Tea leaves picked by monkeys? Sounds great! But not too fast… Most tea experts and sellers agree that monkey-picked tea is just a legend. Let’s unpack the history behind this cool idea that’s likely too good to be true…
According to a Chinese legend about ten centuries old, a monkey saw his master pick tea leaves, and then did so himself. How helpful.
Another origin story says that monks trained monkeys to pick tea leaves in the Wuyi Mountains to then be presented as a tribute to Emperor Qian Long.
Did this really happen?
Back in the 17 and 1800s, when Chinese tea first became of interest to Westerners, monkey-picked tea may have been but a sly marketing ploy. Tea picked by monkeys? How exotic! And more likely to drive up the price! After all, wouldn’t you pay more for tea leaves plucked by our animal friends?
According to James Norwood Pratt, author of Tea Dictionary and Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury, English explorer Aeneas Anderson bought the myth that monkeys picked tea on his trip to China in 1793, and is responsible for spreading the story all over Europe.
In truth, monkey-picked tea was more of a hyperbolic way to state that the tea hails from a place that’s hard to reach. So out of reach that it would take money-like skills to pluck it.
As put by the Tea Trekker’s New York Times-dubbed “Professors of Tea” May Lou Heiss and Bob Heiss, the designation of monkey-picked is given to teas that meet the following criteria:
“1) That this particular batch of tea came from a tea garden located at a very high elevation (the higher the elevation, the finer the leaf and the finer the tea)
2) That the tea was plucked from tea bushes growing in difficult to reach places; ie. nearly inaccessible places that require the tea pluckers be ’as agile as a monkey.’”
The monkey-picked tea on the market today is almost certainly not picked by real monkeys, although one seller claims to have monkeys working to pluck the leaves that end up in your cup:
Firebox’s says its monkey-picked tea comes from “well cared for monkeys” that are “specially trained by their owners to pick rare, wild tea plants in inaccessible places, such as cliff faces.”
If you believe them, try it out:
Otherwise, know that monkey-picked teas simply come from largely inaccessible places.
Teavana, for instance, features a Monkey-Picked Oolong Tea, and makes no claim the tea is picked by real monkeys, describing the myth responsible for the name, and then clarifying:
“The legend lives on, now with the deft hand-plucking of the broken, evenly sized leaves that unfurl to create a light, orchid aroma, and the highest grade of oolong in the world.”
Try monkey tea to experience the flavors of difficult-to-pick tea, but beware fake news, which has been plaguing this product for three centuries!