The golden age of Chinese tea
Tea have been cultivated in China for over 2000 years; in Japan for over 500 years, but in India only since 1840 and last in Sri Lanka sine 1880. It was not units 780AD, during the Tang Dynasty, that the first written record appeard- the cha’a Ching – and that the world used to describe tea tea. Lu Yü, a coutier, used his great work to provide descriptions of tea trees and their habitats, the utensils, used for infusing and serving tea, the places where the purest water can be found, the characteristics of numerous types of tea and much besides. This was the beginning of tea drinking as we know it a social ritual wich has developed into an art form.
The early tea trade
Contrary to popular belief, Brittan was almost the last country in Europe to sample tea. By the time the first tea has reached British shores, the Dutch Portuguese and French had been tea drinkers for many years. The Portuguese were the first drinkers bringing it to Lisbon from about 1580 onwords. Tea, coffee and cacao arrived in London in the same year, 1652. For Brittan where the tea clippers (sail boots) the post popular way to bring tea in to Britain.
The fight for supremacy
Coffee had arrived in Brittan just before tea and had been an immediate success. Within 2 years a rash of coffee house had spread across the country. However, coffee was to be the victim of its own popularity; the establishment soon perceived coffee houses ans meeting places for ‘ revolutionaries ‘ (Politicians and journalist) women were barred from entering and many became dens of iniquity.
Tea, meanwhile, had made a els than resounding first impression, being originally offered as a medicine. IN the 1660s- 1700s tea was mostly expensive green tea for novelty consumption by the beau-monde.
Rescue came from an unlikely quater. IN 1662 King Charles II married Princes Catherine of Brogans, who learnt about tea in Europe, and made tea popper drink in her adopted country.
It still is until today a very popular drink in Brittan.
HOW TO MAKE TEA
We seem to have forgotten how to make tea – whether it’s the result of a lack of time or trying unsuccessfully to extract some flavour from tea bags.
Why is this? Is brewing tea an art form that requires an indulgent muse or a sacrifice to some un-named tea god? Or is proper tea brewing the product of military discipline or a Zen-like calm? Actually, all it needs is a little patience, some good quality tea, clean water and to follow some basic rules.
The key in making tea is (as in everything) to practice, practice and practice again.
A ROUGH GUIDE TO TEA MAKING
- Fill the kettle with freshly-drawn cold water which is well mixed with oxygen (boiled water has lost its oxygen). Oxygen is vital to bring out the taste and aroma
- Fill the tea-pot with boiling water, to warm the tea-pot and so prevent the brew from cooling too quickly then pour out as more water comes to the boil
- Measure the organic tea carefully – for strong organic Fairtrade tea, use 1 teaspoon per person and 1 for the pot; for large leaf organic Fairtrade teas, ½ teaspoon per pot is ideal (or see our more detailed charts below)
- Fill the kettle with more freshly-drawn cold water, pour away warm water in tea-pot and pour the new water into the pot as it boils, because off-the-boil water makes very dull tea. Infuse for 5 minutes (see below). A quick brew never gets the full flavour from the organic tea leaves, whereas a long brew is astringent
- Add milk first, because milk dissolves better in hotter liquid
- Ceramic and china teapots keep warmer for longer and don’t taint the organic tea. Even better are cast iron tea pots, although they are a bit expensive. Never ever bleach the teapot
- Sit back, relax and enjoy!
CHINESE TEA CEREMONY
TEA CEREMONIES IN A MING DYNASTY STYLE
The following extracts are adapted from the Châ’a Shu, a manual prepared by Hsü Jan-Ming in the Ming Dynasty, when loose leaf teas were prepared in a teapot and drunk from cups. In previous dynasties, tea was in a cake form.
Have the utensils ready to hand and make sure they are perfectly clean. Set them out on the table, putting down the teapot lid inner face upwards or laying it on a saucer. The inner face must not come into contact with the table, as the smell of the table or food could spoil the taste of the tea.After boiling the water it should be placed in the pot, then you should take some tea leaves and throw them in. Now replace the lid on the teapot. Wait for as long as it takes to breath in and out 3 times before pouring the tea into the cups and then pour it straight back into the teapot so as to release the fragrance. After waiting for the space of another 3 breaths to let the leaves settle, pour out the tea for your guests.If this method is used, the tea will taste very fresh and its fragrance will be delicious. Its effect will be to produce well-being, banish weariness and raise your spirits.
A pot of tea should not be replenished more than once. The first infusion will taste deliciously fresh; the second will have a sweet and pure taste, whereas the third would be insipid. Therefore, the quantity of water in the kettle should never be too much. However, rather than have too little, there should be enough for some to be poured on the tea leaves after the second infusion, as it will continue to emit a pleasant aroma and can be used for cleansing the mouth after meals.
This should be close to one’s study – it is good to have a small tea room that is spacious, clean, well lit and comfortable. Against the wall place two portable stoves. Outside the tea room, there should be a wooden stand for utensils in which water is stored and a small table for the various accessories, as well as a rack for hanging teacloths. These objects should be brought into the tea room only when required. All should have covers to keep them free from dirt that might affect the tea.
JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY
MAIN TYPES OF JAPANESE TEA CEREMONIES
There are 2 main schools of Japanese tea ceremony, the Omotesenke and Urasenke. Urasenke is the more popular. All the ways of performing these tea ceremonies have many features in common, for example –
- The host, male or female, will usually be wearing a kimono, while guests may wear kimono or subdued formal wear.
- If the tea is to be served in a separate tea house rather than a tea room, the guests will wait in a garden shelter until summoned by the host.
- They ritually purify themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouths from a small stone basin of water, and proceed through a simple garden along a roji (dewy path) to the tea house.
- Guests remove their shoes and enter the tea house through a small door, and proceed to the tokonoma or alcove, where they admire the scroll and/or other decorations placed in the room and are then seated seiza style on the tatami in order of prestige.
DETAILS OF JAPANESE TEA CEREMONIES
Both tea houses and tea rooms are usually small, a typical floor size being sufficient for 4 tatami (traditional Japanese woven mats of straw). The smallest tea room may be just 2 mats, and the size of the largest is determined only by the limits of its owner’s resources. Building materials and decorations are deliberately simple and rustic.
Guests may be served a light, simple meal called a kaiseki or chakaiseki, followed by sake. They will then return to the waiting shelter until summoned again by the host. If no meal is served, the host will proceed directly to the serving of a small sweet or sweets. Sweets are eaten from special paper called kaishi; each guest carries his or her own, often in a decorative wallet which is tucked into the front of the kimono.
Each utensil, including the tea bowl (chawan), whisk (chasen), and tea scoop (chashaku), is then ritually cleaned in the presence of the guests in a precise order and using prescribed motions. The utensils are placed in a precise arrangement according to the ritual being performed.
When the ritual cleaning and preparation of the utensils is complete, the host will place a measured amount of green tea powder in the bowl and add the appropriate amount of hot water, then whisk the tea using using precise, prescribed movements.
Conversation is kept to a minimum throughout. Guests relax and enjoy the atmosphere created by the sounds of the water and fire, the smell of the incense and tea, and the beauty and simplicity of the tea house and its seasonally appropriate decorations. The bowl is then served to the guest of honour (shokyaku literally the “first guest”), either by the host or an assistant.
Bows are exchanged between the host and guest of honour. The guest then bows to the second guest, and raises the bowl in a gesture of respect to the host. The guest rotates the bowl to avoid drinking from its front, takes a sip, murmurs the prescribed phrase, and then takes 2 or 3 more sips before wiping the rim, rotating the bowl to its original position, and passing it to the next guest with a bow. The procedure is repeated until all guests have taken tea from the same bowl, and the bowl is returned to the host.
In some ceremonies, each guest will drink from an individual bowl, but the order of serving and drinking is the same. If thick tea (koicha) has been served, the host will sometimes prepare thin tea (usuicha) which is served in the same manner.
In some Japanese tea rituals, however, only koicha or usuicha is served. After all the guests have taken tea, the host cleans the utensils. The guest of honour will request that the host allow the guests to examine the utensils, and each guest in turn examines and admires each item, including the water scoop, the tea caddy, the tea scoop, the tea whisk, and, most importantly, the tea bowl. The items are treated with extreme care and reverence as they are frequently priceless, irreplaceable handmade antiques, and guests often use a special brocaded cloth to handle them. The host then collects the utensils, and the guests leave the tea house.
The host bows from the door, and the ceremony is over. A tea ceremony can last between 1 hour and 5 hours, depending on the type of ceremony performed, and the types of meal and tea served.
TYPES OF CEREMONIES
In Obon Temae, the host places a tea bowl, whisk, tea scoop, chakin and natsume on a special tray; these items are covered by the fukusa. Thin tea is prepared on the tray while kneeling seiza style on the floor.
In Ryū-rei, the tea is prepared at a special table. The guests are seated either at the same table (one guest) or at a separate table. The name refers to the practice of performing the first and last bows standing at the entrance to the tea room. In Ryū-rei, there is usually an assistant, who sits behind the host and moves the hosts stool out of the way as needed for standing or sitting. The assistant, also, serves the tea and sweets to the guests.
TEAS OF THE WORLD
“The best quality tea must have creases like the leather boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like a fine earth newly swept by rain.” So wrote Lu Yü in his Ch’a Ching, which was written in the 9th Century and is considered the first book of of tea.
Bringing this into a more contemporary setting, without question the best tasting teas available to the contemporary drinker are loose leaf, unblended single estate organic Fairtrade teas. Even if the tea leaf is not large, it should be well-graded and consistent in size. Such single-estate organic Fairtrade teas will never be the same each time because of seasonal changes, and much of the excitement just as in wines comes from experiencing and understanding the differences. For second choice, choose loose, small tea leaves, pre-packed organic Fairtrade teas, preferably labelled by country of origin rather than their “house” name. If all this fails, go for the convenience of tea bags, which generally contain mass-blended small leaf tea.
India is the world’s largest producer of tea, but most is drunk in the local market, with Sri Lanka being the largest exporter. Most of the quality tea from Assam and Darjeeling is exported to Europe (especially Germany) and Japan.
The turbulent Brahmaputra River runs through Assam. This is where Indian tea was born – Robert Bruce found the tea plant growing wild here in 1823. Assam is naturally gifted. A tropical climate, and fertile alluvial soil, makes it ideal for tea cultivation. When Assam tea first appeared, picked from China Jat grown in Bengal, north of Calcutta, it was affected by the soil and growing conditions and tasted entirely different from the China tea people in Europe were used to. Soon afterwards, tea from newly-discovered Assam Jat took over.
The new Empire Tea was altogether more robust with a heavy malty character and a rich dark liquor. These days the best large tea leaf Special Finest Tippy Orange Pekoe tea is only produced on a few tea estates. The more common leaf tea is Golden Broken Orange Pekoe grade, a neat square dark brown leaf with a pale tip, which is good and strong with a flinty, light malty character. Broken Orange Pekoe tea is most generally available as a popular, strong, everyday brew.
The Assam tea season starts in March with a small quantity of First Flush, which is green and astringent. The Second Flush begins at the end of April and lasts until the August monsoon season. Late season Autumnal tea is good about one year in ever four, the rest of the time it is rather brown. Assam is a solid, strong organic tea and should be made with care – too powerful a brew can fur up one’s teeth.
The smaller grades – blacker leafed, neater Orange Pekoe Tea Fannings – are perfect for the notorious Sergeant Major’s Tea or Workman’s brew or Builder’s Tea or Irish Breakfast tea, in which you can stand your spoon. Sadly for the pure organic tea lover, much of Assam’s production is targeted to CTC production for tea bags and the local marketplace, where it provides wonderful strength and fullness but always in a blend.
Darjeeling, nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas, produces a high-grown organic tea that benefits from steady rainfall, light soil and the cool atmosphere of the hills. This organic tea has an aroma all its own. A mysterious mix of the mountain peaks, soft Himalayan soil and the misty air that the tea leaves breathe.
A good standard tea fetches twice the price of any other and for the best Second Flush Darjeeling Tea the sky is the limit. In our opinion, Darjeeling is simply the best organic Fairtrade tea in the world. It has everything the tea drinker wants and a heavenly, luxurious flavour as well. Some of the older estates still have areas of China Jat, cuttings from bushes which must have been planted 150 years ago, and which still retain a heady sweetness.
Dramatic seasonal changes show up in the taste: First Flush Darjeeling tea appears as soon as the snow melts, and in some areas the rush is on to pick the tender new shoots as early as February. The flavour of the First Flush tea is light and subtle, because the world famous organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea taste has not yet been fully developed.
Main crop organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea, picked from April onwards, has unbeatable taste. The best of these Second Flush Teas have the classic flavour of muscatel – an almost meadowy fragrance of newly mown fresh hay.
Organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea is a relatively scarce and flavorsome organic tea and so, like a great Bordeaux wine, is expensive. It is a false economy to buy a cheap leaf or a blended Darjeeling tea; you wouldn’t buy a cheap champagne or an imitation designer suit, so you should buy the best and enjoy the luxury of it.
Whatever its grade, an organic Darjeeling tea would never be termed strong. The best are grandly titled Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe grade; a large leaf organic Darjeeling tea, manufactured in the orthodox way with plenty of pale tip and the remaining leaf green or brown in colour. Nor should it be made strong – 2 teaspoons of organic Fairtrade Darjeeling tea per six cup pot with 5 minutes to brew. Overbrewing will bring out the astringency of the green leaf. Standard FOP tea can be drunk with milk, but the fancy grades are better drunk lightly brewed.
The south western highlands of Sri Lanka offer the perfect growing conditions for organic tea, with each side of the range benefiting from the annual monsoon at different times of the year. As there is no real winter, tea picking is continuous, which means less tip from new spring growth. Orange Pekoe accounts for less than 2% of production and is medium grown at 610m – 910m (2000ft – 3000ft). These leaves are up to 20mm long and have a clean, smooth and almost oaky flavour. 80% of Ceylon teas are BOP and BOPF, noticeably smaller than similar grades of Assam tea, but clean, neat and dust-free, with less tannin.
The rolling hillsides south of the historic town of Kandy are covered with tea. At 610m – 910m (2000ft – 3000ft) in altitude, Kandy teas are classic medium-grown, producing a delicious smooth brew with good colour and strength.
70km from Kandy, nestling between peaks of up to 9000ft, are the valley and town of Nuwara Eliya (pronounced nuraylia). This is one of the most beautiful tea-growing areas – tea gardens cling to the steep slopes and are irrigated by mountain streams. It produces what is known locally as “the Champagne of Ceylon Teas” with great flavour and a light, clean style. The liquor is not as dark as Kandy or as coppery as Dimbula, but the teas are bright, crisp and brisk and retain a clear colour even when left to brew.
The Uva district, near the town of Badulla, lies at 910m – 1520m (3000ft – 5000ft) above sea level. Its teas are much favoured by the Japanese, who consider it the best of all Ceylon organic teas; it’s also our favourite place for organic Fairtrade Ceylon tea. Despite a liquor which is pale in colour, its flavour is astringent enough to be almost bitter and is pleasantly softened with milk.
The tea leaves are quite simply picked, rolled and immediately dried in hot air dryers or giant woks before they start to go brown. Organic green teas are believed to have health properties, ranging from dietary through to relieving heart disease. In our view, Chinese green teas are sometimes a little too astringent for our tastes and we have selected some lighter Chinese green teas and a Green Darjeeling, as well as an organic jasmine tea.
One of the original green teas seen by European traders, Gunpowder is rolled into dark green balls that reminded them of explosives. Darkening has not occurred because fermentation has not taken place, so the liquor is transparent and straw-coloured with a dry, mildly astringent taste. We have a wonderful organic green gunpowder tea from China.
For a very short period at the beginning of the picking season, there is an abundance of new tea shoots. These tea shoots are carefully picked and steam dried immediately. These beautiful, highly prized silver tips of unopened leaf contain virtually no caffeine, so make an ideal evening tea or light digestif.
There are as many varieties of this pale, delicate green tea as there are Commune Wines in Bordeaux. The best standard is 9301, an even-sized leaf with wonderful whole blossoms. Jasmine has some of the characteristics of green tea, but is lightly fermented. It is often served in Chinese restaurants to help digestion and cleanse the palette.The special teas include Chung Hao and Chung Feng, both with long twists of leaf, and Pearl, giant balls of individually-rolled leaf that unfurl dramatically when brewed. All are flavoured with young jasmine blossoms, picked when they are closed and put in with the tea as they open in the evening. At Steenbergs, we have found a beautifully delicate organic Chinese jasmine tea.
The fermentation process is stopped by drying the leaves as they begin to turn brown, so strengthening the delicate character of a green tea but avoiding any astringency or tannic strength. As a result, a rich flavour develops, similar to the smell of a peach skin; to add milk would be sacrilege.Strictly speaking, there are 2 kinds: lightly fermented (called bohea by English tea merchants) and around 60% fermented (called oolong by English tea merchants).Oolong is to China teas what Darjeeling is to Indian Teas and flower names are frequently used to signify high quality. The smoothest, sweetest and most subtle Oolong comes from Formosa (Taiwan) and ranges from standard Black Dragon (alias Peony), which is the strongest, with a unique, almost woody dry taste, through to Peach Blossom, the best quality of all, which retains its superb whole tip and bud even after packing and shipping halfway around the world.China Oolong is drier and less effervescent than Formosa, tending to be rolled with a more twisted leaf that is greying brown in colour. Among the best is Dragon Well, picked in the spring before the rainy season and always offered as a mark of respect to political leaders in Beijing. Then there is the legendary Ti Kuang Ying – this is dry, delicate and strangely tantalising, originally picked by trained monkeys on otherwise inaccessible mountainsides. Today this Yencha (Cliff Tea) is specially picked 4 times a year.Whether from China or Formosa, Oolong Teas require just a few leaves in a bowl, infused for at least 6 minutes and topped up regularly. At Steenbergs, Axel’s bowl of Oolong lasts for over 30 minutes!
Black teas (called red in China) Keen
Châ’n, known as Keemun Tea in the United Kingdom, comes from Anhui Province, which lies farther to the North than other important Chinese tea-producing areas. They are some of the best China black teas. Its large, grey-black leaves have a sweetness and fragrance that can be compared to Darjeeling, through its beautiful aroma is more like an orchid, and in the 18th century was known as English Breakfast Tea. A fine Keemun tea can be drunk lightly brewed on its own, or with lemon, or stronger with milk.
REST OF THE WORLD
Russia and Turkey
Russian tea comes from Georgia and is grouped with Turkey black sea region as their teas have similar characteristics. They are pleasant, black and light in tannin and are more like a Nilgiri or strong Keemun that an Assam. Russian Caravan Tea scoops the award for the most confusing title! Early traders brought China Tea across Russia in their caravans of silk and spices – the origin of the name Caravan China Tea – as well as coming on some Russian caravans and over time these earned the title of Russian Caravan Tea. Whatever the origin, it is a China tea and now comes by boat!
Indonesia and Malaysia
Teas are grown in areas of Java and Sumatra. These teas are soft black teas with less astringency and flavour than Assam or Ceylon and they are used by major packers as the base for many blends.
Argentinian teas are neutral in taste and do not cloud when poured over ice, so they are great for blending and perfect for iced tea. As a result, most of its tea is exported into the USA. Tea is grown in the North in 2 regions – North Corrientes and Misiones.
Japan grows a small amount of green tea. Gyokuro is Japan’s finest green tea. During the picking season, the gardens are shaded to increase the bright green colour of the leaves. Gyokuro has a bright green colour, an intense vegetal flavour and high levels of caffeine. Sencha tea is a clear, bright green tea with low levels of caffeine. It is believed to have health benefits.
Flavoured teas have been around for ever in one form or another. The Chinese add jasmine, rose and chrysanthemum petals to their teas and Indians add cardamom and other spices to make chai.
Moroccan mint tea is popular in Morocco. It is a green tea that has been blended with aromatic peppermint leaves, producing a brisk green tea. It is served with sugar in Morocco.
HERBAL TEAS OR TISANES
Egypt produces the finest chamomile. Only the flower heads are used in the tisane. Often referred to as sleepy-time tea, it is a tisane with a definite body, a fresh scent and a flavour that hints of ripe green apples like the ones we grow in our garden.
Peppermint: a brisk drink made from dried peppermint leaves – it’s a great stomach settler. We drink a cup every night before we take the kids upstairs to bed.
This is a fantastic herbal tea that comes from South Africa. Rooibos or redbush is a natural herbal resource, which is often collected by the Khoi-San. It is a favourite among real tea drinkers because it has a lot of body like black tea, yet is low in tannin, contains natural sweeteners and is rich in essential oils.
Lemon verbena (Verveine odorante): a traditional French tisane. Lemon verbena consists of green leaves that produce a full-bodied herbal tea with a lemony aroma that is perfect after dinner.