Tea drinkers in the USA are beginning to demand high quality teas from their shops and suppliers. There’s a lot of web-literature about tea out there, and the drink is now becoming popular, but actual knowledge and experience drinking tea is still somewhat lacking. This is a good thing, because it allows tea merchants to organize tastings for “tea newbies” and observe and enjoy everybody’s reactions as they drink their first good green tea, their first Da Hong Pao, their first aged oolong.
Last Sunday, I had a tea tasting at my friend Paul Rosenberg’s tea temple. Paul is a longtime tea drinker with a startling collection of excellent teas and a very beautiful, relaxing space for his students and clients to taste them in. I brought eight different teas spanning a range of flavors that I hoped would open everyone’s eyes (and taste buds) to the depth of tea as a drink and tonic.
I began with a classic green from western China called Mengding Maofeng. Everyone reacted strongly to the freshness of the tea. The key is temperature and packaging – green tea is very lightly processed and therefore has a short life-span of up to 18 months. Ideally, you should keep your tea sealed up in a cool (5 Celsius) and dry place. Do this and you will definitely notice the difference.
The Younger the Leaf, The Better the Tea
Another key to flavor is the leaf itself, which has to be young. The younger the leaf, the better the drink. I followed the Mengding Maofeng with another green from the same area, Mengding Gan Lu. This tea is actually just the very first shoots that pop up from the bush in early spring. The younger the leaf, the more delicate the taste, the more refreshing the feeling, the more powerful the ‘qi’, and the more health benefits it provides.
Tea for Health – Moving ‘Qi’
In terms of health, tea, especially green tea, increases the flow of oxygen in your blood. This is what the Chinese call moving qi, in a manner of speaking. Still, it’s important to realize that tea is not medicine. It is a wonderful, natural drink that makes you feel good. I compare the benefits of tea to the benefits of red wine, taken in moderation. If you really want to know what tea can do for you, drink it on a regular basis and see how you feel. It can’t hurt!
Oolong Tea – A Work of Art!
Later on in the tasting, I offered a few teas that made people murmur and ask questions. One of them is an 18-year old oolong from Fujian. This tea is a work of art. It takes craftsmanship to roast this tea over years until a complex but very enjoyable taste and fragrance emerge and endure. This is key to the understanding of tea: this is an art, just like wine making or perfumery.
To make the tea, the oolong needs to be heated up to the point that the flavors release, but then allowed to cool so they can blend smoothly. Here is where your tools come into play: are you going to use a glass pot or a clay pot? Believe it or not, this makes a distinguishable difference. I chose glass for the entire tasting because glass works well with all teas and it allows people to see the tea clearly, which enhances appreciation. The aged oolong can seep as many as 10 times. It has a light amber to dark ruby color and tastes of earth, smoke and flowers in the wind. I am not sure how else to describe it.
Rose Tea from Gansu, China
The last tea I served was a Rose Tea from Gansu. I always love seeing people react to this tea. This rose tea comes from roses grown around an ancient spring in northwest China. Where you grow it, how you grow it, when you process, how you process – all these things decide a tea’s fate.
The man who grows this rose knows what he’s doing. It is delightfully fragrant and sweet, but instead of being so sweet that you can only handle one or two cups, the tea also has a cool, refreshing taste that cleanses your mouth. People love it, because it is a tea with depth, but it doesn’t challenge the drinker to read the Cha Jing before even attempting to brew it.
A Tea List for the Curious
Overall, the tea tasting went very well. The eight friends who showed up asked very good questions and received the best answers I could give. My advice for the curious is to dive in – everything I learned from (and about) tea, I learned by drinking it, and this method is far and away the most effective and the most fun.
Here are the teas in order:
A classic green from Mengding Mountain in the Longmen Mountain Range not far from Ya’An. Tea has been in cultivation here for more than 2000 years.
Mengding Gan Lu:
A very high quality green tea from the same mountain (and grower).
A very tasty Tie Guan Yin oolong infused with osmanthus flowers, from Fujian.
Da Hong Pao:
A very smoky, earthy Wuyi oolong also from Fujian. The quality and duration of this tea was especially surprising.
Aged Tie Guan Yin:
A treat to drink and pour. A 1991 oolong aged to perfection … a very complex tea with different shades of earth and water and fire depending on brewing method and most likely also pot material. I used glass for all of these teas.
Mengding Huang Ya:
Another feat of craftsmanship. This is a rare yellow tea made from an old Tang Dynasty recipe. This tea was “tribute tea” to the Emperor from the Tang to the Late Qing Dynasty.
Still the belle of the ball. A delightfully aromatic, sweet and somehow refreshingly cool rose hip tea from Gansu Province. A winner.
Sascha Matuszak is a German-born American writer and is currently based out of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.