a guide to selecting tea, and Heroines Of Tea, a book on 10 women who “achieved greatness through tea while facing barriers elsewhere”.

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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