What was the first tea you tasted? If you’re American, it was probably a cheap teabag filled with black tea dust, probably steeped for a long time and possibly drowned in milk and sugar.
If you have a taste for adventure, you probably tried a few other things later on. Earl Grey, perhaps, or possibly a pot of nondescript green tea at the Chinese restaurant down the street. Then maybe — just maybe — you stopped into your Friendly Neighborhood Indie Tea Shop™ and had your mind blown by an amazing oolong or a mind-blowing pu-erh. Now you want to taste all the tea!
Congratulations, you’ve just become the perfect candidate to join the tea tasting club at my shop (the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern), but let’s leave that for another blog post.
Thankful to have left that cruddy old Lipton behind, you plow forth into the tea world. You taste exotic green teas like genmaicha (roasted rice tea), hōjicha (roasted green tea), and kukicha (twig tea). You savor delicate white teas like silver needle. You chase down both sides of the pu-erh spectrum, sampling rich complex sheng and deep earthy shu. You try the full range of oolongs, from buttery jade to crisp Wuyi. You might even be lucky enough to find a tea shop with a yellow tea. Wow.
But you’ve left the black teas behind, your impressions tainted from those teabags you drank back before you became enlightened.
Yesterday, I taught a tea class on the teas of China. In it, we tasted all of the major tea styles, and sampled our way through five prime tea-growing provinces (Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Yunnan, and Zhejiang). There were oohs and ahs over the bai mudan white, the roasted tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) oolong, and the longjing (dragonwell) green. But do you know what stopped everyone cold in their tracks? The black teas.
I pulled out my favorite Keemun mao feng. If you’ve never tried one of these, stop reading now, buy yourself a bag, and come back. Ready? Okay. Let’s continue.
It’s easy to fall in the trap of considering black tea the “cheap stuff” and all of the other varieties the “good stuff” (except for that pond scum the Chinese restaurant down the street thinks of as green tea, but we’ll just ignore those guys). Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Keemun mao feng has a lot going on. It’s rich and complex, lighter than you’d expect, and if you consider grocery-store-brand teabags representative of black tea, this stuff will open your eyes. The people in my class kept commenting on how many layers of flavor this tea has, on how it changes as you hold it on your tongue, and the subtle sweetness they picked up in this (completely unsweetened) cup of tea.
Note, by the way, the steeping instructions in my slide above. You may like yours steeped longer than the two minutes I recommend. That’s fine. I’m no tea Nazi. Drink it the way you like it.
Next, we tried a dian hong, also known as a Golden Yunnan. It flips you clear across the flavor spectrum, with that color in the glass saying “oolong” as the flavor says “black tea.”
If you’re at this point in your exploration of the tea world, congratulations! You’ve left the cheap black tea behind and opened yourself up to a whole world of other tea styles. Now it’s time to come back home to black teas. Try the two I talked about above. Explore the vast difference between India’s tea-growing regions by drinking a first-flush Darjeeling, a hearty Assam, and a rich “bitey” Nilgiri. Sample the Rift Valley teas from Kenya (the largest tea exporting country in the world). Island hop with some Java and Sumatra tea. Drink a liquid campfire with a steaming cup of lapsang souchong.
Once you’ve experienced the range of flavors, textures, terroirs, and aromas from top-notch loose-leaf black teas, you’re still not done. Now is the time to turn your newly-expanded palate loose on some blended teas, like high-end English Breakfast. Go back and taste some of the flavored black teas like Earl Grey. Play with some masala chai and some tea lattes (try a strong Java tea made with frothed vanilla soy milk!). Start experimenting with iced tea, brewing it strong and pouring it over ice.
You may decide that you’ve moved on from black tea and that’s great. Or you may just find that you’ve developed a whole new appreciation for that stuff that got you started on tea in the first place.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a 2017 1st flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn estate. It’s very different from last year’s, when the picking was delayed by heavy late rains. You’d swear this was oolong tea. It’s extremely different from teas picked at that estate later in the year. I don’t know what (if anything) we’re going to end up with for a 2018 1st flush, as many of the estates in Darjeeling were left in horrible condition after this summer’s strikes, so if you have some Darjeeling tea you like, don’t waste it!
If you make a carbonated white wine, it’s called a “sparkling wine,” unless you are producing it in the Champagne region of France. Then, and only then, should it be called Champagne. I say “should” because there are a number of countries that didn’t sign (or don’t honor) the treaties involved, but that’s a whole different blog post.
The same applies to beverages made from distilling blue agave cactus. If you are in the Mexican state of Jalisco — or designated portions of certain other states — you may call that beverage Tequila. Otherwise, you have made mezcal.
The theory behind these distinctions is not so much the strict corporate trademark enforcement that governs most usage of names in the U.S. It is more a question of terroir. If you were to take two cuttings from the same grape vine and plant one in Napa Valley, California and the other in the Rhine Valley of Germany, you would get different wines from the two vines. Terroir describes the effect that the soil, weather, drainage, and related geographical factors have on the resulting taste of the beverage, whether it be wine or tea.
Darjeeling tea is often called the Champagne of tea (this appellation is usually reserved for first flush Darjeeling tea, but we’ll ignore that distinction for the moment). This little factoid has little to do with the subject of the article, but does make for a marvelous segue from alcoholic beverages to teas, n’est pas?
Like Champagne and Tequila, Darjeeling refers not only to a particular style of tea, but to the origin of that tea: the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. Darjeeling tea is unique because of its terroir, but also because of the varietal of the tea plant that they use. Most tea grown in India comes from Camellia sinensis var assamica (the varietal native to India), but Darjeeling tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the varietal native to China). Combining the terroir of West Bengal with the flavor of the Chinese tea plant produces the tea we’ve all come to know and love.
And, finally, we get to dark tea
Another geographically-named tea style is pu-erh (also spelled pu’er or puer), named for the town in the Yunnan province of China where the style originated. Only recently has the tea industry really started using the more generic name of “dark tea” to refer to fermented (as opposed to oxidized) teas.
There are two ways to make pu-erh: sheng and shu (also spelled shou).
SHENG (a.k.a. raw or green pu-erh) is the more prized by collectors. The tea is stored in a slightly damp humidity-controlled environment and allowed to slowly ferment. It’s generally not considered ready to drink for years after being picked. Shengs have the same vegetal flavors and aromas as a good Chinese green tea, but with very complex earthy undertones.
SHU (a.k.a. ripe or cooked or black pu-erh) gets a bacterial “kick-start” to the fermentation process, so it’s ready to drink within a matter of months instead of years. Shu pu-erh requires very little steeping time (I’ve spoken to producers that recommend as little as ten seconds), and many pu-erh drinkers start with a “wash,” where you add boiling water, swirl for a few seconds, and pour it off before doing a “real” steeping. Shu pu-er tends to be extremely earthy, with a “composty” undertone. The flavor profile is even richer and deeper than a strong black tea (often reminiscent of a good Keemun), but with very little astringency.
There are several common shapes of pu-erh cakes, including rectangular bricks, bird-nest shapes (“tuo cha”), and flat disks (“beeng cha”).
The standard size for a beeng cha (like the one pictured above, which I’ll be sampling and writing about soon) is 357 grams, although they can be found in smaller sizes as well. I’ve found several suppliers for 100g beeng chas lately, which is a more affordable alternative for someone new to dark teas or someone sampling a new variety.
Tuo chas, on the other hand, are available in a wide variety of sizes usually centered around 80-120g. Mini tuo chas have become quite common. Each is a single serving of tea, roughly 5g.
Bricks can be found in a variety of sizes as well.
Something new (to me, anyway) is the log-shaped dark tea. My wife, Kathy, and I found these at the World Tea Expo (the big annual industry trade show for tea people) a couple of weeks ago. The ones we purchased for our tea bar are logs about 3.625 kilos (8 pounds), 25 inches long by 5 inches in diameter. We’re selling a single log in its bamboo wrapping with a canvas carry tote for $99.99, but most people will be more interested in slices taken from the log.
In the picture below, Kathy and I are posing with what the tea grower calls the world’s largest log of dark tea. If it puts the size of that tea log in perspective, I am 6’5″ tall (195 cm) not counting the hat and boots. Not having a spare thousand dollars laying around, we didn’t buy that one!
There’s a big difference between the way tea is usually served in U.S. tea shops, and the way it’s served in Asia. I’ve been trying for a while to come up with the right words to describe it, and my friend Kory did the job for me last week.
Kory was sitting at my tea bar, trying to decide what he wanted as I was preparing myself some wild shu pu-erh in a gaiwan. I offered him a taste, and he said he’d give it a try. He watched as I went through the ritual and filled a small cup for him. He tasted it and said, “I’m looking for something more passive.”
My first thought was that he was referring to the process of preparing the tea (he wasn’t, but more on that later), and I realized that he’d just given me the words I was looking for. American/European tea drinking is passive, while Asian tea drinking is more active.
When my son and I went to Bellingham and Seattle last month, two of the tea shops we visited exemplified this perfectly.
The first was an English-style tea house called Abbey Garden Tea Room. We sat at a table and ordered our food and tea. They steeped the tea in the kitchen, and brought us teapots (with the tea leaves removed), tea cozies, and cups. All that was required of us was to pour the tea in a cup and drink it. The pots were large enough that we didn’t need refills during our meal.
The second was a Chinese tea house called Vital Tea Leaf. We sat at the counter and talked to the tea expert on staff (her name was Fang). She asked what kind of tea we liked, and set up a gong fu tray in front of us with an assortment of teaware. For each tea, we smelled the dry leaves and the wet leaves, and watched as she prepared a few ounces of tea in the gaiwan, gently agitating the leaves and fanning the aroma toward us.
The Abbey Garden experience was passive tea drinking. We picked tea we liked, and it became secondary to the rest of our lunch. We focused on the food and chatting with each other. With the larger British-style cups, we only had to refill a few times during the meal. At most American-style tea houses, those cups would have been even bigger — probably 12 to 16 ounces, and there would have been no refills required.
The Vital Tea Leaf experience was active tea drinking. There were no distractions, and we only got a couple of ounces of tea at a time. We were engaged in the process the entire time, and it was all about the tea.
Most of the time, passive tea drinking is fine with me. I am sipping on a large mug of houjicha as I write this, and although I’m enjoying it, the tea in my mug isn’t my primary concern at the moment.
But there’s a lot to be said for the active tea drinking experience. Watching the tea steep (experiencing the “agony of the leaf”), comparing the changes from the first infusion to the next, smelling, sipping, tasting, and concentrating on the tea you drink. I think after I press the “post” button for this article, I shall pull out the gong fu tray and gaiwan and actively drink some tea!
Sidebar: What Kory really meant
In my opening paragraphs, I spoke about my friend who gave me the idea for the terms active and passive, and mentioned that the whole subject of this article isn’t really what he meant.
What he was trying to say is that the taste of the tea itself can be active vs. passive. For you beer drinkers out there, here’s a comparison. You’ve gotten together with a bunch of friends to watch the game on TV. Your friend hands you a glass of beer just as there’s some great action going on. You drink the whole beer without having any idea what it was (it was probably Bud Light). There just wasn’t enough taste to get your attention. That’s a passive drink.
On the other hand, if he had handed you an oatmeal stout, a lambic, or a double IPA, you probably would have stopped what you were doing to focus on the beer. “Wow. What is that?” You would have smelled and sipped, savoring the beer and missing the touchdown that put your team in the lead. That’s an active drink.
The wild shu pu-erh I spoke of at the beginning of the article is most definitely active. There’s a lot going on in that tea. It’s rich, deep, and complex, with flavors and aromas that are very hard for me to identify. Kory was interested in a good, but passive tea. Perhaps a Keemun black. You taste it, notice it, and then drink the rest of the cup without paying attention.
Okay, Keemun tea lovers. I’ve painted the target on my back. I await your wrath.
As my tea bar does more direct tea buying (as opposed to buying through distributors), I have an opportunity to taste some absolutely fascinating teas. As I tasted some estate-grown Darjeelings the other day, I was reminded of how much difference the picking time makes on the character of the tea.
The three teas on the right side of the picture above are all Darjeeling teas from the Glenburn estate. The terroir is identical. It’s the same varietal of Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the Chinese tea plant) — all FTGFOP1 clonals. They are all black teas. They were steeped for the same amount of time using the same water at the same temperature. I used the same amount of tea leaf for each cup. What’s the difference?
- The light golden tea second from left is a first-flush Darjeeling, picked on March 20th. At that time of year, the spring rains are over and the tea plants are covered with fresh young growth. The tea is very light in color, and the flavor is mild but complex with a touch of spiciness. Although all four of the teas in the picture were steeped 2-1/2 minutes, I actually prefer my first flush Darjeelings steeped for a considerably shorter time (although everyone has different opinions on that). I’m drinking a cup as I write this, and it’s just about right at a minute and a half.
- The amber cup to the right of the first-flush is a second-flush, picked in June. The drier summer climate produces a heartier cup of tea, with a flavor often described as “muscatel.” There is more body and a bit more astringency as well.
- The darkest cup of tea on the far right is called an Autumnal Darjeeling. This one was picked on November 10th. By then, the monsoons are over and the new growth on the tea plants has matured. An autumn-picked Darjeeling will be darker in color, stronger in flavor, and fuller-bodies, but without as much of the spicy notes Darjeelings are known for.
These seasonal differences account for massive differences in caffeine content as well. Early in the season, tea plants will have more caffeine concentrated in the new growth, which is what’s picked for the delicate high-end teas. The data that Kevin Gascoyne presented at World Tea Expo last year showed a 300% increase in caffeine between two pickings at different times of year in the same plantation.
Comparing Darjeeling teas can be difficult, as much of the “Darjeeling” tea on the market isn’t authentic. According to this 2007 article, the Darjeeling region produces 10,000 tonnes of tea per year, but 40,000 tonnes is sold around the world. Even if you don’t consider the local consumption, that means 3/4 of the tea sold as Darjeeling is grown somewhere else. That’s why it’s so important to buy from a trusted source.
When selecting teas, we tend to look first at the production style (black, green, white, oolong, pu-erh), and then for the origin (a Keemun black tea from China is quite different from an Assam black tea from India). As consumers, we rarely know the exact varietal of the plant or the picking season, but those factors are every bit as important to the final flavor.
I suppose the main message of this article is that you can’t judge a tea style on a single cup. You may love autumnal Darjeeling and dislike first-flush. You may enjoy a second flush from Risheehat and not the one from Singbulli.