Today we wanted to talk about Chinese tea. It’s such a huge topic that we won’t be able to cover everything in one post, but we’re hoping to start with a few key facts that will set you on a path to learning more about one of China’s greatest products!
1. We don’t use tea bags in China
Tea in China is almost as common as water. It is not just for special occasions (though it can be gussied up for guests!). When you are in China, you’ll see people walking around with clear plastic or glass water bottles that have loose tea leaves floating in them. You can re-fill those bottles over and over throughout the day so you have a nice weak tea to enjoy all day.
Loose leaf tea is the rule here in China, not the exception. You can find tea that’s been crushed and packaged in tea bags in larger supermarkets, but they are by far the minority. One big reason is because the quality is usually not as good as the loose leaf that you can find everywhere.
2. All tea comes from the same species of bush
Despite the fact that there are so many different types of Chinese teas, they all come from the same species of bush. This bush is called the Camellia sinensis.
Despite this fact there is a huge amount of variety in the flavors of tea available. The basic types are: green, white, Wulong (Oolong), yellow, red and black.
Green teas are the most commonly drank in China because they have a wonderful delicate flavor and many health benefits. Green teas have the least processing of any tea and so have the most positive health impacts. After picking, the leaves are immediately dried by tossing in a pan at about 50 or 60 degrees Celsius and then finished off with dry, hot air. This deactivates the enzymes that would otherwise allow the leaves to oxidize.
Wulong teas are partially oxidized (sometimes called partially fermented). That means that after the tea leaves are picked, they are left in the sun to dry. Drying stops the oxidation process but sun drying allows the leaves to be moist just long enough for a little oxidation to happen.
Black teas (called red teas in Chinese) are allowed to fully oxidize before they dry.
Post-fermented teas (also known as dark teas or simply fermented teas but called black teas in Chinese) are processed similarly to green tea except they are not fully 100% dried so the enzymes may still continue to oxidize over time. There are two types of post-fermented teas: raw and ripe. Raw teas are aged over years. During that time, the tea slowly turns darker and darker as the flavor matures and mellows (much like wine!). Ripe tea is wetted again and allowed to ferment before it is put into a mold. (Here is a wonderfully in depth article about the process behind the most famous post-fermented tea: Pu’er.)
3. Not all tea is fermented
In common speech, we often talk about the fermentation process of tea, but actually it’s only post-fermented teas that are truly fermented. Other varieties of tea are actually oxidized, a process that is commonly referred to as fermentation, though that is not technically correct.
4. Each type of tea should be brewed differently
The way you brew teas depends on the variety of tea. For example, for all teas except green teas, you usually rinse the leaves once first before drinking.
We have many ways of brewing tea. The simplest is to just put the tea leaves directly into the cup you drink out of. Indeed this simple method is probably the most common. You sometimes get the tea leaves in your mouth but you can avoid them by blowing them out of the way before drinking.
Green teas can be brewed in a glass, a gaiwan or ceramic tea pot.
Oolong teas are best brewed quickly and not soaked in water as they can become bitter. For this we use a gaiwan.
Black teas can be successfully brewed in very hot water with a gaiwan or a small teapot that is emptied between brews.
Post-fermented teas usually use an Yixing (zisha, or purple clay) pot. These pots are excellent for Pu’er because they soak up the flavor of the tea over time and contribute to your brews after years of use.
5. Tea can come in a variety of shapes
Although we don’t use tea bags, teas come in a huge variety of shapes. Green loose leaf teas look like sharp, flat green needles while Wulong leaves are rolled up into little balls which unfurl as the tea brews. Black teas are usually a crooked shape that is long and then while post- fermented teas are usually pressed into what are called tea cakes.
Have you tried Chinese tea? What is your favorite variety? Let us know on our Facebook page!