According to Chinese legend, tea drinking began more than 5,000 years ago after tea tree leaves accidentally dropped into an emperor's drinking water that was being boiled for antiseptic purposes.
Rather than order the tainted water pitched, the emperor sipped -- and savored.
Asian cultures have long celebrated tea as a curative. Western science has confirmed tea's value as an antioxidant that battles free radicals, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.
For most people, tea is something that comes in a bag, but try it once in its loose form, and you may not dip a bag into a cup again.
Bags contain mostly leftover crumbs of leaves, called fannings, whose flavor-producing oils tend to evaporate rapidly.
Loose tea is usually whole leaf, or large pieces of leaves. The oils evaporate more slowly, and water has a chance to interact with the larger leaf surface.
The ease of tea bags makes them popular, but the people at online tea merchant www.adagio.com are marketing an innovation that takes some of the hassle out of brewing loose tea.
Called IngenuiTEA, it's a clear, hard plastic pitcher with a lid and a special bottom containing a mesh screen.
To make tea, drop a teaspoonful (appropriately enough) of loose tea into the pitcher, add boiling water (or close to boiling, depending on the type of tea), close the lid and watch the tea steep. Or you can microwave the water in the pitcher, then add the tea.
When it reaches the desired color, simply place the pitcher over a cup. A spring-loaded valve on the bottom opens, and the tea flows through the strainer and into the cup. Rinse the leaves out of the IngenuiTEA, and enjoy your freshly-brewed tea.
The 16-ounce plastic teapot costs $19. Of course, Adagio Teas would love for you to purchase their teas, and they sell a starter set that contains the tea maker and four, one-ounce samples packaged in small tins. At $24 (plus another $3.75 for shipping), it's a good deal.
For those who don't want to wait for their tea through the mail, a number of area shops and markets sell loose tea, as well.
The results were outstanding. The IngenuiTEA tea maker consistently provided excellent, full-flavored tea.
Adagio's Web site, www.adagio.com, also has links to recipes for cooking with tea, a tea chat room, a monthly tea newsletter and a guide map to tea rooms.