Tea, like cheese and wine, is often associated with a certain level of sophistication. And like cheese and wine, several regions claim to be the original inventor of this precious substance, and pretend to be the legitimate authority as to its definition and the unique and correct way of serving it.
The truth might rather be that there is no uniqueness, but a plurality that makes those subjects so fascinating.
Whether it is green tea, Chinese tea or black tea; whether it is served pure or with additional ingredients (examples of this include an onion soup served in Mongolia and the sweet iced tea of the South of the USA), it seems that tea lovers will never agree on which is the 'real tea'.
This entry intends to reduce its scope to what is commonly called 'Chinese tea'. And even in this restricted field there are lots of different teas to consider.
Origin of Tea Drinking
Tea was reputedly discovered over 5,000 years ago by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, who habitually boiled his drinking water. Leaves from the tree he was sheltering under, Camellia sinensis, fell into the pot and thus the first tea was brewed.
From Black to Green... and In-between
Chinese tea is an acquired taste, probably as complex and diverse as French wine. But there are ways to simplify the distinctions, so that the novice enthusiast can begin to look out for a few things.
Different Varieties, Types, and Regions of Origin
Tea is related to the camelia, a plant that is commonly found in flower on balconies. The species (Camelia sinensis) includes a wide range of varieties. The variety/type, the region where it grows, the altitude, and the climate all have a strong influence on the taste of the final product.
'Chinese tea' usually comes from the South of China, from Taiwan, or a few other mountainous areas in South-east Asia. Different types of tea are often designated by the name of the region they come from (like Pu'er), by a traditional/mythical name (like Tie GuanYin), or simply by a number (#12 of Taiwan, #13 of Taiwan)1.
But origin is not the only aspect to influence flavour, as tea leaves usually go through a complex process of fermentation, drying, pressing and roasting, before they can be used.
Different Levels of Fermentation
After collection, the tea leaves are left to dry (under the sun, or in heated dryers) for a while. Depending on the duration of this step, and general considerations of hygrometry and the like, different levels of fermentation can be reached.
To simplify, 'green tea' would be close to a level 0, while 'black tea' is closer to 100. In between lie the different types of Chinese tea.
|Level of fermentation||0-5||5-15||15-25||25-35||35-45||45-60||60-75||80-100|
|Type of tea||Green tea (not fermented)||Chinese tea (semi-fermented)||Black tea (fully fermented)|
|Examples||Japanese Green Tea, LongJing, BiLuo Chun||White tea||WenShan, Jasmine tea||MingDe||SongBo||Tie GuanYin||Oolong, Pu'er||Assam, Darjeeling|
|Colour of the drink||Yellow-green||yellow to light orange to pinkish||deep orange to dark brown|
Different Roasting Degrees
The second important step in processing tea leaves is roasting. Again, depending on the duration and temperature of this step, different roasting degrees can be reached, from 'raw tea' to completely roasted.
Usually, teas are classified in three groups: raw, half-roast, full roast.
Different Traditions Interfering
The tools used and conditions of the previous steps, as well as different ways of handling and packing the tea leaves, traditionally vary from region to region, and lead to very different characteristics in the final product. Tea leaves can be pressed together in the shape of a small ball, a square brick, etc, as with Pu'er, or it can be pressed individually to take the shape of miniature deer's antlers, like the famous LongJing tea, or each leaf rolled (manually or by more automated means) like most Oolong or Gunpowder teas.
The season of collection also plays a role, and often, teas are identified as 'Spring tea', 'second flush', 'Winter tea' and so on.
Good quality leaves are used whole, never chopped, and the best are the terminal leaves of a branch. Wood (pieces of branches and bark) should never be found in a pack of good tea.
After use, tea lovers often pull a few leaves out of the teapot to appreciate their size, shape and colour.
As for black tea, some additional ingredients, mostly flowers, are sometimes added. The most famous one would be the HsiangPian served in many Cantonese and Dim Sum restaurants, where good tea leaves are mixed with a small amount of dried jasmine flowers. In the same way, rose buds or white chrysanthemums are sometimes added to Pu'er tea to enhance its specific earthly flavour. Or in Korea, raw green tea is brewed with pine needles to make the very fragrant Sor-Yap Cha.
The Four T's for Tea
When to drink a specific type of tea is not just a matter of taste or availability.
In traditional Chinese medicine, non-fermented, raw, green tea is considered very 'cold'2, and is best drunk in the middle of the afternoon, when the body's energies are at their 'hottest'. In general, the less roasted and fermented the tea leaves, the 'colder' they are. Drinking 'cold' in the morning can bring unpleasant digestive effects (diarrhea), and can make you actually feel cold.
It seems also that less roasted/fermented tea releases more stimulating substances (mostly caffeine and vitamin C). Legend has it that tea was first discovered by a monk who used to chew raw tea leaves to stay awake through his long hours of studying religious texts. If you drink this type of tea too late in the afternoon/evening, you might not fall asleep easily.
Some types of tea might traditionally require the use of certain tools, shapes and materials. For example, sometimes two cups may be used. Tea is first poured into one cup, and then is poured from that cup into the second one, so that you can enjoy the fragrance of very hot tea evaporating.
Of the many tools that appear in the preparation of Chinese tea, some are absolutely essential, while some are quite convenient and may or may not be used. For simplicity, here's a list:
The teapot - Teapots for brewing Chinese tea are usually made of clay, without any glazing, and are normally very small; a teapot the size of a fist is already a large one! You might have seen some of these in Chinese antique shops or in flea markets and thought they were toys for some sophisticated china doll: these are actually the real thing as it is much easier to control the temperature if the teapot is small.
In Chinese, the verb that means 'to breed' (animals) or 'to raise' (children) also applies to teapots. Tea lovers often 'raise' several teapots, each for a different kind of tea. Because the clay is porous, it absorbs part of the tea, and it is said that the oil contained in the tea leaves will slowly build up on the inside of the teapot, to give it a healthy shine. New teapots are normally bathed in tea before the first use, to wash off the smell of the clay and to start the coating process. As a consequence, one should never wash a teapot with any kind of detergent. Just pour hot water in and on it, that's all it needs!
The kettle - To keep boiling water handy. It usually comes on a stand where coal (or an alcohol burner) keeps the water hot. Nowadays, electric kettles are often used.
The tea leaves container - It must be sealed tight, so tea leaves will not be exposed to humidity.
The tea cups - They come in many shapes, tall like miniature fruit-juice glasses, short and stout like little bowls. Usually without an ear. Their size is proportionate to the size of the teapot, and one can usually fill four to six cups from one brew.
A pot for the tea - Because tea must not be left on the leaves more than a few minutes, and the guests might not drink quickly enough, it is handy to have a second teapot, or a small jug, to pour the tea into when it is ready. Sometimes the tea is poured through a small filter, to stop leaf particles getting through.
The tea spoon - Usually made from a small section of bamboo, split in two along its length, it looks a bit like the large spoon used in traditional western groceries to measure grain, coffee beans and flour. It is used to measure the tea leaves before putting them in the pot. It also avoids contact between the leaves and the hand; as this might spoil the taste.
Sometimes a little funnel is also used to make sure all tea leaves get into the tiny teapot.
The used leaves container - After use, the leaves should not be left in the teapot, but should be dug out and disposed of in the used leaves container, usually a deep plate. If a new spoonful of new leaves is not quickly put in the teapot at that moment, but instead the teapot and tea cups are washed in boiling water, and neatly arranged upside-down to dry, it is usually the signal for the guest to prepare to leave.
The tongs - This tool (like large bamboo tweezers) is used to handle the cups while 'washing' them in boiling water; also used to dig leaves out of the teapot afterwards.
The poker - A very thin tool made of bamboo or turtle shell or horn, used to dislodge tea leaves that could get stuck in the teapot's spout.
The tea rag - Lots of pouring and soaking takes place during the whole process. This small piece of cloth can be quite handy to wipe things dry.
The tea plate - This rectangular or oval plate looks like a large flat box, on the top of which tea is prepared and served, with openings in the lid so water and spilt tea can drip though and be collected in the box. Often made of bamboo or other waterproof woods.
Only the first two are essential (teapot and kettle), everything else is optional. Some tea lovers will even drink tea directly from the spout of their very tiny personal teapots!
Water has to be hot, sometimes just boiling, but with very tender leaves, like green tea or LongJing, the temperature can be as low as 60 or 70°C (so as not to cook the leaves).
The rule of the thumb is: the darker the leaves are, the hotter the water should be.
If the leaves are still rolled in tiny beads after the first infusion, after the water was left on them for even 2 to 3 minutes, then the water was probably not hot enough (the leaves did not 'open').
If the leaves and the tea smell of cabbage, then the water was probably too hot.
The teapot and cups are first washed in boiling water, then turned around and are left to dry for a few seconds.
The teapot is then filled up to a 1/4 or a 1/3 with tea leaves, before the water is poured. If the tea leaves are good quality, when coming in contact with the hot steamy teapot they will start to 'exhale' their first fumes. You will notice something like the smell of freshly cut grass, with a hint of a fruity fragrance.
Look for signs of adding too many tea leaves: after the 4th or the 5th time of adding water, the tea leaves should open to their original size and shape, and will fill the teapot completely. They will stay in the teapot if you turn it upside-down, but are still easy to remove with a finger or the tongs. Too packed? Then there are too many tea leaves. If everything falls out of the pot there aren't enough.
Water is poured in the teapot, up to the top, and the lid is placed back on. Sometimes some water is poured on the top of the lid, to keep the teapot hot.
After a minute or so, the tea is poured out into the cups, and any remaining tea has to be poured into an empty pot, so that no tea remains on the leaves while you drink the first cup. This is very important, or it will turn bitter and spoil the leaves.
Water is poured several times on the same tea leaves before they have surrendered all their fragrance. Each time, the water is left a little longer on the leaves (adding about a minute to each turn). Each brew will develop a different flavour, with stronger elements fading away to reveal more subtle ones, until the leaves are completely washed. This may take between three to seven turns, depending on the tea type and quality, and the duration of each infusion.
The Pleasure and Philosophy of Tea
The whole process might sound very complex and impractical (although watching it rather than reading about it makes it all fall together). But drinking Chinese tea is an enjoyable experience, not a rigid ritual. Most rules and habits have practical roots, and all aim at developing a quiet atmosphere where the drinker can 'find himself' with tea being a means to find inner peace. In Japan, it was fixed into a complex and very rigid ritual (often referred to as the 'tea ceremony'). This is quite difficult to understand and enjoy without a full education in the arts and ways of Japanese tea.
It seems that the Chinese way of enjoying tea is easier to apprehend without too much training and explanation, even though one can find several schools that will still insist on the importance of rules.
With a little bit of practice, and a minimum set of tools, Chinese tea can be enjoyed at home or at the office. It is a pleasant alternative for office workers who do not smoke, and can't have a 'cigarette break', but still would like to enjoy a break in their afternoon...
Heavy tea drinkers sometimes report a state of 'drunkenness' due to tea, including a significant uplift of the mood, a certain level of happiness, sometimes even a slight dizziness, but without many of the side effects of alcohol intoxication (slower reflexes or judgement impairment, for example).
Additionally, several studies seem to show that tea, especially green tea and Chinese tea, have a positive influence on health, stimulating digestion, helping the liver and kidneys, even giving a boost to the immune system and helping reduce the risks of cancer.
Traditional Chinese medicine describes a certain type of addiction to tea, explaining that, because tea helps to fight disease and eliminates toxins, the body gets used to that level of well-being, and develops an addiction to it. All the more reasons to give it a try!