An introduction to Chinese tea

I don’t like the taste of coffee at all. I don’t like western tea very much. (And neither one is good for my food intolerances.) On the other hand, I love Chinese tea!

Teahouse outside Yu Gradens in Shanghai, October 1999

Teahouse outside Yu Gradens in Shanghai, October 1999

My introduction to Chinese tea came during my first visit to China in 1999. I was 17 and in grade 12 when I joined a three week trip with my school. By the end of it I was hooked on Chinese tea. I still remember buying a cannister of (low grade) green tea from a small shop near the Lama Temple in Beijing. My parents were quickly interested in it as well. My 18th birthday presents included a Chinese teapot with 6 cups, and two large cannisters of imported Jasmine tea – with the condition that they were allowed to share it on occasion.

Back then I knew very little about Chinese tea, only that it had a lighter, cleaner flavour, and a balance between bitter and sweet that I enjoyed. After more than ten years in China, however, I know a lot more. I have spent quite a lot of time sitting in tea shops tasting different teas and chatting with shop owners. They were always delighted that a foreigner was in their shop who both spoke Mandarin and was genuinely interested in (and knew something about) Chinese teas. Most people who visited me in China visited a tea shop with me. I have so many tea-related stories I could share! I want to start, however, with some background about Chinese tea – there is a lot most people do not know.

Tea has a VERY long history in China. There are references to tea in ancient Chinese texts going back nearly 5,000 years, although no one is entirely sure how it began to be used as a beverage. There are lots of stories, most involving a happy accident – a flower landing in a cup of water, leaves left to dry too long, things of that nature. The earliest legend of this type goes back to Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC, but this is over a thousand years before early Chinese writings so stories about him are more myth than history, and mostly connected to his gifting the Chinese people with knowledge of agriculture and herbal medicine. The most accepted early written reference to tea in China dates to 350 BC. Tea production and drinking became somewhat of an art form as early as the 8th century, although China does not have elaborate rituals like the Japanese tea ceremony.

All teas, both eastern and western, are made from the buds and leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. There are some “teas” made of other plants, but all true tea leaves are Camellia Sinensis. And yet there are so many varieties – I’ve seen estimates ranging from 700-1,000 varieties of Chinese tea. There are many factors that affect the flavour of tea leaves. There are many strains of the plant, with differing characteristics. The altitude and climate in which the plant is grown can affect flavour, as can the timing with which the leaves are picked. Flowers or herbs can be added at some point in the process to give a different fragrance and flavour. The biggest factor, however, is fermentation.

To understand different Chinese teas it’s important to understand fermentation. This is the oxidation of the leaves, which turn brown as enzymes in them break down. Fully fermented teas are dark in colour – the leaves go dark brown all over. Other teas are only partially fermented or completely unfermented. Generally speaking, western teas are fully fermented teas (90% of tea sales in the west are fully fermented teas). When most westerners think of tea, this is what they think of – a tea that is fairly dark and possesses a strong flavour. Most varieties of Chinese teas, however, are either unfermented or only partially fermented – so they keep the green colour of the original leaves along with a lighter, more “grassy” flavour. The lack of fermentation also means they keep more of their natural anti-oxidants.

Oolong tea leaves, before and after steeping. (A semi-fermented tea.)

Oolong tea leaves, before and after steeping. (A semi-fermented tea.)

Another difference between Chinese teas and western teas is that in almost all Chinese teas the leaves are left whole (or only roughly chopped). In western teas the fermented leaves are chopped fairly finely, until they form a rough powder. Most Chinese tea leaves, once steeped, open up into full leaves – whether the small leaves of new shoots or larger, older leaves.

That’s already a lot of information – but still hardly anything! In future posts I plan to discuss categories of Chinese teas, specific teas I like, my experiences with tea in China, and tea-tastings I’ve done both in China and with friends in Australia. I am really interested in Chinese tea, and hopefully the series of posts I am putting together will help you understand and find an interest in it as well.

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2 thoughts on “An introduction to Chinese tea

  1. Pingback: The rainbow of Chinese teas | Tanya's Stories

  2. Pingback: Tasting some Chinese teas | Tanya's Stories

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