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Tea: Tracing Travels and Tastes

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Spring Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(1) page(s): 5, 6, 22, and 31

The most famous American tea party was in Boston Massachusetts, the year, 1773 CE, when about fifteen thousand pounds were dumped into the harbor. Nowadays, smaller tea parties are popular and they don't waste good tea. Joe Simrany of the Tea Association based in New York advises that tea parties are enjoying a rebirth. His group says that more than one hundred thirty million Americans drink tea daily, doing so for business and social reasons. They drink and enjoy tea and consider it a healthy potable. This is not new to the Chinese. Lin Yutang wrote that Chinese are happy as long as they have a teapot. He knew that tea is one of the Chinese seven basic daily necessities. The others are fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar.

Many people are learning that tea, the most popular beverage in the world, is an excellent one with many positive health claims made for it. One of these is that tea, especially green tea, may prevent some types of cancer. In spite of this popularity and the health aspects of tea, little is known about it. People don't know where tea comes from, how to consume it, and most importantly how to brew the thousands of varieties and brands available. They may know that tons were dumped in Boston, but not that the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan are original sites of tea culture.

For thousands of years, traders transported tea by caravan. They took tea on horseback, the backs of other animals, and by rudimentary vehicles to border towns and to places beyond China's borders. In the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736 - 1795 CE), hundreds of caravans needed thousands of horses. A caravan could have several hundred horses but several caravans were known to regularly travel together carrying tea leaves to Tibet and beyond Tibet every year. These caravans scaled mountains, crossed rivers, trekked through rain forests, traversed fog-filled valleys travelling with heavy loads of leaves to bring them westward.

Along the way, the caravan traders may have eaten nang, a staple food in Xinjiang and other areas of their route. Maybe they had lamb kebabs, a shredded carrot and lamb dish that they ate with their fingers, and some pears, apricots, or Hami melons. In many locations along this Silk Road, the nang, sort of bagel shaped, but only baked, not boiled, was eaten when drinking tea.

The ancient State of Shu had tea growing in plantations on Mount Mendong sending it to market in nearby Pengshan County. The Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) and the Imperial Court had tea caravan offices in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan and elsewhere. Some sites and artifacts have been found; but most remain undiscovered.

At least one tea tree, planted eight hundred years ago, still provides fine tea leaves. Another ancient one, a seventeen hundred year-old wild primitive tea tree, does as well. Both are producing leaves that are gathered and sold in the marketplace. There are other oldies approaching the age of the younger tree, however, they are not considered noteworthy.

In Dali, 'three-course-tea' is still enjoyed. It became popular at court during the Nanzhao Kingdom. That tea is made with the best well water and served with walnuts, honey, and ginger. That is one of the sweet sides of tea. Another side is the anger expressed over tea taxes. These were collected during years of the Qing Dynasty when, annually and as tribute, more that thirty thousand kilograms of Pu-er tea was delivered to the Imperial Court.

An article about some tea history and inroads in Europe and England, appeared in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 2(4) on pages 9, 22, and 23. That article included a recipe for Tibetan Tea called Boeja. It discussed processing of the leaves and how the Dong, Miao, Tibetans, and Uygur minority populations in China use tea. It also suggested books to learn about this beloved beverage including Imperial Master Lu Yu's first extensive treatise on tea.

It did not mention that the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways, ships and the airways were thoroughfares replacing the ancient tea caravan routes, and that the Karakoram highway is but a dozen years old. It did not say that in 641 CE, Princess Wen Cheng married a Tibetan king and brought tea and tree seeds to Tibet. That small gesture reduced the arduous half-year journey from China's Eastern tea gardens spreading plantings of tea more widely. In 1951, other tea seeds and tiny tea tree saplings were shipped to many other new mountainous locations in China. With easier access, anyone can travel this route that endied in Xian and was used for more than a thousand years. It did not say that anyone can now bring things in and spread new ideas and new things.

Since circa 2737 BCE, when Emperor Shen Nung drank hot water with leaves from an evergreen that fell into it, tea now known as Camellia sinensis, has been consumed in China. It has been about five thousand years since the Emperor found this hot water to be sweet, bitter, fragrant, stimulating, and very tasty.

Called ming in ancient times, the leaves of the tea plant have been prescribed for preventing and curing many an illness. The Emperor knew tea as a stimulant and we know that the caffeine and theobromine in it increases the activity of digestive juices. We also know that tea's tannins strengthen capillaries and stimulate the adrenal gland; and we know that the esters in it are touted, in China, to prevent radioactive injuries. There is a small but valuable amount of manganese, selenium, and fluorine in tea along with many polyphenols.

All teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The best of them grow at high altitudes and in damp tropical regions. The way and length of time tea is processed is what makes teas different. Fine teas, like fine wines, come from many regions, the best from one or another particular producer and from one or more growing places referred to as tea plantations or tea gardens. As with wines, different years produce different tea qualities, and different soil and the kind of water makes a difference. Freshly drawn spring water makes the finest tea.

With the exception of one variety, tea does not improve with age, as does wine. Storage in a tightly sealed tin is best. Though some say tea stored that way can last a year or so, be advised that tea less than six months old is better because fresh leaves make better tea.

Tea leaves are picked three or more times a year. How they are handled makes for differences as does whether the leaves are sprayed, the types of fertilizers used, how the leaves are picked, and how the four-part oxidation processing is done.

Tea leaves must be carefully dried and withered. Then they can be rolled, and are fermented, heated, or fired at near 200 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce their moisture content to about five percent. After that processing, whole leaves can be broken further. They are then graded and sorted. The color of tea is known by the color of the leaf in the Western world. In China, tea is discussed by the tint of the brewed infusion.

Teas are brewed at different temperatures and for different amounts of time. Some suppliers put instruction labels on their teas to help novices do it right. Others assume that they know or that it is not important, so they leave it to chance. Some labels are illustrated (and can be seen in the hard copy, thanks to the Imperial Tea Court), so that you can learn from them.

Most tea in the United States is made using a tea bag. More recently, large quantities of tea are consumed as beverage in a can or a bottle. Almost all of these are black teas made by crushing, tearing and curling fully oxidized tea leaves. Only about two percent are made from green tea leaves or from loose leaves that were plucked by hand; more than a thousand needed for a pound of tea. Incidentally, brewing tea leaves became popular in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) when an Imperial edict said loose tea is a sign of offering tribute.

Professor Chang Hung-yung of National Xing Hua University reminds us that tea was traditionally made in a shalu or very large clay pot, in a gaiwan or covered individual bowl, or in a gongfu or very small pot. In any of these, tea leaves or pieces of compressed tea were infused. When using a small earthenware pot, teacups are placed together in a chachuan or tea serving saucer. One of the best known teapots is the 'Yixing Dragon Teapot' made with wet reddish-purple clay. This pot enhances and conserves flavor and heat, and holds the aroma of the tea.

The Chinese discuss tea categorizing it by the color of tea leaf, as follows:

White Tea is also called silver tip. This tea is mostly new buds plucked before they open, then withered to allow much of their moisture to evaporate. These unfermented tea leaves are gently dried in the sun, usually in bamboo trays or in low temperature ovens. The tea infusions from them are referred to as white or light yellow, and are known as the champagne of teas. They are rare, harvested but once a year usually in early July, and gathered within a two week period. It is the only tea that is considered non-astringent. All other teas have some or a considerable amount of astringency.

Green Tea is also an unfermented tea. It is from leaves allowed to dry somewhat, then heated, also called roasted, in ovens or pans to stop the oxidation process sometimes incorrectly referred to as fermentation. Some green teas are steamed first then rolled into balls or around a very thin stick. If on a stick, they are slid off. As such or as balls, they are then put to dry. Infusions from these teas are considered yellow to yellow-green and are considered very astringent.
Oolong Tea, is a semi-fermented tea with leaves dried and as they are so doing, shaken periodically to bruise them. Then they are heated, fried, roasted, fermented, or whatever you'd like to call them, to further the oxidation process. Puchong oolong teas are oxidized the least, Formosa oolongs the most. This provides infusions from pale yellow-orange to a deeper orange-red, respectively.

Black Tea is also dried first, in the sun or in the shade. The leaves are then rolled or not and set aside in a reasonably moist place until the leaf turns reddish brown. After the correct color is achieved, they are put into large woks and heated, fried, fired, or which ever expression you prefer, or they can be put into pans and oxidized in an oven. The infused brew is reddish in color.

All teas can be processed by hand or by machine and all teas are graded by size of the leaf. They can be scented or flavored, and only a small proportion of them are. Most often, oolong or black teas are so treated. Blossoms, petals, or pieces of fruit can be added to flavor teas as can the addition of commercial essences, oils, or fragrances. Flavors such as jasmine, rose, litchi, orange, and orchid are popular, in that order. It is common practice, that when essences or oils are used that a large piece of cotton be saturated with same and put in a big box of tea leaves and left there for hours or days, depending upon the depth of aroma desired.

Everyone should know that teabags and compressed teas are neither new nor an American invention. Tea used to be compressed in large blocks or rounded shapes. For shipping, they were packed in bamboo then further protected by a wooden chest or a leather bag for their long journeys. Sometimes these bags got wet. The caravan stewards saw infused tea leaking from them and more than one of them thought of making a batch of tea in that manner in a bag of one sort or another.

When I was a child listening to Arthur Godfrey extolling the virtues of Lipton Tea in easy to use bags filled with 'pekoe and orange pekoe' tea, I saw bits of orange and thought him selling the highest quality tea known to man. My imagination wandered because I heard 'orange pekoe.' However, those words mean long leaves; 'pekoe' alone means shorter leaves. Other tea leaf words for their sizes include: 'souchong' meaning coarse leaves, and 'fannings' and 'dust' as words for the left-overs of any of the above.

The above terms do not connotate flavor, rather they speak of tea leaf size, and therefore quality. Tea bags, flow-through or otherwise, can be and usually are mixtures of fannings and dust and perhaps some other known tea leaves ground small. They rarely, if ever, have small spring-picked leaves so beloved by the Chinese.

I have since learned that flow-thorough tea bags do brew better tea than flat tea bags because there is more room for leaf expansion. Both beg the question, however, of how to handle the teabag, and extract the best of the brew. At a recent food show, I learned that the Tetley company with offices in Shelton, Connecticut, has one way to solve that problem. They now make a drawstring tea bag.

Except for seeing that at that show, this English import is not yet on supermarket shelves. T-sac Produktions, of Hannover, Germany, also has a neat solution. Theirs is for those that want to use their own fine tea leaves and bag them; they, too, are not readily available in the United States; but becoming more so.

Tea Museums and clever tea packaging come from or are available abroad. Should you travel to Europe to get either of the above, try to go to Butler's Wharf in London where tea was unloaded hundreds of years ago. There, near the Tower Bridge, you can visit the Bhamah Tea and Coffee Museum on Maguire Street in the Clove Building. You may want to phone ahead: 071-738-0222 to check their hours. They have information about tea's arrival in Britain, more about the teabag, and about hundreds of tea leaf kinds. You can even buy Chinese tea, though they only have a handful of varieties from that country. They also have a wonderful book written by Mister Braham, published by Hutchinson in 1972, called Tea and Hsee.

In Paris, visit Mariage Freres, a tea house situated at 30 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg in the 4th district or arrondisement. You can telephone for their hours to 011-331 42 72 28 11. This tea mecca has been selling tea since they opened their shop in 1854. They now have about four hundred teas from thirty-two countries, China included. Most of their Chinese teas come from the Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, Jiagsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, Guangzi, and the Jiangzi Provinces, as well as from Taiwan, other Asian countries, and other places around the world. The upstairs museum houses teapots, tea cups, samovars, and wooden tea chests, among other things. Be sure to check that out.

Buying loose tea and tea varieties requires knowledge. So teabags and museums aside, to be a tea connoisseur, you need to learn what is considered the best and where to shop and taste different teas to determine your own favorites.

If you live in or near San Francisco, try the Imperial Tea Court. Roy Fong, its owner, has his own tea plantations in China where he supervises tea from tree to thee. The tea he sells is very fresh, very flavorful, and very good. So is tea at the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company, a source for good tea from Taiwan. Fong has but one place, Ten Ren has dozens of stores in many cities in the United states and in other countries including Taiwan.

Tea varieties you should taste are Snow Tea, White Tea, Green Peony Tea, Lung Ching, Jade Ring, Jasmine Pearl (also known as Jasmine Balls), and Tung Ting. These teas are white, green, or oolong, some more oxidized than others. You can also try a black tea such as Lychee Black, Hao Ya B, or any other black tea.

There are quality levels of each of these and in some tea emporia they may have other names. Every tea and every price level makes for differences. You may not prefer the most expensive of any of these but you do need to try several in order to make educated taste decisions. A good vendor will encourage tasting as you make your purchasing decisions.

Other frequently consumed Chinese teas include Keemun, a mellow black tea with a strong aroma; some call it 'the wine of tea.' There is also Lapsang Souchong, a large-leafed tea from the Lapsang region of China. Oxidized to have a smoky flavor and aroma, it is large-leaf tea with a tiny taste of ripe peaches and is a Formosa Oolong. Recently, I was given a red oolong tea flavored with and called Osmanthus tea. It has its leaves attached to stems, has a fine aroma, and is worth trying.

When I took a group of twenty-five to Roy Fung's for a group tasting seminar, we were impressed with his expertise. We all learned a lot whether we were knowledgeable or novices. He is the International Director of Tea, but not its editor. Tea is an interesting and very educational magazine addressing all kinds of tea and related issues worldwide. Mr. Fong is also founding master of the Tea Masters Association. The Imperial Tea Court, founded by Roy and his wife Grace, is a typical teahouse with dark wood interior, counters, teacups and pots, and marble floor. It came piece by piece from China along with six workmen who installed it, even the bird cages typical of Chinese tea houses. Must report that the sanitation laws of San Francisco forced him to remove the birds, so the cages are now empty.

For him, an importers hobby has now grown into a full-fledged business selling more than half million dollars worth of tea a year, and growing. Mr. Fong is so concerned about tea quality that when he learned he could not adequately control it, he bought tea gardens in China to have control over the entire process. His customers demanded organic teas and he can assure that they get them because he only uses organic fertilizer made of soy meal and other bean mashes, green leaves, and a special manure.

His is the first traditional tea house in the United States and almost all of the tea served or sold there comes from China, be it from Yunnan, Fijian, Hongzhou, or Anhwei. A small amount does come from Taiwan where he has contracted for specific teas. His first year he bought all his tea, the second year a small garden in Fujian harvested but ten kilos. For the record, last year Mr. Fong imported more than one and two-tenths tons of tea, most from his own gardens.

At our tasting lesson, we sampled three different oolong teas. Lung Ching was the most expensive served (his best sold for $380.00 per pound). We tasted the $180.00 a pound variety. I became a convert tasting his Jasmine Pearl tea at $49.00 for half a pound. That amount makes more than a hundred mugs of tea while a half pound of coffee makes only twenty cups. The third tea tasted was Tit Kun Yin. We learned how to taste, brew tea correctly, and to allow air through our teeth as we drank it. We also learned to enjoy the texture of some of the teas felt on the roofs of our mouths.

On a different day, I tried his Jade Ring tea, only two hundred eighty pounds were made last year. That tea has an fruity apricot aftertaste and is best consumed alone or before eating. I also tried Green and Black Peony Teas. These are hand-tied leaves that open in the teapot and look like the flower. They were mild and like most teas, full-flavored and better after brewing a second pot with the same leaves.

Taste different teas from many vendors. As you drink more of them, like wines, you'll become your own expert. After frequenting many sellers of tea, I learned that I prefer Jasmine Pearl from Imperial Tea Court, a mid-priced Tung Ting from Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company, Huang Mountain Hairpoint Tea from Eastrise Trading Company, Tit Kuan Yin from C.C. Fine Tea Company, and Hao Ya B from Harney and Sons.

A few fine sources are listed alphabetically below; there are others. Call them to learn their hours and availability for tea tasting. Also, read about tea in the books listed in the earlier mentioned article or in newer books reviewed in this issue. After you have tasted them, do write and share thoughts about your experiences and your favorite teas.

Below are a few tea vendors. Do try them all selecting the teas you like best from each of them. Let us know your thoughts.

14520 Arrow Highway
Baldwin Park CA 91706
(800) 743-2228

C.C. Fine Tea Company
1809 130th Avenue NE #116
Bellevue WA 98005
(425) 558-7768

Eastrise Trading Company
318 S. Date Avenue
Alhambra CA 91803
(626) 281-2800

Harney & Sons
Village green
P.O. Box 638
Salisbury CT 06068
(888) 427-6398

Imperial Tea Court
1411 Powell Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 788-6080

New Horizon
405 South Airport Blvd.
S. San Francisco CA 90408
(650) 589-7689

Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company
75 Mott Street
New York NY 10013
(800) 292-2049

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