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New Film Examines the Meaning of Tea
The Meaning of Tea, directed by Scott Chamberlin Hoyt, is a 74-minute documentary film that investigates the different beliefs, practices, and cultural traditions surrounding tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) in 8 countries: India, Japan, Taiwan, England, France, Morocco, Ireland, and the United States.1 Produced by Tea Dragon Films, the film uses a mix of interviews, music, and stunning visual elements to explore tea on many levels. From tea rituals in various cultures where tea is cherished, to those who mold the very instruments used to carry tea, the film asks a variety of characters around the world about their relationship to tea as a beverage, a means of relaxation, and—in many cases—a way of life.

The film begins its journey in India at various tea farms. Ambootia Tea Estate, Namring Tea Estate, Singell Tea Estate, and Soureni Tea Estate are just a few of the tea farms visited for glimpses of the various stages of tea production. In this segment, tea is revealed to be “a way of life in India.” Shiv Saria, the managing director of Gopaldhara Tea Estate, is pictured standing waist-deep in a field of tea as he explains, “I dream tea. I eat tea. I sleep tea. I meditate on tea.”

Another interesting aspect of tea production portrayed in India is tea tasting. Tea tasters can sample an average of 1,500-2,000 cups of tea per week. Tea Expert Mridul Tiwari explains that she must rely upon her senses when assessing each tea, since it is the human senses that will eventually enjoy the tea: “There is no machine to evaluate a cup of tea,” explains Tiwari.

But what is the meaning of tea? As we travel from country to country, we learn that tea has different meanings for different people. London Cabaret Artist Earl Okin jokes that tea is a “safe” drink, describing it as “namby-pamby” and “sort of nothing-y.” He muses, “It’s like drinking warm tepid water with something in it that you can’t quite identify.”

For others, however, drinking tea represents an extremely profound experience. In Japan, green tea is incorporated into elaborate ceremonies that serve to create a time and space in which to enjoy the company of others. Tea Sensei Yuriko Arai summarizes the mindset of tea with the phrase Ichigo Inchie, which means “In this lifetime perhaps you and I will meet only once.” Similarly, Tea Sensei Hayashizaki Noriko says that drinking tea is a way to escape her busy life and relax, describing her experience as “a meditation for my emotions.”

Many people even link tea drinking to spiritual enlightenment. One particularly engaging character, Lu-Feng Lu, director of Wu-Ling Tea Farm in Taiwan, explains the deep relationship he shares with tea. “When I drink a good tea, I use my heart to smell the aroma. When I inhale, it goes right into my soul.” It seems that people from many different cultures share the opinion that drinking a cup of tea can allow a person the time to let their mind settle and to think clearly about the next step in their life’s journey. In essence, it can become a practice that can help to connect people with their spiritual path.

A major theme that The Meaning of Tea brings up is whether there is room for tea in a world that is becoming more and more fast-paced as it becomes more technologically advanced. Inoue Rokuhei of Irokuen KK expresses concern that Japanese culture is evolving in such a way that it no longer requires tea, lamenting, “We’ve ceased to enjoy the spirit of tea.” President of Irokuen KK concurs, “We in the tea industry didn’t do enough to prevent the replacement of the tea ceremony with the coffee culture from the west.”

The Meaning of Tea has achieved a great deal of initial success, premiering at film festivals all over the world. But perhaps one of its greatest achievements was at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April of this year, where the film sold out within just a few days of being posted on the festival’s Web site. In an unprecedented act, festival organizers set up a last-minute viewing to accommodate the considerable audience demand.2 The second screening was only a few tickets short of a sell-out.

The film also received an enthusiastic reception at The World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in May 2008, screening to a sold-out theater of over 300 people. “When I was first told that I was to attend the screening for The Meaning of Tea, at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about an entire film dedicated to ‘tea’ as the primary focus of a film,” said Jeremy Pigg, marketing director at the American Botanical Council (ABC). “But not only did I thoroughly enjoy the film and it’s beautiful cinematography, but at times I found myself moved by the importance of tea in the lives of people in different cultures around the world. It’s obvious that Mr. Hoyt shares a deep passion for tea with his subjects and it comes across on the screen with grace, poignancy, and humor.”

The Meaning of Tea screened in Houston, Texas, at the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival on August 7-9, 2008. The film will have its New York City premiere at the Asia Society in the spring of 2009. The film is available now on DVD, along with The Music of Tea, a CD soundtrack containing original music from the film. Both can be purchased through the Web site at A companion book to the film by Scott Chamberlin Hoyt and Phil Cousineau will be available in March 2009. For more information, please visit www. and

—Kelly E. Saxton

  • Hoyt S. The Meaning of Tea [DVD]. New York, NY: Tea Dragon Films; 2008.
  • Burns J. The Bubbler: Film Festival Day 3—“The Meaning of Tea.” Capital Times. April 7, 2008. Available at Accessed June 10, 2008.