Tea has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I had previously known that tea in China is very famous, but before I started my study-abroad experience in Yunnan Province, I did not know that Yunnan was especially famous for tea. During this past weekend, I have been to the largest tea market in Kunming twice. I now know how to perform the Chinese tea ceremony and have purchased all the materials to do this in the states. I have some new guanxi in teashops who will now give me the friend-discount whenever I want tea.
First, some background information on tea.
Tea is the product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, which is usually just called the tea plant, bush, or tree. The name ‘Tea’ is then given to the beverage prepared with cured leaves by combining the leaves with hot or boiling water. Tea is the second most widely-consumed drink in the world – second only to water. There are six different kinds of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-er. White, green, oolong and black teas are the most common. Every tea is made from the same plant. The leaves are processed differently after harvesting and are even harvested at different times.
A few facts about the tree plant and growing tea:
The tea plant is an evergreen plant that grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical areas.
Tea plants require at least 130 cm of rain a year and grow better in acidic soils.
Tea plants grow better on mountainsides at elevations up to 4,900 feet. The plant grows slower here and is said to acquire better flavors.
Only the top one to two inches of the mature plant are picked (these buds are called ‘flushes’). During the growing season, a plant will produce a new flush every seven to ten days.
A tea plant will grow into a tree if left uncultivated. The cultivated plants are pruned to waste height for picking.
Preparation and tea culture:
In China, tea is divided into a number of infusions (number of times you steep the leaves). The first is also used to wash/rinse the tea. Every infusion thereafter, you can drink the tea. Depending on the tea, the third through fifth infusion is thought of as the best infusion. In the Chinese tea ceremony, things are very informal, very different from the Japanese tea ceremony. There is a lot of casual conversation throughout the entire time. If I went into a teashop, the owner would invite everyone to sit down. For pu-er tea, he would first allow us to smell the teacake and tell us exactly what we are about to try. Then he would put between ten and twenty grams of the teacake into a clay pot. He would pour boiling water into the pot, put the lid on, and pour the boiling water on the outside of the pot as well in order to make sure the pot is thoroughly warmed. He lets the tea steep for about thirty seconds, and then pours the tea into a glass pot. Sometimes a strainer is put on the top of the glass pot so that no tea-leaves go into the glass pot. From the glass pot, the tea is poured into cups. There is one cup for every person at the table including the person serving the tea. This is still the first steep, so the tea from the glasses is poured out onto the table, which usually has a draining mechanism that leads to a bucket under the table. This first steep is also used to wash the cups and warm them up. Sometimes the tea from the cups is poured onto the top of the clay pot to keep it warm or on a little clay animal that is on the tea table. There are nine types of animals that can be on this table. They all have different stories behind them, but each of them is one of the nine sons of the traditional Chinese dragon. After the tea is poured out of the cups, the process starts again by adding boiling water to the clay pot. This steep, people can start drinking their tea. The person performing the tea ceremony starts by serving a person directly next to them and goes around the table so that he/she is served last. It is always polite to serve yourself last. If you are in a teashop, instead of verbally saying thank you, so that the person serving you doesn’t have to say you’re welcome every time he/she pours you tea, you can tap your index finger and middle finger twice. This gesture means thank you. If you would like more tea, tap a closed fist on the table, and you will be served more tea, although I have never had to ask for more tea because the laoban always notices when you have finished your glass.
Preparing Black Tea: The water should be added near boiling point, and the temperature of the water has a large effect on the final flavor. Black teas are usually steeped for about four minutes. Steeping longer can result in extremely bitter tasting tea. Black tea can be steeped about three to four times.
Green Tea: The water for green tea should not be boiling but between 176 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher the quality of tea, the lower the temperature. Hotter water would burn the green tea leaves and produce a bitter taste. Green tea can be steeped about four to six times.
Oolong Tea: Water used to brew oolong tea should be between 194 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Yixing clay teapots should be used to make oolong tea. These pots are usually red or brown in color and are some of the most famous types of teapots in China. They are typically unglazed. They are prized because the unglazed surface absorbs flavors of the beverage, creating a more complex flavor. Oolong tea can be steeped three to fives times.
Pu-er Tea: This tea requires boiling water. The first steep is always used to rinse the tea from dust, which accumulates during the aging process. Allow the tea to steep for only about thirty seconds and pu-er tea can be steeped up to thirty different times.
It was in 1907 that tea bags were invented, but it was not until the 1950’s that the tea bag became a success. Tea bags are easy to use and very convenient, which makes their use popular today. Many people think tea bags are an inferior way to drink tea for many reasons. Many people can taste the paper used for the bags. The tea quality is not as good. The small bag size does not allow leaves to diffuse and steep properly. Breaking up the leaves extracts flavorful oils. Loose teas are likely to be in larger pieces, so the flavor will not be lost as quickly, unlike in a tea bag, which uses leaves that are broken into small pieces.
In China, unless you go to an import store, you cannot purchase tea bags. Instead, most people go to a teashop and buy loose leaf tea. Loose leaf tea allows for greater flexibility. The consumer can produce weaker or stronger tea as desired. Strainers, tea presses, filtered teapots, and infusion bags are widely available in China so that the person does not risk drinking the actual leaves, but many people simply leave the tea leaves in the glass and block them from getting into their mouth with their tongue. Currently, I own an insulated mug that has a strainer that can snap into the top so that this is not a problem, and these types of mugs are widely available. I also have a filtered teapot so that I can make pu-er tea easily in my room. Traditionally, a gaiwan would be used to drink tea. This is a three-piece lidded teacup. The lid can be tilted to keep the leaves in the cup while pouring the tea into a different cup you can drink from.
Yunnan and pu-er tea:
Yunnan is famous for the growing and production of pu-er tea. Pu-er tea plays an important role in history. In the past pu-er was given by the people of Yunnan to the Chinese emperor as homage. Pu-er is a compressed and fermented tea, so it did not matter how long it took to reach the emperor because the better pu-er teas are between ten and thirty years old. Another significant role pu-er tea played is in the Ancient tea and horse caravan trade route or the 茶馬古道 (chámǎ gǔdaò). This route went from southern Yunnan into Tibet. The pu-er teacakes were loaded onto mules and horses and transported into Tibet. The Tibetan diet consists of mainly Yak products. This is a lot of fat. Because of the altitude in Tibet, they are unable to grow a wide variety of plants so they rely on the Yak for a lot f their food as well as a lot of starchy foods. Pu-er tea has many health benefits including helping your digestive system, so pu-er tea to the Tibetan population was very important and is still extremely important. In the past, the teacakes were so important, that they were often used as currency.
Pu-er can also be made into loose-leaf tea, but is mostly in the form of teacakes. The classic shape is called the bird’s nest. This is round with a slight indentation in the center of the cake on one side. The normal sizes of this kind of cake are about eight to ten inches in diameter. Pu-er can also be compressed into bricks, mushrooms, and almost any other style, but the more elaborate ones are only used for decoration, not for consumption.
There are two types of pu-er tea: 生茶 (shēngchá) and 熟茶 (shúchá). Sheng tea is the raw pu-er tea. This uses a natural fermentation process. This is also referred to as green pu-er because it is lighter in color. Shu tea is the cooked pu-er tea. It is cooked to imitate the aging process. Shu tea is usually less expensive and younger than raw pu-er cakes. Green pu-er leaves can also be sold in loose tea form, but it not as valuable as the aged pu-er. A decent pu-er cake can be purchased for between 60 and 150 yuan. Although a teacake that is older than four years and was produced in a good region in a good batch can be sold for over 400 yuan.
As I mentioned before, Yunnan produces the majority of pu-er tea. Pu-er is produced in almost every county and prefecture in this province, but the most famous region that produces pu-er are known as the Six Famous Tea Mountains in Xishuangbanna. Tea is one of the main products for the Xishuangbanna region. Xishuangbanna is located on the southern most border of China.
Currently, small tickets are imbedded into the cake during pressing that proves the authenticity of the tea. The ticket usually shows the tea manufacturer and the year it was made. This is done to prevent counterfeiting.
Pu-er tea can be aged to improve its flavor. In order to age a teacake, the conditions must be ideal. Regular airflow through the area so that you do not get a stale smelling aged tea is recommended. Do not wrap the tea in plastic because that will eventually stop the aging process. Tea stored in the presence of strong odors will eventually acquire them. The higher the humidity, the faster the tea will age. Keep the tea out of the way of water so that mold will not start growing on the tea. 60-85% humidity is recommended to age pu-er. Sunlight dries the tea prematurely and will often make the tea bitter. High temperatures are not recommended because undesirable flavors could develop, but low temperatures would slow down the aging process drastically.
A good pu-er teacake is sometimes compared to a good bottle of wine. Depending on the cake or bottle, the older the better.
I look forward to enjoying tea with you soon.