In May I ran a tea-tasting afternoon with friends at college. Lots of people chipped in to help, loaning teapots and cups and kettles of water. It was a really fun couple of hours, with about 20 people dropping by to try the seven teas I provided. In recent weeks I’ve given an introduction to Chinese tea in general and to different types of Chinese teas (including scented, flower and herbal teas). Now I’m going to introduce you to these seven specific teas.
Some people at the tea-tasting-party had tried many Chinese teas before, while for others it was a first time experience. There was a lot of discussion about what everyone thought of the different teas; there was talk about flavour and aroma and the look of the leaves. My favourite part of the afternoon was hearing all the different favourites – pretty much every tea was someone’s favourite. A tea that one person really disliked would be someone else’s favourite. All in all it was a lovely, relaxing time outside in the afternoon sun.
西湖龙井茶 xī hú lóng jǐng chá – West Lake Dragon Well Tea
This was the centrepiece of the teas I presented, and one of my all time favourites. Xihu Longjing green tea is one of the ten Famous Teas in China, so it can be quite pricey. It comes from a specific region near West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. I actually visited a tea plantation outside Hangzhou on my first trip to China in autumn 1999; I was amazed by the heady fragrance in the air as I walked by rows of sun-bathed tea plants. Longjing is dried into a flattened shape. The higher grades use young leaves of even size, that when procesed are flatter and more yellow in colour. The Longjing tea I brought to the tea party was a gift from a friend who is from Hangzhou, and is very high quality. It has a distinctive flavour, quite grassy but also with a grainy scent. It was quite a polarising tea – some people loved it, others didn’t like it at all. An unexpected bit of fun was a friend who thought the flat, dry tea leaves looked almost like little chips, and wanted to try nibbling on them. I said to go for it, and several people tried the “tea chips”! In her words, “Drink? Why drink when you can experience a more intense vibe of the flavour by eating these delicious tea leaves – crunchy, herby, and a slight spicy after taste. Please try! Highly recommended.”
铁观音 tiě guān yīn – Tieguanyin (“Iron Goddess”)
“Guanyin” is the Chinese name of a Buddhist figure commonly known as the “mercy goddess” (a female incarnation of a bohhisatva), so Tieguanyin is sometimes known as “Iron Goddess” tea. Tieguanyin is a premium semi-fermented (Oolong) tea that originated in Fujian province about 200 years ago. The complex method of processing Tieguanyin tea was a closely guarded secret for a long time. It is another one of the ten Famous Teas of China, and can be very expensive. Apparently one variety (there are many) once sold for $3,000/kg! Tieguanyin is very popular, so I’ve tried it many times in different places. The type I have is a “Jade” Tieguanyin, which is lightly baked, and known for having a floral scent and a flavour nearer to an unfermented (green) tea than a classic semi-fermented (oolong). At the tea party, people who liked Tieguanyin most were already familiar with Chinese tea and accustomed to the “green” flavour.
桂花乌龙茶 guì huā wūlóng chá – Osthmanthus Oolong Tea
This is one of my all-time favourite teas. I still remember the first time I tried it, in a tiny tea shop in Nanhu Market. I’d been there a few times, and had just dropped in to chat (and drink tea) with the woman who owned the shop. She asked if I’d ever tried gui hua tea, thinking I would like it – and I loved it! It has become one of my all-time favourites. It is a scented tea, from the same category as Jasmine tea. (In fact, it is the second most popular scented tea in China, after Jasmine tea.) The osmanthus flowers used to scent the tea are tiny but have a powerful fragrance also used in perfumes. The scent that comes of the leaves, before steeping but particularly afterward, is heady and sweet. It is quite fruity, and always reminds me of apricots. The guihua oolong tea was also popular at the party. One friend said it was her favourite, “nice and warming, while refreshing.”
雪龙茶 xuě lóng chá – Snow Dragon Tea
Snow Dragon Tea is grown at high altitude in the mountains of Southern Yunnan province and harvested during frosts of early Spring. Only the youngest buds and leaves are picked. They are usually downy, sometimes white, and can be frost-spotted. The type of leaf is similar to a white tea, but they are then pan fried like a green tea. The result is a pale yellow coloured tea with a flavour somewhere between a typical white tea and a typical green tea. High quality Snow Dragon teas are hand-rolled leaf by leaf into curly spirals – like a dragon tail (hence the name). My snow tea isn’t like that, but the leaves do have an interesting look – a silvery colour and a unique texture. I bought it in a teahouse outside Dali in Yunnan province while travelling with my parents. It was one of the most popular teas at my tea party, and several people remarked on the interesting sweetish aftertaste it leaves on the tongue.
I also shared a White Tea (白茶 bái chá), a Rose Tea (玫瑰花茶 méi guī huā chá), and a Blooming Tea (开花茶 kāi huā chá), all of which were well-received. The White Tea was several people’s favourite. Ruth said it was “subtle and relaxing”. I was surprised at how popular the Rose Tea was, although I shouldn’t have been – I love it myself. I think we probably went through more Rose tea than anything else, although it’s a close call! The Blooming Tea I had was a simple one, a single flower (I think clover, perhaps a chrysanthemum) wrapped with low grade green tea leaves, so not the best flavour (one friend said it tasted like “dirty water” and I couldn’t fault her for it!) Still, it was really fun to watch the ball of tea leaves unfurl to reveal the flower – especially in the clear glass teapot I’d borrowed. We actually did a second blooming tea later in the afternoon so another group of people could enjoy the viewing fun.