Quickie, Tea Knowledge, Tea Thoughts

DISPELLING TEA MYTHS

Tea is a journey with no end. The more that you learn theoretically or sensorially, the more that you realise how little you know. This is something to be celebrated and not a cause for frustration. It means that tea is a passion that will last a lifetime.

Tea studying

Cup and notebook

Whenever someone is bitten by the tea bug they become voracious to learn, to understand, to know tea. How are they processed? How can I judge quality? How do I brew the perfect cup? The list of questions seems endless and people search for black and white answers. I myself have spent the past 10 years immersed in tea for my business, trying to unlock all of the answers to these questions. I have spent weeks visiting tea farmers around Asia, watching them, questioning them. I have worked alongside universities helping them to do research in tea. I have read the information (often misinformation) in as many tea resources as possible. The overriding common denominator in tea is this – there are no black and white answers.

At first this was infuriating. When I gave tea workshops I used to want to give my guests clear answers to any question. But the more I understood tea, the more I realised that this was impossible. To a farmer or a tea master in China this caused no bother, in fact they used to laugh at my maniacal and perhaps Western method of pinning one version of truth onto every aspect of tea. Over the years though I have begun to appreciate that the contradictions and shades of grey is what makes tea so engaging and personal.

A few months ago I attended the World Tea Expo in LA and was disturbed by a trend which pervaded the workshops and many of the stalls. There was an obsession to create fixed rules about tea. Sometimes it was disguised as quality standardisation, others were using it to sell courses in becoming a tea sommelier, and some simply to try to sell more tea. Of course it is important to understand the general principles of tea before exploring the exceptions to the rules but the message was always the same – ‘this is the singular truth about x’.

So I thought I would take a look at a few of these myopic rules and dispel them for you.

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1. YOU MUST BREW LIKE THIS OTHERWISE YOU ARE AN AMATEUR

If there is anything that should be learnt by looking through tea history, it is this: there are many ways to brew tea. From the origins of powdered tea to the recent advent of cold brewed tea, every culture and age has brewed tea differently.

I encourage all of our clients to learn to brew according to the specifics of the leaf and the culture in which it was produced. The easiest way to do this is to follow the tea farmers who have been brewing that one type of tea for generations. However, this is simply a starting point for experimentation and personalisation.

Let’s take an example of Fujian white tea. If you find yourself with a high quality Bai Mu Dan, traditional knowledge would say that you should use water at about 85-90 degrees (175 to 190 Fahrenheit) to avoid the tea releasing excessive bitterness. I have sat with white tea obsessives in China and watched them pouring rolling boil water over their leaves – an act that would have received universal derision by the tea expo community. But it is not right or wrong – it is simply a matter of taste.

The beautiful thing about becoming an expert in brewing is that you can control the flavour and texture of tea. You can produce different cups of tea from the same leaves by altering the temperature, timing, qty of leaves, material of brewing pot etc. Tea should always be personal. Some days you fancy a more astringent or bitter finish, sometimes you want softness and lightness. If you are open to learn then you can become adept at teasing out different flavours depending on your mood. If you stick to set rules then you miss out on this experience and you will always brew one dimensionally.

When I asked my friend in China what he thought about always brewing Bai Mu Dan with cooler water he simply said ‘Sometimes I feel that the tea tastes lonely without some bitterness‘. I think that says it all really.

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Bai Mu Dan brewed with boiling water

2. THIS TEA HAS TO BE FROM X

Origin of tea is fundamentally important. Aspects of terroirs are probably the most defining factors to tea quality. However, tea should ultimately be judged according to the senses and not by rules of origin.

For example, Imperial Green (Long Jing / Dragonwell) should supposedly be sourced from West Lake area of Zhejiang province as this has traditionally been the perfect terroirs for this tea. However, this area is not the same as it was hundreds of years ago – with demand comes comes over farming and pollution. There are a few fields that are protected enough to maintain their quality but much of West Lake tea has become lower grade commodity tea to satisfy the branding ‘West Lake Tea’. The same is true of Frozen Summit Oolong (Dong Ding) which traditionally should be sourced from Dong Ding mountain but the tea has dramatically dropped in quality.

So tea sellers and customers who blindly follow the rules are paying premium for lower grade tea simply for the status of origin. A brave tea seller will select tea according to their blind tastings no matter where the origin. I select my Dong Ding from Alishan mountain for example. My Imperial Green is from Lions Peak in West Lake (one of the most protected fields with no pollution) but I source wild growing Imperial Green too as part of our limited edition range. The aim is for clients to trust in our sourcing and to be paying for superb tea and NOT for the label of origin.

The way to judge tea is through the senses

The way to judge tea is through the senses

3. THE BEST PU ERH IS AGED

Young PuErh is absolutely delicious. In fact, in Yunnan, fresh PuErh commands a higher price than tea that has been aged a few years. The quality of the tea is very high immediately after processing and quickly drops within the first 6 months before regaining value after at least 5-10 years of ageing.

Those that follow the nonsense rules and blindly look for aged tea are missing out on the delights of young PuErh and most probably will be drinking 1-5 year old tea that is at its worst.

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Freshly picked PuErh being heated

So these are a few tea myths to dispel. There are plenty more so if you have any others then please post them in the comments.

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Tea Thoughts

FRONTIER TEA

A boy and his leaves - Copyright Don Mei 2015

A boy and his leaves – Copyright Don Mei 2015

There is no place on earth that is steeped (pun intended unfortunately) in more tea heritage than Yunnan province in the wild south west of China. The forests on these mountains are the birthplace of tea where, about four thousand years ago, the indigenous tribes (Akha, Bulang, Dai, Jinuo, Lahu and Yao people) began enjoying the psychogenic and aromatic pleasures of a certain leaf. The word spread locally and this little leaf began its travels along ancient tea trading routes to other parts of China, Tibet and Mongolia. Eventually the love for tea spread to every corner of the globe and altered the landscape, politics and customs of many nations.

Tea may be the most ubiquitous of drinks consumed by people of every colour and culture on the planet but it is always worth remembering its deep roots as a tribal drink discovered by a handful of mountain people in the wilderness of Yunnan. This is where tea is from, both geographically and ideologically and it is a special pilgrimage whenever I go tea hunting in this corner of China.

A tea picker, her baby and her leaves - Copyright Don Mei 2015

A tea picker, her baby and her leaves – Copyright Don Mei 2015

I say China, but this is not China. It is so far away from the imperial majesty, state pomp or exhausting economic frenzy of the other parts of this powerful nation. Even when I compare Yunnan with the other rural tea mountain provinces of China, it feels different. It is wilder and less cultivated both in terms of landscape and attitude. This is no surprise since Yunnan is a frontier province on the edge of China, bordered by Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Only a few decades ago, the only way to reach Yunnan was by many days on an uncomfortable bus or by crossing the border by boat up the Mekong river.

Just like any good frontier land, Yunnan feels rebellious and independent. It continues to be an area rich in ethnic minorities with a vastly different culture to the ruling Han Chinese. Yunnan is just 150km away from the drug fuelled history of the Golden Triangle and landing in Xishuangbanna (the tea capital of Yunnan) is like arriving in the wild west. Exciting, edgy and a little bit lawless.

Riding through Xishuangbanna

Riding through Xishuangbanna – Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Our hosts were Pu Erh tea farmers and our purpose was to taste our way through as many of their wares as possible. We were pretty successful and I will write a full post about the details of the incredible tea that we found but for this post I wanted to reflect on how tea really reflects its environment (or maybe vice versa).

Tasting in the Yunnan mountains - Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Tasting in the Yunnan mountains – Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Tea is considered in China to be the ‘essence of mountain’. As rain falls, the flavour of a mountain is revealed in the tea that it produces. But I think that tea is even more expressive. Tea grown and made according to the local traditions truly reveals the idiosyncracies of an area and its people.

Travel to Zhejiang in the East of China and you are surrounded with imagery of beautiful Hangzhou ladies with serene smiles performing tea ceremonies. The weather is cool and the land is gentle. The tea produced in Zhejiang is elegant, fresh and refined. Visit Wuyi and you find yourself surrounded by tea scholars with an intense pride of their vast tea knowledge. The weather is warmer and the terrain is rocky and intimidating. The resulting tea is deep, rich and bold, usually with a traditional bitter charcoal roast. Hop across the sea to Taiwan and you are met with picture perfect manicured landscapes and creative people with attention to detail and a desire to move things forward. Consequently, Taiwanese tea has clear, consistent and optimised flavour with a more experimental approach to cultivar hybrids.

Stepping off the plane in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan is like stepping into a secret land. The warm air is fragranced with an intense mix of sweet orchid and wet earth. The land is rich and fertile with an incredibly diverse ecosystem. But what is most striking is the independence of this province. There are no brands here, no intrusive marketing, no false imagery of photoshopped faces. This area has clearly been forgotten by all the marketeers trying to capture a share of the precious Chinese market.

Yunnan woman selling Fruit

Yunnan woman selling fruit – copyright Don Mei 2015

The result is a people without pretension who understand their life and their land. These are no-nonsense people who define the term ‘down to earth’. For them traditional living is not an image to sell to tourists but just their way of life. And guess what? They seem incredibly happy and content. Cut off from the meddling influence of those who want to control by spreading fear and the brands that want to sell by spreading dissatisfaction, the people here are unflustered, smiling and harmonious. Throw into the mix, the distinct influence of Buddhism (remember that this area has strong ties to Tibet, Laos and Thailand) and you have a diverse group of people who value ‘being’ over ‘having’.

Buddhist students - copyright Don Mei 2015

Buddhist students – copyright Don Mei 2015

The flipside of this coin is that this land is raw and undeveloped. You certainly do not come to the mountains of Yunnan for creature comforts like air conditioning or toilet seats (you sweat and you squat). There is no other tea province that I have travelled to that contrasts to my Western urban life more than Yunnan. As an example of this contrast, I would like to recount one particular evening on the mountains.

We had spent the whole day tasting tea (obviously) – strong shots of wild ancient tree tea that had us giddy and happy. By 6pm we were hungry and so we made our way to a local Dai (ethnic group) household for dinner. We entered a house surrounded by free running chickens, walked up the wooden stairs onto a balcony with a feast laid out on ridiculously low tables and tiny, toddler sized stools.

Dinner is served - copyright Don Mei 2015

Dinner is served – copyright Don Mei 2015

Before eating, all the farmers began opening plastic bags and many bottles of moonshine appeared on the tables. This is a white liquor about 40% alcohol made from rice and wheat. In my journeys around tea provinces I have come to realise that most tea farmers also brew up their own spirits so this was pretty standard. Shot glasses were handed out and the drinking commenced.

Breaking out the moonshine - Copyright Don Mei 2015

Breaking out the moonshine – Copyright Don Mei 2015

Whenever doing business in China there is an expectation that you will drink together. In my experience, the best way to shortcut business negotiations is to eat and get stupidly drunk. It is certainly juvenile but there is no quicker way to get to know someone’s character then seeing them out of control drunk and the Chinese use alcohol in this way to quickly decide if they can do business. So, whenever I go to China I expect the challenge of the dreaded ‘Ganbei’ – the invitation for you to down your drink. So, surrounded by a group of farmers who I had just met that morning, I realised that the glint in their eyes and the knowing grins meant one thing – let’s get the foreigner drunk and see what he is about.

That's not water! - Copyright Don Mei 2015

That’s not water! – Copyright Don Mei 2015

This is how it usually works. One of your hosts will invite you to do a shot together to welcome you. Your glass is refilled in an instant and a minute later a different farmer will want to do a shot with you to honour you. Drink and repeat for all farmers and any other villagers who happen to be passing by. Therefore after about 10 minutes, everyone has done one shot except you who have done eight!

Our hosts having some moonshine - Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Our hosts having some moonshine – Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Needless to say after about half an hour and 10 shots of moonshine, Yunnan starting spinning so it was definitely important to eat. The menu was traditional Dai food and included delights such as boiled fern, flowers mixed with chilli, deep fried pork intestines, cow stomach, stinky fermented tofu, raw beef blood dip, pork blood noodle soup and ant larvae. Some of it was pretty good, other dishes were a bit of a challenge at first but after 15 shots it was just necessary to keep eating.

Ant larvae dip

Ant larvae dip – Copyright Don Mei 2015

By 9pm everybody was too drunk to continue and we somehow (I am not quite sure how) found our way to a village inn to crash. At 3am I was woken by the sound of an out-of-sync cockerel who was determined to get us all up. I was in a rock hard bed in a small room next to a farm with a toilet consisting of a squat hole with a shower above it (no problem peeing in the shower then). I tried to sleep but kept on being woken up by the cockerel and the loud screaming of pigs seemingly being slaughtered. Not the best night of my life. At 7am I got up and stared out at the mist covered forests and I realised in my hung over haze that the previous night perfectly encapsulated why I love Yunnan tea. It is wild, raw, local and unrefined and yet rich, memorable and unique.

In the same way as wine has the ‘fruit driven’ new world and the more ‘terroir driven’ old world, there are distinctive schools in tea making. China is the old world of tea but Yunnan produces the oldest of old-world tea. It celebrates the taste of the earth, the mountain and the single tree rather than producing a standardised populist flavour. It shuns any contrivance which manipulates the flavour to be more fruity, more floral or more creamy and instead relies on wild nature and time to do the work. This is organic, ecological, biodiversity farming, but these people have no knowledge or concern for these marketing buzzwords – this is just the way that it has always been done and it makes good tea.

Ban Po Mountain Sheng Pu Erh 2015 - Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Ban Po Mountain Sheng Pu Erh 2015 – Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

Yunnan Pu Erh is gloriously ‘rough around the edges’, it is unapologetically brisk, strong and potent. It is in some ways pure simplicity – a green assamica. But in other ways it is so incredibly nuanced. Which mountain? How old is the tree? Is it raw or cooked? How long has it been aged for? These factors have a big effect on taste. The ‘strong tea’ flavour of the tea itself transforms on the tongue to reveal incredible complexity as you drink – sweet, earthy, humid, floral, savoury.  The glory of nature without human interference is expressed in the cup.

Tea lovers may metaphorically travel the world to taste everything but in my experience they will eventually come home to Yunnan. This is because the tea, just like the people and the environment, is so powerful and independent in its simplicity and tradition.

Bulang woman picking tea from 1000 year old tree

Bulang woman picking tea from 1000 year old tree – Copyright Celine Thiry 2015

The next day I walked for hours in the ancient tea forests and then watched as families sat around their homes sorting through mountains of leaf. A farmer stuffed a few handfuls of his tea in a plastic bag and handed it to me as a gift. No business card, no brand, no packaging, just leaf in a bag without a thought in the world of selling it. On my return to the UK it turned out to be one of the best teas that I have ever tasted. Ever. At first I was frustrated that I did not get the farmers name but in a way it seemed fitting.

As the popularity of Pu Erh tea increases I truly hope that Yunnan does not get overun with marketeers and brands and I will try my utmost not to play any part in the corruption of this beautiful frontier province. I truly love knowing that the best tea in the world is not on the menus of expensive hotels being sipped by the wealthy but is being brewed by a happy, unpretentious farmer in a mountain hut accompanied with a cheeky shot of moonshine.

Long live Yunnan – the heart of real tea.

Local family sorting tea - Copyright Don Mei 2015

Local family sorting tea – Copyright Don Mei 2015

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Tea Rants

WHEN YOU SHOULD NOT FOLLOW YOUR NOSE

The aroma, flavour and (dare I say it) spirit of tea reveals itself when leaf meets water. Sure, you can sniff the dry leaves and a more seasoned tea drinker can observe their shape and colour in order to take a good guess at quality and flavour, but you will only know the tea once it has been brewed.

This causes tea merchants a problem. How do they ‘wow’ you in their shop enough for you to make a purchase without having to brew up every tea?

The solution is simple – scent the tea. By adding aroma to a tea the merchants have an instant method of exciting customer senses. The smells are so intense that even the most nonchalant browser can be converted into a buyer just by whiffing the shop air.

The added advantage of using this technique is that they can use cheap tea and earn a higher margin because once it has been doused in flavourings, very few people will be able to taste the quality of the tea leaves. In one moment of business ingenuity the tea merchants have taken a problem and found a solution which increases sales and profit margin.

Bravo to the marketeers but I have a problem with this aromatisation of tea. This is not because I am a tea purist – one look at the chinalife tea bar menu will show you that I am not – or because I am a tea snob. The reason that it brings a dismissive tut to my lips is because this is being promoted as quality tea and sold as if it were all natural – it is the equivalent of adding artificial apple and blackcurrant flavour to a cheap red plonk and selling it off as fine wine.

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Unilever brand T2 have nearly 100 scented teas on their menu

Let me set the scene. You go to one of your no doubt, charming and well-informed friends for dinner. You are treated to a lovingly prepared meal full of culinary delights such as artisan sourdough bread, organic outdoor reared roast chicken with in-season vegetables all paired with a well judged wine. At the end of the meal they ask if you would like a tea or coffee. You say ‘tea’ (of course) and they say that they have picked up some really good loose leaf tea. They rise and walk past their pride and joy nespresso machine to open their tea cupboard. They pull out a few packs and have to remind themselves of the flavours. You are offered a ‘Coconut and Ginger Green Tea’ or a ‘Wild Berry Oolong’. You decide to give them a miss and ask if they have any pure tea and they inevitably say ‘yes I have some Rooibos teabags’.  None of what you have been offered is real tea yet these clearly food loving friends have been convinced otherwise.

I am of course not saying that your friends should avoid drinking that ‘Caramel and Noisette Black Tea’ if they enjoy it (although judging by the amount that they have left in the pack, it does not seem to be an everyday brew for them). What I am saying is that the emphasis in shops should be on promoting the variety of flavours in pure leaf first. All the scented stuff should play second fiddle, a frivolous and fun distraction that should never upstage the star of the show. It is like walking into a fresh fruit and veg shop only to find that over half the shelves are taken up with artificially flavoured ketchup, cheap jams and chutneys.

This is not to say that all scented tea is poor quality. The Chinese have many classic blends (Pu Erh and Chrysanthemum Flowers) and scents (Jasmine, Osmanthus) but everything is natural and simple with tea being center stage. These aroma blends are completely different. They usually use a poor quality tea base and at best they are scented with industrially extracted pure essential oils but most of them are supercharged with artificial aromas. That ‘Green Apple and Egyptian Rose White tea’ (sound good huh?) may be beautifully mixed with dry apple pieces and red flecks of rose but please don’t be fooled by their natural appearance. The tea scenters usually soak those dry apples with ‘apple-y’ artificial fragrances and spray the tea with rose aroma. They might throw in a few other flowers to make it look pretty and colour the water. The result is a cheap-to-produce tea which looks exciting and smells intense – a guaranteed winner!

The disappointment comes when you brew your first cuppa. The boiling water hits the volatile aroma oils and you get a face full of scent as they evaporate away and you are left with a ‘meh’ tea that just tastes a bit flavoured.

So this is my call to action. I know that there is a pure tea out there for every palate and your friends should be tasting them. So the next time you spot a cupboard full of ‘Pina Colada Oolong’ please do the right thing and buy your friends a true tea present. If not for anything else, at least you know that you are guaranteed a great end to your next meal.

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chinalife

SEEING STARS

It is always a pleasure to hear customers praise chinalife tea but its an extra special day when THE GUILD OF FINE FOOD blind tasters award stars to our humble leaf. A total of 10 stars were given, with Imperial Green and Superior Iron Goddess receiving a 2 star award. To put it in perspective, less than 3% of the 10,000 entries received a 2 star award and we have two! This makes us very happy and since happiness is worth spreading, I thought that I would share the good news.

GreatTaste

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Tea Thoughts

TEA SECRETS – GETTING HIGH ON TEA

Tea has quite rightly been the darling of recent clinical research and much-lauded in the press for its impressive list of health properties. It seems that modern science is catching up with the empirical Eastern traditional knowledge that tea is incredibly good for health and more and more people are turning to tea as part of a healthier lifestyle. No doubt, I will be using this blog in the future to discuss the proven health benefits of tea in order to help sort the truth from the marketing hype but today I want to write about my personal and perhaps more irreverent approach to tea. I want to talk about getting tea drunk!

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Getting high on tea in Wuyi Mountains

Tea has acquired a sort of ‘goody goody’ image in the West and whilst I do not want in any way to detract from the wholesome attributes of tea, this image belies the indulgent and enjoyable psychoactive effects of tea. Coffee houses have for decades been trading off the stimulant effect of its drinks, pushing the buttons of the natural human instinct to get a ‘buzz’. The tea marketeers, on the other hand, are presenting tea as the ‘healthy alternative’ to coffee – its clear skinned and bright eyed sister wearing a continuous health halo. But to pigeon-hole tea in this way does it a disservice. It may suit the neat marketing angles of the Teavana’s of this world but it is not the truth of tea.

At its core, tea is a potent herbal drug with a cocktail of natural stimulants and mood enhancers far more complex in effect than coffee. The big 3 psychoactive compounds in tea are Caffeine, L-Theanine and GABA. Caffeine (in a fixed state) gives you a sustained energy boost and mental awakening. L-Theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier and effects dopamine receptors to make you feel more relaxed and improve mood and creative thought by stimulating alpha brain wave activity. The L-theanine is converted in the brain to GABA which acts as a powerful brake on the nervous system to calm and relax and improve brain function. Tea itself contains extra GABA which is absorbed by the gut and can again alter brain chemistry and your nervous system.

The result? Tea contains both powerful stimulants and relaxants that work synergistically to have a profound and unique effect – awake yet relaxed, high yet grounded, clear minded yet with an abstract creativity. This combination of activators and inhibitors in one plant is not entirely unique – marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms have a similar synergistic effect on the body caused by functionally opposing compounds. Do you see where I am going here?

If some of you are thinking that I am just creating another marketing angle to sell chinalife tea then I would simply point you back to the origin of tea – China. Tea was first cultivated in the Western Chinese province now known as Yunnan in about 2700 BC. Interestingly, Cannabis was first cultivated in the world by the Chinese as a medicinal herb from exactly the same region and in exactly the same era (first text mentioning cannabis in China dates to 2727BC, just ten years after tea drinking was fabled to be discovered). This region is very close to the Golden Triangle of opium cultivation, another powerful psychoactive plant. Therefore tea has a dateline and provenance directly linked to the cultivation of psychoactive plants.

The buddhist monks have used tea for centuries for its ability to enhance meditation through its effect on alpha brain waves, relaxation and mental alertness combined with its stimulating effect, meaning that monks could meditate longer without food. This is assumed to be one of the main reasons why tea seeds were brought back to Japan from China by buddhist monks to start Japanese tea production.

The ancient Chinese poets of the Song and Tang Dynasty (Lu Tong, Chio Jen, Su Dong Po) used tea as their muse to craft  their words in the same way as artists have always tended towards encouraging altered states to find inspiration:

The Way Of  Tea (excerpt)

by Chio Jen

With its clear bright froth and fragrance,
It was like the nectar of Immortals.
The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind –
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain,
A third and I was one of the Immortals –
What need now for austerities
To purge our human sorrows?
Worldly people, by going in for wine,
Sadly deceive themselves.
For now I know the Way of Tea is real.

The Chinese tea ceremony is often regarded in the West as an artistic and symbolic performance but fundamentally it was created to brew extremely strong and highly aromatic tea. Why do you think the cups for tea ceremony are so small? These are tea ‘shots’ to be tasted and enjoyed yet designed to give the maximum psychoactive impact. So if you travel to China and witness people sitting for hours talking, laughing and drinking tea ceremony style, this is equivalent to people sitting in a pub or sharing a joint with friends. They are using tea in exactly the same way. Often you will find their teeth stained a bright red from chewing Betel nuts for added stimulant effect. The Chinese even have a name for getting tea drunk – Cha Zui.

So I am guessing many of you are saying ‘I drink loads of tea but I have never felt drunk’. The fact is that the West does use tea for its psychoactive properties, this is why when there is a problem there is a tendency for us to put the kettle on. However, the way that most of us are brewing, and the types of tea that we drink mean that we hardly ever get the true effect of tea as experienced by those in the know.

The first time I ever truly became tea drunk was, fittingly, in Xishuangbanna Yunnan province (the birthplace of tea) sipping a fine aged Pu’Erh. I remember sitting and tasting Gong Fu style and after just a few small strong cups I felt euphoric, excited, giggly, light-headed and like my body was moving in slow motion. It was a moment of revelation as I saw the tea farmer grinning in front of me, clearly feeling the same effects. We were getting high together. A completely different aspect of tea understanding opened up and I felt like I had been initiated into the inner circle of tea, a secret from the hill tribes of China that was being kept from the rest of the world – tea as a drug, tea as a stimulant for social and spiritual interaction, tea as a lubricant for artistic creativity.

The way that I looked at tea changed dramatically that night and I have tried to reflect that change in the tea that I source and my approach to chinalife. Watching farmers in their misty mountain homes pulling out their tea for a tasting ‘session’ takes on a brand new meaning for me. This is like their personal crop of cannabis that they have lovingly grown in their terroir from their favourite cultivars and I sample them for their flavour and their effect – warming, refreshing, energetic, spacey, creative, focussed – I try to discern the energetic and psychoactive qualities of the tea just as much as their taste, aroma or mouthfeel. I have found that since adopting this approach, the tea farmers are happier to bring out their higher quality tea, after all, what’s the point in wasting prime tea on someone who does not truly appreciate it? The leaves cease being a commodity and instead become a shared experience between grower and buyer. It makes for stronger bonds and the building of trust.

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Sometimes the tea farmers serve tea shots with moonshine alcohol. The GABA content in tea increases the alcohol’s effect.

In this blog I am planning to write a ‘top ten teas to get you tea drunk’ post and we are going to do ‘workshops’ in chinalife so that our customers can be initiated into this inner tea circle. But, until then, I wanted to end on an important note. For all of tea’s indulgent and drug like qualities, it is incredibly good for your physical health with no upper limit. How often in life can you find something that gives so much enjoyment on a sensorial, emotional and spiritual level which is actually good for you too? So keep drinking and let’s get high guilt-free. Cheers!

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Tea Thoughts

THE AGE OF THE TEA CONNOISSEUR

Tea has had a long and eventful 4500 years of history since its fabled discovery in 2737BC. This little leaf has started wars, triggered political movements, changed cultures and landscapes across the world. It is currently the second most consumed drink in the world (after water) with an estimated 3 billion cups of tea being consumed daily. And yet despite this history and popularity it is truly incredible that 99% of the Western world knows nearly nothing about tea. But this is changing.

Tea in the West in the 1800’s used to be highly valued and the drink of the rich and royalty. As tea production became industrialised and mass produced it became more accessible to everyone and tea became seen as a simple cuppa. The downside to this commoditization of tea is that producers reduced the variety of tea produced to just black tea and began selling poor quality teabags. For over a century the West has been fed this awful substitute for proper tea and this is what most people thought that tea was all about. But people are finally discovering true tea. Brands like chinalife are breaking down the false preconceptions of tea and revealing to the West, the secret drink that has been enjoyed in Asia and select tea circles for centuries.

There is a new age of tea coming and it is the age of the Tea Connoisseur. Much like wine in the 70’s and coffee in the 90’s, the West is finally beginning to understand the immense variety of quality and flavours that can be extracted from the simple leaf by true tea artisans. Did you know for example that there are more tea cultivars than wine? How many have you tasted? Couple this excitement with the proven health benefits of tea and the drive towards functional drinks and you have an absolute rarity: a healthy indulgence which is bang on trend.

Brands like Unilever (Lipton) and Starbucks (Teavana) have noticed the growing trend towards the premiumisation of tea and are spending huge sums of money to promote and capture the market. But, for all their market research and money, they are lacking one key attribute – tea knowledge.

Ever since the East India Company sent a botanical spy (Robert Fortune) into China to steal tea knowledge in order to set up Indian tea plantations, the Chinese are very wary of prying foreigners and hold their secrets (and their top quality tea) close to their chest. As a buyer for chinalife I travel many times to China and visit farmers in order to tease out the secrets of true tea (usually after a meal and a few drinks!). The fact is that even the mighty Lipton only knows its own commodity and knows very little about anything else. So their solution is to take an inferior product and make it premium through fancy names and scenting with a variety of usually artificial flavours (zesty lemon or pineapple ginger etc). It is the equivalent of asking McDonalds to make steaks.

Other brands are trying to create the latest tea gizmo – tea pods, electronic infusers etc but again they seem to be missing the point. For all the beauty and complexity in tea the best way to prepare it is simply pouring pure water over the best quality leaf that you can buy. In most tea farmers homes they brew in a bowl – how much simpler can you get?

The new generation of tea connoisseurs are not interested in silly scents or expensive machines, they are primarily looking to understand and develop an appreciation of fine tea. Without real tea knowledge and direct sources with artisan farmers, no brand can meet this demand.

I urge every single one of you to join this growing trend by simply tasting a pure cultivar tea grown with love and passion by a tea artisan. I promise that one sip of the right tea and you will be compelled to keep exploring this incredible leaf and before you know it, you’ll be a tea connoisseur too.

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