I have come to know scores of people in the tea industry in Yunnan. I have observed and studied the craft and poetry of making tea and gravitated to those who live and breathe the green leaf.
My self-styled apprenticeship has been hands-on, learning, watching and observing what other tea people are doing in Teapopolis, in the ‘tea cities’ which are large tea markets, and traveling vast distances across Yunnan to meet, interact and converse with tea farmers, suppliers, manufacturers, tea lovers, in all manner of locales–tea factories, tea houses, tea mountains, terraced plantations, villages, old tea forests, hotel lobbies.
I have sampled, sipped and slurped more tea than I care to admit. Over a very short space of time, I have amassed a large collection of teas in all stripes. I have spent much of my time building a ‘relation-sip’ with each tea.
Just over a year ago when I started on this adventure, I began to record my tea discoveries in a spiral-bound notebook.
So what have I learned about tea?
My own tea drinking trajectory started many moons ago, while growing up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. In Camberwell, there was a Chinese restaurant that served gunpowder green tea and jasmine tea in white ceramic tea cups.
When I first came to China in 1985, I studied at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music and Liaoning University in the country’s northeast. Drinking boiled water was more common in this part of the world than drinking tea. I travelled to Suzhou with my bamboo flute teacher Kong Qingshan in the summer of 1987. We were there to meet a famous bamboo flute artisan and purchase sets of transverse bamboo flutes. I remember drinking green tea in a park in a pavilion with Kong. It was late afternoon and it was raining.
Later in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, I frequented tea markets, drinking jasmine and oolongs. I also drank Dragon Well Tea and loose leaf green tea from Sichuan consuming the green leaves during the hot summer months. I only started to drink fermented black Pu’er ‘cooked’ tea in Hong Kong four years ago in a tea shop along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, and only discovered unfermented green Pu’er two years ago in Kunming.
I now drink almost exclusively unfermented Pu’er and green teas, and as I have mentioned in a previous post, I never leave home without carrying a supply of tea.
I can only talk about what I have experienced, and while I’m not an ‘expert’ (a word that always makes me cringe), I am, in my small way, building my expertise (to paraphrase Havi Brooks).
‘A real expert,’ as Brooks puts it succinctly, ‘is someone who knows how little she actually knows and is throwing herself into learning more.’
So let’s get started on the first ten things I’ve learned. The list below is by no means exhaustive and in no particular order, and is scaled down from a much longer list.
Tea is not an object or thing, but rather an activity. It’s defining tea as a verb, an activity that encompasses tea in all its hues, from harvesting it, processing it, inhaling its aromatic essences, to buying it at a tea market, at a boutique tea shop, having it served to you or making it yourself. It is participatory. It’s not meant to be prescriptive (‘this is not how you are supposed to make tea’; ‘you should not do blah, blah, blah,’) but descriptive (‘this is how we do tea around here’; ‘this is how my mother taught me’), exploring and celebrating the myriad charms of the green leaf and how it has forged and bonded relationships.
I am not the first to want to ‘verb’ tea. The ‘About’ statement at verbingtea.net reads:
[verb]ing tea celebrates the drinking, smelling, collecting, discussing, experience, and culture of tea–you name it, we’ll verb it.
Tea leaves that look pretty do not always translate to tea that tastes ‘pretty.’ The dried tea leaves of some of the best teas that I have drunk don’t come out winning beauty pageants. Consider chunks of naturally-aged unfermented Pu’er or some coarse, dried green tea leaves.
If you want to get some idea of the aroma of tea before you start making it, place a handful of tea leaves in the palm of your hand, then release your breath with a ‘Haaaaaaa,’ then sniff. Not like a sniffer dog, but a slow, steady inhalation. The humidity of the breath will release the tea’s essential oils.
Pu’er ‘cooked’ or ‘ripe’ tea undergoes a process called ‘wet-piling’ where microbial activities are cultured on the tea to ferment it. Strains of Aspergillis Niger are said to be the main microbes added, causing a ‘microbial enzymatic reaction’ referred to as post-fermentation.
Before you infuse or make tea, make sure you are using filtered water, and not water from the tap. Many tea folks have for good reason written about the importance of water in making tea. Lu Yu (b. 733 CE) wrote in his Chajing, conventionally rendered into English as Tea Classic or Book of Tea, that the best spring water comes from a mountain in Sichuan that ‘flows slowly over granite or snow.’ Make sure you are drinking pure water. Buy bottled, preferably glass-bottled water or get yourself a good filtering system.
Tea loosened from compressed Pu’er tea cakes–bricks, mushroom or cone-shaped tuocha–will need quite a few infusions before the tea leaves begin to open. The tea is loosened and often left to ‘awaken from its slumber’ before the tea is infused.
There is no consensus on how long you should allow the tea to wake up from its beauty sleep. A slim volume in Chinese on Pu’er tea published in 2006 reads: ‘after loosening the compressed Pu’er tea leaves, place them in a clay container for half a month and allow the dried tea leaves to slowly wake up.’
It’s always a good idea to air tea for several days or longer if it has been boxed away, or travelled from one place to another, or shipped or flown from one region or country to another.
The first infusion of tea, which opens the tea leaves as opposed to steeping them, is also described as awakening the tea from its slumber. Releasing your breath with a ‘Haaaaaaa’ as described in point 2 is also a kind of awakening as the humidity from the breath begins to release the tea’s essential oils.
Another way to awaken the tea before the first infusion was recently explained to me in Kunming. Pour boiling water into a ceramic bowl then cover it with its lid and let it thoroughly warm the bowl before discarding the water. With the ceramic bowl now cozy warm, place the tea leaves into the bowl and cover with a lid for about 20 seconds. This will start to release the teas’ essential oils.
Freshly-picked green tea and unfermented Pu’er, especially during harvesting of tea flushes–a reference to young shoots of tea made up of a terminal bud and two adjacent leaves– are infused in a ceramic bowl or glass pitcher rather than a clay teapot. The high temperatures maintained in tiny clay Yixing teapots are designed for oolong or older Pu’er teas-both ‘cooked’ and naturally fermented.
David Duckler at Verdant Tea writes:
‘Green tea, white tea, and oolongs will brew up fine in Yixing but their delicate aromas and aftertastes are bolstered by a more pure and unadulterated brewing material like glass and porcelain.’
If you are interested in learning more about Yixing teapots, David has a wonderful article that I highly recommend called ‘Confessions of an Yixing Addict.’
The manufacturing processes of tea differ mainly in the degree of fermentation. Once tea leaves are picked, the oxidization process of fermentation begins. While green tea is often called non-fermented tea, it does undergo some fermentation, but the leaves are quickly placed into hot pans or large woks to halt the natural oxidization process.
If using clay tea pots is your thing, make sure you keep one tea pot for one particular kind of tea. Don’t mix them.
Higher water temperatures are necessary to open up oolong, ‘cooked’ Pu’er and black teas. Pouring boiled water on green tea, however, will scald or burn the delicate dried tea leaves, and in the process, destroy the leaves’ subtle aromas. In the preparation of delicate green tea leaves, for example, needle-shaped green tea leaves like zhuyeqing (‘bamboo leaf green’) from Sichuan, boiling water is poured into the glass first, then the tender leaves are added.
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Image credits: Baidu