Self-taught tea connoisseur Li Lan of teahouse-turned-bar Lan Town started her path to teadom at the old teahouse street Kuanzhai Xiangzi. One year before the street was closed for reconstruction, she opened a shop there. "I would hang out there drinking tea, and eventually more and more people started drinking tea there with me," she says. "At that time we would have 'tea battles' where we would one up one another with our newest teas." Eventually she opened Lan Town, and that eventually grew into more of a nighttime watering hole than a daytime tea-sipping room, but Li Lan's thirst for tea hasn't been quenched yet. "I drink tea first thing when I wake up," she says. "I've been drinking tea my whole life." She shared some of her knowledge with us.
Types of Tea
Teas in China can be broadly categorized as green, black, white, and other. Green is by far the largest and most popular category. In Sichuanese teahouses, green tea is commonly steeped with jasmine (茉莉花/mòlìhuā) flowers, which impart aroma and flavor. This combination is known as scented or flower tea (花茶/ huāchá). "The green tea on its own is too plain, a little bit bitter and plant-like, and it's not very fragrant," said Li Lan.
In Sichuan, bìtán piāo xuě (碧潭飘雪) is regarded as the best flower tea. Produced in E'mei Shan, the tea is made with green tea and jasmine, and its name suggests white snow floating on top of a green lake—when steeped, the jasmine flowers float to the top of the cup. Another popular green tea in Sichuan is zhúyèqīng (竹叶青), so called because the leaves look like bamboo shoots.
The bitter-tasting kuding tea (苦丁茶/kǔdīng chá) is grown in Qingcheng Shan. It ferments for only a short time, and the leaves resemble rolled-up tobacco leaves. Small pieces are broken off by hand. One particularly nice variety of kuding tea is Qingshan Lushui (青山绿水/ qīngshānlǜshuǐ). "When you look at the dry tea leaves, it just looks like a mess of small dots. But when you put it in a cup of hot water, they blossom like flowers," says Li Lan. "The leaves are very fine, and at first taste it is slightly bitter, but after you drink it you're left with a sweet taste in your mouth."
Wulong tea (sometimes spelled Oolong) is considered the best in China. The wulong category includes both wulong and tieguanyin teas. The most well-known varieties are from Fujian and Taiwan, and one of the best is the Phoenix Single Bush or Phoenix Select (凤凰单枞/fènghuáng dān cōng) from Fujian, which can cost thousands of yuan per 50 grams. Other ingredients can be added to wulong teas during processing to make teas such as osmanthus wulong tea (桂花乌龙茶/guìhuā wūlóngchá) and Ginseng wulong tea (人参乌龙茶/rénshēn wūlóngchá). The ingredients are usually ground into a powder and then pressed with the tea into pellets. The powders are released when the tea is steeped.
Every tea type comes from a different strain of tea plant, and processing methods for each type vary, lending each its distinct flavor. While pu'er (sometimes spelled pu-erh) tea can be called "dark" or "black" tea, it should not be confused with Indian and Sri Lankan black teas (Ceylon tea), which are called "red tea" (红茶/ hóngchá) in Chinese and are different in both the leaf and the fermentation process. (See below for more information on pu'er tea).
White tea leaves have fine white hairs on their surface, giving the leaves an appearance of whiteness. The flavor of white tea is very light. Most white-tea varieties come from Fujian province, with one of the most well-known being the Junshan silver needle tea (君山银针/Jūnshān yínzhēn).
Other Chinese teas include yellow tea and herbal tea, made from ingredients other than tea leaves. These include flowers, fruits, and grains, such as buckwheat tea (苦荞茶/kǔqiáochá), which originated in Xichang, Sichuan.
The Quality of the Tea
An expensive teahouse doesn't necessarily serve better tea than a cheaper teahouse. Discerning customers can look at the following to determine the quality of their tea.
1. Look at the leaves. The dry leaves should be a natural green color and look fresh, not yellow or yellow-green, which indicates age. In China, new tea is produced only during the warmer months. Any tea that's sold during wintertime will have been sitting for some time. Look also at the shape of the leaves. They should be whole, not broken. The size of the leaves is determined by the type of tea.
2. Smell. The leaves should have a fresh tea fragrance. If it's been stored too long or stored inappropriately it will have a musty odor. This is a very important point as well in order to determine different types of tea, such as green tea, Pu'er, and Guanyin, as they all give off different aromas.
3. Steep and look again. Pay attention to what the leaves do. For instance, when a good zhuyeqing tea is steeped, the leaves will float to the top but will gradually sink to the bottom and stand straight up.
4. Taste. Discerning taste buds for tea come with experience, but the more tea you drink the more you'll learn your own preferences.
Gongfu Tea and Other Tea Culture
Gongfu tea is not a type of tea but a means of preparation. At first glance, with its elaborate phases, tiny cups, and repeated pouring, gongfu tea appears to be simply a ceremonial show. But "gongfu cha," a tradition that originated in the southeast regions, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, indicates that the tea is prepared with effort and time and provides a means through which to wash the tea and ensure that the various levels of strength are evenly distributed among drinkers and thus maximal taste and appreciation are drawn forth. Gongfu tea requires a special enclosed tray with drain for tea washing, a kettle, a teapot, and cups. The timing and quantities of each step of the process are affected by the season as well as the size and material of the utensils used.
The most prominent feature of Chengdu's very established tea culture is probably the old-style teahouses by the river, serving tea in covered cups. "Not too long ago you could spend a whole afternoon at the teahouse with just 5 or 10 yuan," reminisced Li Lan. "But not anymore." In more upscale teahouses, patrons can watch tea performances with servers pouring tea from kettles with meter-long spouts, a tradition thought to have originated thousands of years ago in the present-day Sichuan region.
Tips for Selecting Tea
Buying a gift for somebody back home? Tea is a favorite gift for visitors to China to take back home, but how is the non-tea connoisseur to know which type to buy when faced with a shop full of teas? Li Lan recommends purchasing gift tea in a larger, mid-range tea store that stocks a good selection and allows customers to try out different types of tea. If you're a tea novice, avoid supermarkets since you won't be able to try out the teas as well as smaller shops which might sell lower quality teas. If you know what type of tea you like, select that. If not, use the "Types of Tea" list above as a guide. If you're still not sure, ask to sample different types and note the appearance, aroma, and taste of the tea as you do so.
Within each tea variety you'll probably notice a range of prices. If you're buying a gift for somebody who is not a tea expert, there's no need to choose the most expensive, says Li Lan. On the other hand, going with the cheapest is probably not the best idea, either. Li Lan recommends aiming for the upper-mid range of teas. If it comes down to a tea that sells for RMB80 per jin and one that sells for RMB100 per jin, for instance, just choose the one that's in a prettier package, advises Li Lan. There probably won't be a big difference in quality.
Pu'er tea is made in Yunnan and is sold as a heavy, bitter "raw tea" (生茶/shēngchá), which is non-fermented and classified as a green tea, or "ripened tea" (熟茶/shúchá), which is fermented, more palatable, and much more popular. It's also said to be good for the stomach, whereas the raw type is hard on the stomach, and favored only by hardened tea drinkers seeking the strongest flavor.
Legend has it that Pu'er tea was invented on the long roads from Yunnan to Tibet, when transporters would form the tea into a brick for ease of carrying on horseback. Exposed to the elements, the bricks of tea would ferment, creating the Pu'er tea. Thus, the compressed brick (砖茶/zhuānchá) is the most traditional way of selling Pu'er. But these days it is sold in other shapes, most commonly a flat, round disc called a "cake" (饼茶/bǐngchá). Other shapes are the bowl shape (沱茶/tuóchá), loose tea (散茶/sǎnchá), and specialty shapes such as ancient coins or as cakes embossed with lucky characters. The latter type is usually bought as a gift. All varieties except for the loose tea require a knife to cut pieces of the brick off.
A good pu'er tea should be dark and slightly red in color and have a slightly glossy or oily appearance, like polished wood, rather than be completely dry. The aroma should be earthy but not musty. A mildewed odor indicates that there is moisture leftover from the fermentation process. The tea should be thick, soft, and slick when drinking. During steeping, the tea leaves should straighten out to reveal a whole, unbroken shape. Broken leaves indicate lower quality.
Did You Know?
Dry tea leaves can also be used to stuff a pillow. The cheapest tea leaves can be used for this. The tea leaves are thought to aid sleep.
"Most teahouses in Chengdu, like those along the river, usually serve Maofeng tea with flowers added in," says Li Lan. "That's the most typical tea here, and it'll run from 5 to 15 yuan per cup. Bitanpiaoxue will be more, around 20 to 30 per cup."
Tea shouldn't be consumed on an empty stomach. If you find that your stomach is unsettled after drinking tea, eat something sweet.
Good tea possesses the 回甘 (huí gān) quality, or "the return of the sweetness," meaning that it should impart a sweet taste onto the drinker's mouth.
There's a wealth of tea information online. If you're interested in learning more, wikicha is a good starting point.
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