For many people, nothing beats greeting the morning with a nice cup of tea. Its refreshing, clean taste evokes a feeling of calmness and mindfulness. For more than four millennia, tea has delighted, inspired, and satisfied countless drinkers in all corners of the world.
Olivia Yang, the author of The Art of Drinking Tea, said that “the Chinese are, without any doubt, the right people to understand everything about tea.” For thousands of years, the Chinese have practiced and maintained the art of tea cultivation, preparation, and consumption. As tea is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, it is best to learn about it from them.
Keep reading to know more about the utterly rich Chinese tea culture.
Traditional Chinese Tea: The Basics
There are several main types of Chinese tea, each one with distinct characteristics. Though all tea came from the same plant source - Camellia sinensis - they can be easily referred to as green tea, yellow tea, white tea, oolong tea, black tea, and dark tea.
Here’s a brief description of each tea.
When you hear the word "tea," green tea is probably what first comes to your mind. After all, this is not just the oldest type of tea, but also the most popular. However, statistics report that only 20% of the tea consumed around the world is green tea. 78% of the tea consumed globally is black tea, predominantly in the Western world. Oolong, which is consumed mostly in China, represents the remaining 2%.
Green tea has the highest amount of antioxidants and tannins compared to other teas. The secret lies in the way it is processed: it is typically plucked and dried on the same day. This allows minimal oxidation to take place, and it gets to retain its natural rich green color, vitamin C, minerals, and antioxidants, among others. That is why green tea is the best choice as a cleansing and even slimming drink.
Examples of Chinese green tea are:
Read more about Chinese green tea here.
This tea has a characteristic light golden color, mildly sweet taste and aroma, and smooth mouthfeel.
Yellow tea is processed the same as green tea, but with an additional step called sealed yellowing. This process involves encasing and steaming the leaves to increase oxidation and remove the grassy smell and taste.
Some popular yellow teas include:
- Junshan Yinzhen
- Beigang Maojian
- Mogan Huangya
- Meng Ding Huangya
- Pingyang Huangtang
White tea is among the rarest and most expensive as leaves and buds for white tea are harvested only at the dawn of spring, once every year.
Young tea buds used for making white tea are picked, while leaves are still tightly enclosed. The leaves would still have its silvery, downy hair intact. Being the least processed tea of all the teas, it is withered and dried only when about to be used. Since the leaves are not crushed or rolled, white tea has a delicate aroma and flavor.
Among the popular white teas available on the market today include:
- Bai Mudan
- Bai Yao Hin Zhen
- Moonlight White Tea
- Shou Mein
Read more about Chinese white tea here.
Also sometimes called Black Dragon Tea, this tea shares the qualities of 2 other teas: the green and the black. It has the complexity of black tea and the freshness of green tea. Oolong tea leaves processing includes withering and rolling, traditionally by hand. Oxidation and firing result in its characteristic dark color.
Oolong tea’s color and flavor vary due to its different processing levels. Sometimes, there is a method where they use charcoal smoke to give it a deep, earthy taste. Oolong tea’s flavor profile ranges from mild floral to rich and luscious.
Some varieties of oolong tea are:
- Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea
- Da Hong Pao
- Phoenix Oolong
- Shui Jin Gui
Read more about oolong tea here.
In the Western world, black tea dominates more than the other tea types. This tea is made from the fresh, new shoots of the tea plant. Then the leaves are prepared through multiple processing methods. It is withered, rolled, and crushed and is allowed to fully oxidize. As a final processing step, the leaves are fired in the oven, which stops further oxidation.
The resulting brew comes in reddish to dark brown hue. It has an exquisite but complex fragrance. The complexity extends to its taste, starting from mild and simple to malty, with an almost savory note.
Examples of black tea are:
- Yunnan Dianhong black tea
- Yichang black tea
- Keemun black tea
- Ninghong black tea
Read more about black tea here.
Dark tea is probably the least known tea there is. This type of tea is derived from the post-fermentation of leaves. In standard processing, leaves are dried or fired to reduce moisture level and halt oxidation. That’s where the first process stops, and the second fermentation starts for dark tea production. The second fermentation entails sprinkling the tea leaves with water and piling them to ferment.
The action of natural bacteria on the leaves during the fermentation process influences its color and taste. Unlike the other teas, dark tea’s flavor improves with age. It takes on a deep reddish hue and has a mild yet full-bodied flavor.
Try out these varieties of dark tea:
- Hunan dark tea
- Liu Bao dark tea
- Sichuan dark tea
- Pu-erh tea
A sub-category of dark tea, Pu-erh tea is darker but smoother in taste than its parent black tea. It is the most oxidized of all tea varieties and can be pricey, that sometimes sells for thousands of dollars.
Some Pu-erh tea includes:
Read more about pu-erh tea here.
Chinese Tea Etiquette
When visiting a new country, it is always a good practice to expand your understanding of the culture of the country you are visiting. When visiting China for touring or business purposes, their tea-drinking would most likely constitute your overall experience in the country.
As tea is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture for thousands of years, it would be a great idea to familiarize yourself with their tea-drinking customs and etiquette. Leave your host with a good impression by following these:
Seating etiquette dictates that the guest of honor seats at the host’s left-hand side. Seating goes from the host’s left going to the right in descending order of importance. Do not cross your legs.
- Gratitude for the Steep
As a guest, you may be invited to take the first brew of the tea. The traditional Chinese tea ceremony would be to show your gratitude. This is an incredibly important Chinese tea drinking practice. To express your appreciation, stand up and hold your fist (left over right) if you are a man, or put your palms together if you are a woman. Then, take a bow, sit down, and take over your teacups. Take a moment to smell and appreciate the tea aroma before taking a leisurely sip.
- The Finger Kowtow
Simply put, finger kowtow is finger tapping. It is a silent ritual to display your gratitude to the one who is serving the tea. Its origin dates back to the Qing Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. While traveling across China, he made a stop at one of the tea houses. The server poured them tea, three ups, and downs, without spilling a drop. Learning that this movement is called “Three Nods of the Phoenix”, the emperor decided to try it himself.
As Emperor Qianlong poured tea into the cups, his companions began tapping their fingers on the table, because they couldn’t risk revealing his true identity to the public. When he asked what that was about, his companions explained that since they could not kowtow to him, they tapped their fingers instead, to show their respect and gratitude.
- Be Mindful of the No-no’s
Finish your tea to show respect to how the host went through all the ceremony of tea preparation to serve you their best tasting tea by finishing your tea. They’d appreciate it for sure.
Remember not to smoke while having tea as it is quite disrespectful. If you really can’t help it, ask your host’s permission after a few rounds of serving.
How to Make Chinese Tea: The Way They Do It
Chinese tea making is an art, and as the traditional gong fu tea ceremony implies, it is meant to be done well. To prepare for the time-honored Chinese tea making, you first have to prepare the necessary tools.
The Chinese tea ceremony kits include:
- Tea accessories – it consists of a teaspoon, teapot strainer, a smaller teaspoon meant to remove used tea leaves from the teapot, teacup tweezers to lift the cups, and a needle to clear leaves from the spout.
- Teapot, traditionally called a Gaiwan, which is made from porcelain (glass or ceramic teapots may also be used)
- Serving pitcher
- Pitcher filter or strainer
- Caddy to hold the tea leaves
When you have everything ready, here are the steps on how to prepare and serve Chinese tea:
- Start by preparing the tea set, and carefully and neatly laying down everything.
- Next, rinse and warm the teapots and cups.
- Heat the water until it boils. Use spring water if you have some available!
- Scoop some tea leaves and put it into the teapot until 1/3 full.
- Wash the tea leaves to remove impurities, and then remove the water.
- Refill teapot with water. Brew Chinese tea and keep it covered and undisturbed for a few seconds to preserve the aroma. Note that different teas have different brewing time!
- Gently pour the tea from the teapot and into the tea pitcher before pouring it into small serving teacups.
- Serve the tea to guests. Always offer or receive tea with both hands.
- Smell, sip, and enjoy the tea. You may also offer the first brew to the guest of honor when you have one.
Perfecting the Chinese Tea Experience
The key to perfecting every ritual is to prepare in advance. Setting the right atmosphere also counts a great deal. It’s essential to keep the ambience relaxed and calm. Performing the ceremony flawlessly may take some time, and it’s alright. It’s all about enjoying the process!
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