The third day of World Tea Expo 2014 started rather unexpectedly, as we pulled into the parking garage and encountered Harley Quinn. On roller skates. As we walked to the expo center, we met up with a variety of other comic characters — along with some characters from movie and TV shows. Yes, it was cosplay time at a comic book convention. Parked in front of the expo center, we saw a variety of vehicles: Kit from Knight Rider, three (Count em! Three!) Jurassic Park tour vehicles, the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with a dead ringer for Doc Brown, and quite possibly the most awesome Batmobile I’ve ever seen.
Once we got past the Star Wars crowd, however, it was back to the business of tea. And most of that consists of placing orders on the last day of expo to catch all of the show specials. Most of what we purchased was pu-erh tea, which I drink a lot of these days. A good part of the reason we buy so much pu-erh at the World Tea Expo is that there’s a rich variety available, but it can be hard to find in the U.S.
Looking for a nice first-flush Darjeeling? Every major tea importer or distributor has one. Sencha? There’s hardly a catalog without at least one. Earl Grey? Even grocery stores in Montana are likely to carry more than one. But if you’re looking for unique and tasty pu-erh teas, you just might have a long (and pleasant) task ahead of you.
At World Tea Expo, there’s a broad variety of pu-erh laid out on tables all across the expansive show floor, almost all of it compressed into cakes of some form or another. One of the most intriguing we came across this year is a jasmine sheng pu-erh. It has the same jasmine aroma that any Chinese green jasmine tea has, but the underlying flavor is much more robust. A touch of the expected pu-erh earthiness comes through, along with more astringency than most. Part of the astringency is explained by the relatively long steeping time that LongRun used in their booth. They steeped for about four minutes. When I got it home, I played around and decided two minutes is more my speed on this one.
Yes, I can hear the faux gagging sounds coming from the purists, aghast at the idea of scenting a pu-erh tea. Pish tosh, I say to you. I’ll drink my straight pu-erh in the morning, but this lightly scented jasmine delight is just the thing for mid-afternoon. Also, being such a young fermented tea (2012), it will continue to get better and smoother for many years, aging like a fine wine. If you end up with enough self-control to put some away for five more years, it will be awesome!
Two other interesting things about that picture: the color of the tea in the glass in the background, and the pu-erh knife in the foreground. If you’re used to shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which brews up very dark red, this pale green concoction will look mighty odd. I suppose if I wanted to really show the color, I wouldn’t have set it on a dark wood counter, but that’s beside the point. Sheng (“raw”) pu-erhs are much lighter and more delicate than the “in your face” shu pu-erhs.
For breaking apart pu-erh cakes, you don’t want a regular sharp knife. Cutting it will tear the leaves. What you want is a pointed knife that will slide between the layers of leaves and flake them apart. This pu-erh knife, which they call a “needle,” has a very sharp tip and basically no edges at all. I also like the ceramic handle.
In addition to the other pu-erh cakes we bought, my friend and fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman slipped me a little present: two “pu-erh” teas from different countries.
I’ve talked about spelling of Chinese teas here before, so don’t let Geoff’s “puer” and my “pu-erh” throw you off. The transliteration from Chinese into English will never be perfect, and often you’ll find different translators spelling the same words in different ways. The spelling Geoff uses is how the town of Puer appears on most maps, so it may end up winning out eventually if we ever come to consensus, but until then I’ll stick with my way.
Speaking of the town name, that’s why “puer” appears in quotes on the tube. Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to use the name pu-erh unless the tea comes from the Yunnan province of China, where the style originated. The tea is named for the town where it was processed and marketed. A fermented tea from anywhere else should be called a dark tea rather than a pu-erh. We’ll see if that works out as well as “masala chai.” Translated into English, that one should be “masala tea,” indicating a tea made with a masala spice blend. Instead, most Americans call it “chai tea,” which translates to “tea tea” and loses the whole meaning. *sigh*
There are fermented teas (pu-erh style dark teas) made in a number of places outside of Yunnan. In addition to the Taiwanese and Vietnamese I got from Geoff, I bought dark teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces, and I am carefully aging a Laotian beeng cha as well.
There is no other style of tea that has the variety pu-erh does. Some I steep for minutes, and some for mere seconds. Some brews so dark you can’t see through it, and some as light as a short-steeped dragonwell. The colors range from yellowish-green to orange to deep red. The flavors are all over the map. You can steep pu-erh leaves a dozen times, and each infusion will be different from the last. If you haven’t experienced pu-erh before, don’t blindly order some online. Go to a tea shop and talk to someone who really knows the style. Try several different ones to narrow it down. Only then, make the investment in a good pu-erh cake to take home and enjoy.
When I was a kid, tea was something that came in bags with a little tag that said “Lipton.” Visits to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant introduced me to the “other” kind of tea: green tea. The first time I ordered tea in a nice restaurant, I encountered the fancy presentation box, containing exotic varieties of tea like chamomile, Earl Grey, English breakfast tea, and Constant Comment. In high school, I drove a delivery truck for an office supply store in Boulder, Colorado, and one of my stops was Celestial Seasonings.
By that time, I was probably a typical American tea consumer. I classified teas into herbal, green, medicinal, and “ordinary.” Not until quite some time later did I discover just how much I was missing, and in an April tea tasting at Red Lodge Books, I tried to pass on a bit of what I’ve learned. This article is a distillation of the talk I gave that day.
All “true” tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are three major variants. The China bush (var. sinensis), the Assam bush (var. assamica) from India, and the Java bush (var. cambodi). Within those broad categories are over 1,000 individual subvarieties. Just as red climbing roses and yellow tree roses are both roses, all of these subvarieties are still Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.
There are six generally-accepted ways to process Camellia sinensis leaves, which produce white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Yellow tea is so rare that I decided not to cover it. All “true” teas have caffeine, including the delicate whites and greens. Red tea (a.k.a. African rooibos), which I’ll discuss next month, is made from a different plant that does not have caffeine.
White tea is the least-processed, and generally lightest and sweetest-flavored tea. It is typically more expensive than black or green teas, and is recognized as having significant health benefits. It is brewed at a lower temperature, and steeped for a short time. The leaves can be re-used, to make 2-3 cups of tea from one teabag or container.
The white tea we tasted at the bookstore was Rishi’s organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), from the Fujian province of China. This tea was voted the best tea in the world at the 2008 World Tea Championships, and the best white tea in 2009. The taste is very light and subtle, and there is a wonderful jasmine-infused version available as well.
White teas start out as young budsets (an early bud with or two leaves). After picking, they are “wilted” indoors to get some of the moisture out, and then baked or panned. After a light rolling of the leaves, they are dried and packaged for shipment.
Green tea is the traditional tea of China and Japan. It has long been lauded for its healthiness, and intricate ceremonies have been developed around its preparation. People study the Japanese Tea Ceremony for years before performing it publicly. Like white tea, it is brewed at lower temperatures, and can yield 2-3 infusions.
The green tea we tasted was an organic Sencha from the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan; voted the best green tea in the 2008 championships. It is a very traditional green tea, grown in volcanic soil, yielding a deep almost grassy flavor.
After picking, the leaves are steamed or panned, rolled, and then dried. Sometimes, they’ll be formed into balls or other shapes before drying.
Oolong is a very highly-processed tea; one of the most complex to produce. It is generally flavorful and rich without the bitterness often associated with black teas. Unlike green and white teas, the leaves are partially oxidized, which darkens the color and intensifies the flavor.
We tasted an organic Wuyi Oolong. The Wuyi Mountains in Northern Fujian are where oolong tea was first produced, and this variety has a roasted aroma, complex flavor, and sweet finish.
To make oolong tea, the freshly-picked leaves are first wilted (partially dried) in the sun, and then again indoors. They are tossed in a basket to bruise them, and then partially oxidized (typically anywhere from 30-70%). After oxidation, the leaves are baked or panned, and then rolled. The final steps are drying and firing, which produces the smoky aroma.
By far the most common type of tea in Europe and India, black tea is usually brewed hot and strong. Many cultures serve it with milk, sugar, or both to mitigate its inherent bitterness, and it is often flavored with lemon, orange, or other spices (Red Lodge Books has a fascinating vanilla black tea). Black tea flavored with bergamot is known as “Earl Grey.” Black teas are also the basis of English and Irish breakfast tea. Unlike white, green, and oolong teas, black teas are generally only infused once: use the leaves and discard them.
At the tasting, we had Rishi’s organic fair-trade China Breakfast, which won “best breakfast blend” at the 2009 World Tea Championships. It’s rich, malty, and robust; great for the first cup of the morning.
Black teas are usually made with an indoor wilting, followed by a cutting or crushing step. This can range from a light crush to a full “CTC” (crush-tear-curl). This exposes more of the leaf’s insides to assist in oxidation. Black teas are 100% oxidized, yielding higher caffeine content and stronger flavor. Following oxidation, leaves are rolled and dried.
This is probably the least familiar process to Americans, but it has been around in China for centuries. What differentiates it from black or oolong tea is a fermentation step at the end of processing. Although the term “fermented” is often incorrectly used instead of “oxidizing” for black teas, pu-erh is the only variety that is actually fermented.
If you’ve ever had a mulch pile, you’re familiar with the process: plant matter is piled up wet, and left alone. The inside of the pile grows hotter as it ferments. Unlike most teas, which are served as fresh as possible, pu-erh is often compressed into cakes (sometimes immense bricks) that can be stored for years. Century-old pu-erh cakes are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.
Pu-erh is brewed in boiling hot water, and can be re-infused at least 6-8 times. I’ve used leaves ten times and still gotten good flavor from the tenth infusion.
At the tasting, we had a classic loose-leaf organic fair-trade pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The flavor was earthy and rich. The description may seem off-putting to some, but it’s definitely worth trying a good pu-erh.