Cha(t) Time: All the tea in China

Friends might know that I like tea. (If anyone has seen my collection of teas back at home, you’d know that this is a massive understatement. I REALLY like tea.) I’ve been drinking a lot of tea lately, as the weather gets colder here in Beijing, so I thought that I’d talk a little bit about the different things that I’m brewing. 🙂 There’s a lot of history to tea here in China, as well as tea traditions from around the world – and writing this gives me an excuse to justify learning about & sampling more teas!

I’ve just started to host a weekly tea social for Yenching students – continuing a tradition that began with a member of the first cohort. I’m waiting to get official recognition as a student group from the Program Office so that I can get a budget and have tea purchases reimbursed, but until then, I’m sharing some of the small collection of teas that I’ve gotten in the past two months with my classmates.

So, here’s a little bit of 茶话 (Chá huà), or tea talk! I’m going to try and cover some of the history/background to the types of tea I like, explanations of how tea is processed, and some thoughts about what I’m drinking. The word for tea in Chinese is 茶 (chá). With that in mind, you’re more than welcome to groan at the Cha(t) Time pun that I made in the title of this post.

So, here’s a quick run-down of tea, a couple of pictures, and some thoughts that I’ve associated with each type. I’ve found that the smell and taste of tea evokes a lot of place-specific memories for me, so I’m writing a few of these down too to give you a peek into my culinary psycho-geography. (This is, after all, a personal blog. While I’m sure that tea brewing techniques are really the #1 reason that you, my dear reader, are following this blog about my life in China, I thought it would be nice to throw in some less tea-jargon type things.)

So, in short, thank you in advance for your patience as I write WAY too much about hot leaf juice.

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Teas are often divided into several categories – the most popular to find in the United States are white tea, green tea, and red tea. However, tea can actually be broken down into six different groups, which I’m sharing below:

白茶 Báichá White Tea

绿茶Lǜchá Green Tea

红茶Hóngchá Red Tea

黄茶 Huáng chá Yellow Tea

乌龙茶 Wūlóngchá Blue Tea (Oolong)

普洱茶 Pǔ’ěr chá Black Tea (Pu’er/Pu-erh Tea)

Interestingly, although we call 红茶 Hóngchá a red tea and Pu-erh a black tea, the tea known as black tea in the United States is actually a red tea. (Confused yet? I won’t blame you if you are!)

Ready to be SHOCKED and AMAZED? (Or, at least perhaps somewhat surprised and slightly interested?) Though each tea has different flavors, brewing techniques, etc., it all comes from the same plant! The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has three major varieties – the China Bush, the Assam bush, and the Java bush. Within these categories there are many subdivisions and hundreds of sub-varieties of plants. Gee whiz!

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When in Rome, do as the Romans do – and when in China, drink as the Chinese drink! So I’ll be talking about the Camellia sinensis China bush, which is a durable little evergreen that grows in mountainous regions at elevations of 2,000-3,000 meters, or 6,500-9,800 feet for my non-metric friends. The shrub is regularly pruned to give it a flat top, which makes it easier to pick the new growth. Harvesting leaves happens at regular intervals, with the timing being dependent on the local climate and tea types.

The differences in flavor profiles comes from the differences in the harvesting and preparation of the leaves. Green tea, for example, is best when the leaves are picked young and tender. The leaves are then air dried in a process known as primary drying. This prevents oxidation, which distinguishes green tea from black tea and oolong, and gives the tea its namesake green look. Each of the six types of tea I mentioned earlier has a similar set of conventions associated with it. Some types of tea also include additives, which lend flavors to the tea leaves – jasmine tea, for example, gets its delicate floral scent by being processed with night blooming jasmine flowers. Want to know how to describe some of the things that you’re finding in a cup of tea? This tasting wheel by Counter Culture Coffee breaks down different flavor profiles & is super useful in making sense of what you’re drinking! Even though it’s intended for coffee, it works really well for tea!

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I was surprised to learn that many things that are marketed as tea are not actually tea products per-say. In order to be properly considered a tea, it must have leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant – which means that herbal teas are actually considered infusions or tisanes. Popular infusions include ginger, rose, barley, rooibos, chrysanthemum, or chamomile.

So, how should one drink tea? There are plenty of ways to enjoy a good cup – I’m always a proponent of drinking it with dim sum in the morning, or with biscuits in the afternoon. 🙂 In order to make the most of your tea, it can be helpful to look up brewing instructions, as different types of tea are best prepared with different water temperatures and steep times. Under-steeping tea runs the risk of producing a weak/watery tea, while over-steeping can result in an overwhelmingly strong/astringent taste. Bagged tea is generally not as good quality as loose-leaf – teabags often contain broken leaves and dust, which results in a loss of complex flavor and makes the taste more bitter. While tins of loose leaf tea might initially seem more expensive, a little bit goes a long way and you can often brew a pot more than once. Of course, at the end of the day, too much snobbery about anything ruins the fun of it – so drink your tea however you like it best. ❤

My favorite way to drink tea is with friends – and next time I write something, I’ll hopefully have some pictures from the first and second tea social I’ve organized to share with you. Until then – here’s a picture from a tea shop that I went to last Sunday. I stopped inside when I was waiting to meet someone, and the shopkeeper let me sample one of their pu’er teas.

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She wanted to take a picture together, and I asked her if we could become wechat contacts. So, we took the photo, she sent it to me, and now we’re texting back and forth a little bit in Chinese! I know that I still can’t say much in this language, but I was pretty happy that while I was in the shop I was able to ask her about her tea preferences, and bought one cup of her favorite flavor to-go. 🙂

再见 (Zàijiàn)! Goodbye!

Kristen

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One thought on “Cha(t) Time: All the tea in China

  1. Kris,

    what wonderful adventures you are having and learning so much!!!

    You will have to organize a tea tasting once back in the DC area!

    xoxo ; )

    Like

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