From lavish tea ceremonies to the modest Tupperware brew found in the clutch of every taxi diver, the consumption of tea in modern Shanghai is apparent on every level of Chinese society.
Thought to have originated here 4,000 years ago, tea is still produced in mass quantities in China. Over 1.2 million tons are produced in China every year, making the country the largest tea producer in the world. Since most of the tea is consumed domestically and not exported, experiencing the perfect brew remains a delight reserved for those inside China.
Trying to get even a layman’s perspective on something so ancient and complex as tea can be a difficult task. To help, Shanghai Squared recruited the services of tea enthusiast Sam Price to head to Tianshan Tea City and help teach tea greenhorns their green tea from their black.
The Oxford English dictionary defines tea as a hot drink made by infusing the dried, crushed leaves of the tea plant in boiling water. As Price explained, “defining a tea is mostly about the process, because it all comes from the same plant, cameilla sinensis. In Europe we define [a type of tea] by the colour of the leaf, but in China it’s defined by the tea’s liquor”. The liquor being the combination of the hot water and defused tea leaves, the liquid tea itself.
The unique taste, smell and visual appearance of the tea liquor is achieved by minor variations in the processing method. After being plucked, leaves can be withered, fried or baked, rolled and shaped, fermented (if needed) to the desired level, and finally dried.
In addition to the countless variations of tea achieved by different methods of processing, a tea’s taste can vary depending on the geographic region in which the plant is grown. China has four principal growing regions: the Jiangnan and Jiangbei areas to the north and south of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River; the Lingnan area to the far south by Hong Kong; and finally the Southwest, which encompasses Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Tibet.
Tea also varies depending on when it was picked. “Just like you might buy a wine by the year, you can buy tea by the season (it was picked),” said Price.
To complicate things further, tea trees are capable of soaking up the odors around them. Although this ability isn’t used in tea processing, tea leaves can be used to absorb the bad odors in shoes.
“If you don’t know anything about tea, you just choose Jasmine because it’s kinda sexy,” Price said. For those interested in trying real Chinese tea he recommends three staring points.
Trying and buying
“Every teashop worth its while will let you try some tea,” Price said as he entered Room 2122 of Tianshan Tea City – his teashop of choice. Teashops boast the full tea ceremony apparatus and proprietors know exactly how best to brew each type of tea.
“The philosophy of tea sellers is: first you make friends, then you make customers,” Price said. There is no obligation to buy when sampling teas. Nevertheless, it is polite to use two fingers to give a double tap on the table – it shows respect and demonstrates your gratitude.
When tasting, the three important factors are colour, fragrance and taste. So first look, then smell before finally tasting. “You’ve got to slurp it to expose it to oxygen and release the full flavour” Price said as he downed the second brew of some Tie Guanyin (Iron Goddess) Oolong tea.
We sat huddled around a wooden tea tray where the shop owner prepared our third brew using the same leaves. She poured the hot water onto the tea leaves and let it sit brewing for no more than a few seconds before allowing it to filter into a second part of the tea pot. She then filled our cups, which hold no more than a gulp of tea each, before starting the process over.
“People say the third brew is the best one,” Price said. However, it wasn’t until brew twenty-something that our guide declared the leaves to be fully used. In a pot of delicate flavours, a little goes a long way.
The quality of the tea can affect just how long the taste lingers. “All good teas should leave that lasting personality,” Price said, “If you drink a high-quality tea then the flavour will return up to an hour later whenever you drink water.”
Only the beginning
Around 780 CE, Lu Yu, an ex-clown turned tea master, completed his masterpiece, The Classic of Tea (chájīng,) the first definitive guide to cultivating, making and drinking tea. For him, tea symbolised the harmony and mysterious unity of the Universe.
Like Lu Yu, Price believes that tea is more than just a drink; it’s a way of life, a philosophy that’s been refined for thousands of years. “You can understand more about China from drinking tea than studying Chinese” Price said. While coffee is a drink for those on the go, tea steadies your pace of life and encourages introspection.
The afternoon spent with Price certainly offered more introspection than any coffee from Café 85 has. And while caught up in intoxicating teashops of Tianshan Tea City, time seemed to stand still. In fact, it was only when we had reemerged, a little tea drunk (yes that is possible), that we realised the best part of the day was over. A small price to pay for an education in something so timeless.