As promised, here is the information I have been compiling for the Hutong’s Maliandao Tea Tour (which I sometimes lead.) On the tour we discuss in more detail the tastes and characteristics of tea and the Chinese tea ceremony, while eating an incredible lunch and visiting local family shops.

Buying tea in China can be an overwhelming prospect… where do you start?

Most Chinese teas are grown in Southern provinces; however, large quantities are shipped north to Beijing’s Maliandao Tea Street for purchase and export around the world. Although a lot has changed since the emperors ruled, this tea migration still mimics the journey of the finest teas that traveled from southern plantations to the emperors and on to the Silk Road. Today, Maliandao still houses thousands of tea shops, mostly family-owned, that represent the seven main tea-growing areas in China (Zhèjiāng, Jiāngsū, Fújiàn, Ānhuī, Hénán, Sìchuān, Yúnnán) and vast array of Chinese teas. The street has become a bit more touristy since 2005, but retains its authenticity through being the largest tea distribution center in Northern China.

Tea Basics…
Did you know that all “true” tea comes from the same plant? To call that beverage in your hand ‘tea’, it must come from the camellia sinesis plant. The camellia sinesis plant originated in China, near the base of the Himalayas. India also has a camellia sinesis plant native to their base of the Himalayas. China and India are known for their teas because, like grapes, aspects such as the age and variety of the plant can affect the overall taste. While a tea tree 50-60 years old would be considered “new,” some Chinese tea bushes are over 800 years old, which is why it’s nearly impossible to create a taste similar to that produced by Chinese tea plants. True teas include white, green, oolong, red/black and pu’er. Herbal teas made from ingredients like mint, chamomile, rooibos or mate actually form another category of brewed drink, called a tisane. Although they are commonly referred to as teas, this is an incorrect name in the technical sense.

Soil, climate and variety of plant affect the different overall tastes of the tea leaves, but the most important elements of distinction between types of teas are oxidization and fermentation. Oxidization refers to the amount of time tea leaves are exposed to the air and the process of the leaves turning dark, similar to a cut apple turning brown. Fermentation refers to the decay of the tea leaf and is a process that is continuous after the leaf has been dried.

White Teas
White teas are popular abroad and originated in Fújiàn, China. These teas are made from only one variety of tea plant. They are first oxidized (exposed to the air until the leaves wilt and turn slightly brown) and are left in sun to dry. These teas are light and sweet, and have wide appeal. Often tea drinkers who are turned off by the grassiness of green teas enjoy white tea. It is a common misconception that white teas do not have caffeine. The white tea leaf itself retains more caffeine than other teas that are cooked during processing, but its effect it less strong because the caffeine doesn’t come out while brewing. White tea is becoming famous for its many health benefits, one of which is its beneficial effects for arthritis sufferers.

Green Teas
Green Teas have a flavor closest to the camellia senesis plant itself, and perhaps surprisingly, have the highest caffeine content. Green teas are picked, sweated, cooked and dried. The variety of plant, picking time, picking technique, cooking techniques and drying techniques, all produce different types and flavors of green tea. Common Chinese green teas include Lóngjǐng (Dragon Well) from Zhèjiāng, Bìluóchūn (Spring Snail) from Jiāngsū, Mǎofēng from Ānhuī and Mǎojiān from Hénán. Taìpǐng hóuguí (also from Ānhuī) is perhaps the most expensive and renown green tea because it is China’s national tea. It is hard to ship and handle because it is processed in long, thin strips and stands up straight during brewing. This tea can last up to ten infusions.

Japan also has a strong green tea tradition, producing varieties such as Sencha, a powdered green tea called Matcha and Bancha. Bancha is a lower grade Sencha that includes stems and Genmaicha is Sencha mixed with toasted rice. Unlike Pǔ’ěr, it is best to drink green teas as soon as possible after their harvest to retain the most flavor.

Oolong Teas
Any tea with less than full oxidation (like a black tea) is categorized as an Oolong. Oolongs typically come from Fújiàn, Guǎngdōng and Taiwan. The tea variety, amount of oxidation and rolling techniques all significantly affect the end flavor. For example, Yùlán is a type of Oolong tea made from a bush that produces a flowery, Magnolia-flavored tea. Rock Oolongs or Yánchá are from from Wǔyíshān Mountain in Fújiàn and are highly oxidized, dried and toasted. Wǔyíshān is known to have thousands of different tea varietals, and Wǔyí teas are robust with mineral characteristics. Dàhóngpáo, for example, is famous because the tea tree grows in red soil on the rock mountain. Ānxī, a county south of Fujian is famous for producing Tiěguānyīn or Iron Goddess of Mercy. These teas are lightly oxidized, then bruised and tightly rolled. They are fragrant, fruity teas with orchid or peach characteristics. Oolongs are sometimes mixed with the Osmanthus flower, which is a small, yellow, fragrant flower grown in Southern China. Taiwan also produces a variety of high-quality Oolongs, such as Dongding.

Red/Black Teas
Black teas, known in China as hóngchá (red tea) are fully oxidized and seen less in China than other parts of the world. Common Chinese black teas include Zhēngshān xiǎozhòng and Diānhóng (Yunnan Imperial). Chinese black teas are robust and often malty. Red/Black teas are more like what you would traditionally find in Western countries in a teabag. Teabags are filled with crushed and broken tea leaves (those which aren’t good enough for loose leaf tea), with a high surface area. This creates a sudden, full burst of flavor, which quickly dissipates, meaning the teabag is really only good for one steep.

Pǔ’ěr Teas
Pǔ’ěr is a fully cooked tea that is made in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The pǔ’ěr name comes from the pǔ’ěr region of Yunnan, where this tea was originally processed in imperial China. Known in China as heīchá (black tea), pǔ’ěrs are created through a microbial fermentation process that involves both fermentation by organisms growing in the tea and oxidization. Pǔ’ěr is picked and cooked, often heat-blasted in a wok, and then dried immediately in the sun. The sun drying process creates a base material called Saiqing maocha, which is then further processed into shóu or shēng pǔ’ěr. Shēng pǔ’ěr is steamed and pressed into caked or bricks of tea and then baked to remove any final moisture. Shóu pǔ’ěr goes through wodui processing, which was invented by the Menghai pǔ’ěr factory in the 1960s to mimic the flavor of aged shēng pǔ’ěr teas. The process was a state secret for many years. Pǔ’ěr continues to ferment and change in flavor the longer it is kept, and is the only tea to increase in value with age.

Nowadays pǔ’ěr may be the most famous tea in China, but it has only been this way for less than 50 years. The combination of Chinese investment into pǔ’ěr bricks, the introduction of this tea into the international markets via Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and the perceived health benefits of pǔ’ěr have caused the price and popularity of pǔ’ěr to sky-rocket. In fact, in efforts to regulate the quality of pǔ’ěr for investment purposes, as of December 2008, only teas produced in Yunnan province’s 639 towns and 11 prefectures and cities can be labeled “Puer.”

You can now see disks of pǔ’ěr bricks in most tea houses and lots of souvenir shops around China, as it has become a national phenomenon. Oddly enough, pǔ’ěr stored in Beijing may be less dark and flavorsome than when stored in other areas of the world with different climates and more moisture!

*The Hutong offers an 8-day Biking, Culinary and Tea Journey to the beautiful countryside and tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, so you can experience tea country first-hand, and even pick your own tea brick, and supports Tea Journeys, an innovative tea company that offers private tea ceremonies, unique flavor infusions, corporate gifts and more! http://www.t-journeys.com/

Email: erin@thehutong.com for details.


Helpful Chinese Tea Words

茶 chá Tea
绿茶 lù chá Green Tea
乌龙茶 wūlóng chá Oolong Tea
红茶 hóng chá Black (red) Tea
白茶 bái chá White Tea
黑茶 hēi chá Pu’er Tea
普洱 pǔ’ěr Pu’er Tea
生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr “uncooked” pu’er
熟普洱 shóu pǔ’ěr “cooked” pu’er
茉莉花茶 mòlihuā chá Jasmine Tea
菊花茶 júhuā chá Chrysanthemum Tea

香气 xiāng qì scent
香味 xiāng weì taste
口感 kǒu gǎn ‘mouth feel’

好喝 hǎo hē tastes good
不好喝 bú hǎo hē tastes bad
我喜欢 wǒ xǐ huan I like it
我不喜欢 wǒ bú xǐ huan I don’t like it
很浓 hěn nóng very strong
很淡 hěn dàn very weak

斤 jīn Tea weight measurement=500 g
克 kè gram
一两 yī liǎng 50 grams

茶壶 cháhú teapot
茶杯 chábēi teacup
盖碗 gàiwǎn traditional Chinese tea brewing cup
茶具 chájù teaware

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Compiled by and from: Sherry Zhang, Joel Shucat, Celestina Swanson, Sofia Courtney, Erin Henshaw, chinaculture.org and time.com

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