Chinese teas good enough to start a war

by Forager on August 23, 2014

There’s been a resurgence in tea interest of late and Sydney recently had its inaugural Tea Festival so I wanted to post my own tribute to my beloved tea, specifically Chinese teas. Like most Chinese households, we always had a pot brewed at home and I can recall drinking Chinese tea from a very early age. In fact, when I first met the Co-pilot, he was mortified to learn that I drank Chinese tea like a fish and until the last decade, at home I drank it exclusively in lieu of water (somehow, that well perpetuated fact that you need about 8 glasses of water a day escaped my household). Eventually, from the Co-pilot I learned that normal people needed much more water than I consumed and in return, the Co-pilot discovered that a vast world of Chinese teas existed beyond the standard, ubiquitous jasmine tea typically offered to Westerners at yum cha restaurants (known as dim sum restaurants in the US).

The Western world’s discovery of tea resulted in a war. Ready for a condensed history lesson boys and girls?

When the Western world discovered tea from China for the first time, it was warmly welcomed and imported with increasing fervour. This was particularly true for the British who developed an insatiable and enduring appetite for tea. The Chinese however didn’t have any demand for British exports and only accepted silver in payment for tea resulting in a chronic trade deficit for the British. Eventually, by 1817 the British discovered the Chinese Achilles heel: a weakness for opium and began to trade in increasing amounts of opium until the Chinese addiction to the drug was debilitatingly pervasive and the trade deficit swang the other way. Realising the devastation opium was effecting on their country, the Chinese empire tried to eradicate the opium trade and placed trade sanctions on the British. The British retaliated against the slight on their reputation and to uphold foreign free trade started the first Opium War (1839-42) which resulted in the defeat of the Chinese, the signing of the Treaty of Nanking and the cessation of Hong Kong to the British.

It might be a little simplified recount of history, but essentially a love affair with tea started a war and resulted in the loss of many lives and an island.

My own love affair with tea is a much more mundane tale and the only addiction to speak of is a slightly obsessive tendency to collect and hoard teas (not recommended as teas have a finite shelf life). My tea drawers are jam packed with different varieties including white, green, red, black tea and different floral accompaniments as well. Some of these teas have been collected from local stores, but the rarer and nicer types are from specialty Chinese tea stores in Asia which stock hundreds of teas of different types and grades sold by as 50 or 100g units; or online stockists like one of my favourites, Yunnan Sourcing – a site I could peruse for hours.

Chinese tea, collection, white, green, red, black tea,

Part of my tea collection

As alluded to above, there are different types of teas – from white to black tea and these sit on a continuum of increasing colour/tannins and flavour intensity. As all tea originates from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, the oxidation created via fermentation is vital to achieving differences in flavour profiles and the process is stopped by drying or steaming. White and green teas are only very lightly fermented; red teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented. Teas we drink in the west like English Breakfast are black teas; whereas most Chinese teas we might intuitively term a “black tea” are actually correctly classified as red teas. Black Chinese teas are more an indication of the colour of the brew. Following that logic? To throw a spanner in there, teas like pu-erh sit somewhere between a red and a black tea as they’re post fermented – i.e. the fermentation process is stopped, then started again later. Oh and in case you were wondering, caffeine content of teas are not necessarily correlated with the colour or strength of the brew. There are white and green teas that have more caffeine than their inky red and black counterparts.

Suitably confused? To demonstrate some of the colour and flavour differences, I assembled a selection of these teas.

white tea, green tea, Chinese teas, souchong, lung ching, dragon well, Jasmine tea

A selection of white tea and green Chinese teas (L-R): souchong; lung ching, (or dragon well); and jasmine tea

A selection of red tea and black Chinese teas, oolong; pu-erh; and ti kuan yin (metal buddha)

A selection of red tea and black Chinese teas (L-R): oolong; pu-erh; and ti guan yin teas

There are usually at least 5 or 6 different types of teas, not to mention floral additives offered at yum cha restaurants but with Chinese names like pu-erh and ti guan yin, your typical yum cha waiter is probably unlikely to be able to either translate or explain the differences between different teas to Western diners. Hence, sadly, most just get offered “jasmine” as it’s both easy for the waiter to communicate and the diner to comprehend. Unfortunately, it’s up to diners to be proactive and ask for the tea you want. My personal favourite tea for yum cha is a combination of pu-erh tea and chrysanthemum flowers called “gook pu” (literally translating to chrysanthemum + pu-erh). I find the tea cuts through the fatty dim sum and other yum cha dishes and the chrysanthemum flowers soften the strong astringency of the tea. The red and black teas are generally considered the best food accompaniments or can be enjoyed like digestifs. And did you know that yum cha is a Cantonese term that literally translates to “drink tea”? It was tea, and not dumplings that were the original stars of teahouses so it makes sense that they’d have more than mere jasmine tea on offer.

A little confused on what tea to try? To help demonstrate the colour and flavour differences of some of the more common teas, I’ve provided some very simple, generalised amateur tasting notes below. I poured boiling water into each of the cups and steeping for a mere minute or two is more than enough to see the colour and flavours of the teas develop.

  • Souchong (white tea): clean, very light flavour, slightly smoky and musty
  • Lung ching (green tea): clean, grassy
  • Jasmine (green tea): floral and slightly astringent
  • Ti guan yin (slightly fermented oolong red tea): astringent with an intense earthy, sweet aftertaste and long tail
  • Pu-erh (post fermented red tea):  smooth and mellow, astringent, earthy and intense
  • Oolong (red tea): astringent, smooth caramel honey tones and intense

Of course, the above notes are deliberately simple as each of the types of tea have many different sub classes and sub varieties with varying levels of oxidation, leading to a myriad of different complex flavours. I liken it to trying to generalise the flavour of all Shiraz varietal wines in a few words.

 continuum of colour and flavour intensity from white to black Chinese tea (clockwise from top left): Souchong (white); lung ching (green); jasmine (green); ti kuan yin (red); pu-erh (red); oolong (black)

A continuum of colour and flavour intensity from white and red Chinese tea (clockwise from top left): Souchong (white); lung ching (green); jasmine (green); ti kuan yin (red); pu-erh (red); oolong (red)

Serious tea aficionados are most likely shuddering in disgust at the thought of me just pouring boiling water willy nilly into all of the tea types above. Much like coffee or wine, tea appreciation can be an infinitely complicated affair and there are specific instructions for maximum tea appreciation from the correct storage conditions to retain freshness, shelf life and flavour to specific brewing temperatures for different tea types:

  • White and green tea: 70-75°C
  • Oolong (red) tea: 80-90°C
  • Black tea: 95°C
  • Pu-erh: boiling

Then, as alluded to earlier, there are the floral additives to throw into the mix. Most yum cha restaurants will have chrysanthemum flowers on offer but you can also add rose to your tea or my personal favourite floral additive, osmanthus flowers – their fragrance is a delicate, sweet floral note and not as green and grassy as chrysanthemum can be.

And yet more tea flavour permuations are possible when flavoured powders are added to the mix. Ginseng oolong is such an example where oolong tea leaves are coated with powdered ginseng. The resulting tea looks like tiny mossy pebbles and the ginseng adds a long lingering earthy sweetness to the tea.

Finally, there are grades of tea. Whilst teas can be made from the entire plant, the very best teas are created using whole leaves and then, only the terminal buds of the tea plant, known as the ‘flush’ and are clean brews free of ‘dust’ (from broken tea leaves). The tea leaves can be presented as flat leaves, rolled like mini cigarillos, rolled into balls or even pressed into hard shaped moulds as commonly found with oolong and pu-erh teas.

osmanthus, jasmine, rose, tea, ginseng oolong, chinese tea

Some floral additions to add to Chinese teas including (L-R): osmanthus, jasmine and rose buds. And a closeup of ginseng oolong tea

But, if you wanted to take the tea obsession further and make an occasion of tea appreciation, then really, the sky is the limit. You can spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on premium teas and premium tea sets.

Here’s a tea set I purchased for my late father, a Chinese tea aficionado and undoubtedly where I gained my own appreciation of tea. I’ve now inherited the tea set and on occasion will get it out to savour a nice tea. It’s made from zisha clay only found in the Yixing region, which is prized amongst tea drinkers as the unglazed surface absorbs the tea aroma and adds to the enjoyment of tea over time and use. Purists will insist that a separate yixing clay teapot be used for different tea varieties – but I draw the line there. I’m not at that level of obsession (yet). Though this tea set is just an ‘entry level’ yixing clay tea set and is not by any measure expensive, it does include some useful components in tea preparation. The basin is used for catching discarded liquid from washing the tea set and the first washes of tea – essential steps in tea drinking.

Chinese yixing purple clay tea set

My Yixing clay Chinese tea set complete with a basin for collecting liquid from washing of the tea. The zisha clay contains iron, quartz and mica which can be seen as glimmering specks in the earthenware

To demonstrate the technique, we need a good tea for the occasion. The most premium tea in my possession was actually a gift, and is a red tea called da hong pao or big red robe tea, known as the ‘king of tea’ during the Qing dynasty and regularly fetches in excess of $1000/kg. The flavour is long and smooth, honeyed and slightly floral.

Da hong pao, big red robe tea, chinese tea

An elaborately presented premium Chinese tea: a specialty oolong tea known as da hong pao or big red robe tea

To brew Chinese tea properly, the tea set should first be rinsed with boiling water before the tea is added and rinsed. This removes any impurities and washes the tea in preparation for steeping. Depending on the tea used, the first infusion should take about 30 seconds and the tea should be poured equally between the cups to ensure each cup is the same. To achieve this, pour the tea in a smooth back and forth motion between all the cups as opposed to filling one cup completely before filling the next. Latter infusions will take longer steeping times and some teas like oolongs which typically use larger leaves will require long steeping times to release their full flavour. But generally, steeping for more than 5 minutes will start to introduce unpleasant bitter notes.

Chinese tea brewing process steps

Chinese tea brewing process step 1: Take one tea set

Chinese tea brewing process steps

Chinese tea brewing process step 2: Rinse the tea set with hot water before adding tea

Chinese tea brewing process steps

Chinese tea brewing process step 3: Rinse the tea briefly, but discard this brew immediately

Chinese tea brewing process steps

Chinese tea brewing process step 4: For the first infusion of tea, allow the tea to steep for 30 seconds and pour the tea out between the tea cups in a smooth back and forth motion to ensure each cup of tea is the same flavour and intensity. Subsequent infusions will take longer and most teas will yield about 5-6 infusions. But steeping the tea for too long will introduce bitter notes

But tea appreciation needn’t be such an endlessly complicated or expensive affair. You don’t need a premium tea or go to specialty tea stores – you might be surprised at how many different varieties of very quaffable everyday teas are available at your local Asian grocer. All you need is a teapot (preferably one with a narrow neck and spout as it is less likely to drip) and a tea that suits your mood.

The final note is one of tea etiquette. Etiquette dictates that you should always offer your guests tea before filling your own tea cup and finger tapping is the accepted way the Chinese thank the pourer for filling their tea cup (this is particularly true for the Southern Chinese and Cantonese). Finger tapping is done by tapping the index and middle finger on the table 3 quick times.  To clarify, this is only done whilst or just after the tea has been poured. Legend has it that The Qing emperor Qian Long liked to travel incognito to survey the country and one day whilst at a teahouse he poured his servant a cup of tea. The servant couldn’t kowtow in gratitude as it would reveal the Emperor’s identity so he improvised by bending his index and middle fingers onto the table to represent bending of the knees to kowtow three times to the Emperor. Since then, the gesture has been used widely to thank others for offering tea and has now evolved to three quick finger taps.

So next time, be sure to thank others properly for offering you tea and happy tea drinking! *tap tap tap*

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Helen | Grab Your Fork August 24, 2014 at 11:14 pm

Am definitely appreciating Chinese teas a lot more the older I get. And call me a purist, but I much prefer these to a lot of the flavoured teas presented in fancy packaging!
Helen | Grab Your Fork recently posted..Roast goose and suckling pig in Hong Kong: Yung Kee, Asiania and Tai Chung WahMy Profile

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