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

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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