A few days ago, Paul and I went to a "lecture on Chinese tea”. Riveting, I know! But really, knowing that China has such a long and rich tea culture and tradition, and knowing that we ourselves barely (and that would be an overstatement) know how much of those tea crumbles to throw into a tea pot, we realized that a quick course in Chinese tea would not be an unnecessary luxury.
Well, we were proven right in minutes. Let me ask you this question:
From what plant (or plants) does green tea come, and from what plant (or plants) do black tea and oolong tea come?
Hah? hah? You know it? If your answer is "I don't know, but they must be different plants" then you are with the right company. Stay with this post. If you said: "Ah, those all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, but after harvesting the leaves are just processed in different ways." Well, then, hhm, maybe you want to skip on to the next post. Clearly you are out of my league.
Luckily for us, we learned this basic tea fact early on in the evening, before we might have even asked about it and blown our cover as experienced tea drinkers. Following this early enlightenment, our learning continued with a dizzying set of slides about different ways to process, prepare, and drink Chinese tea. But while there are many options, I felt in the end it really was not so complex. To prepare the tea in the right way, just pay attention to the tea (duh!). Green tea has not been processed much (think of fresh green leaves), so you want to drink it close to the date it was harvested and also not poor boiling water on it, as that would damage the leaf. Also, because you just steep it for 30 seconds or so, you can use a glass or porcelain cup to prepare the tea, and then poor the "tea soup" (the water, not the tea leaves) into the drinking cup.
A quick note on "tea soup": Our speaker made an interesting point about the word "tea", saying that when Chinese say "tea", they are talking about the tea leaves, not the liquid. Pouring water on those leaves is basically a rinse of the tea, and what you get is "tea soup", not tea. Along the same lines, they only call things that come from Camellia sinensis "tea" or "tea soup". If you are drinking some sort of flower tea (like Chamomile), they would just call that "flower water", not tea.
Speaking about flowers, the presenter also told an interesting story related to the Beijing habit to drink boatloads of Jasmine tea. Jasmine tea is real tea (from Camellia sinensis) with some added flavor from the Jasmine flower. According to the speaker, the drinking water in Beijing used to be so incredibly bad that people would drink the Jasmine tea instead of other tea because the taste of the Jasmine was strong enough to (at least somewhat) cover the bad taste of the water. Although people now have access to better water, they've kept their habit of consuming Jasmine tea. I often enough see my Chinese teacher or a cab driver with a big mug of Jasmine tea "on the go".
Back to the tea preparation... So if green tea is fresh, oolong and hong (what we call "black") tea are more processed. That means you don't have to drink them fresh and can use water of a higher temperature when making the tea. You might with some (or all?) teas even throw away the first "rinse" (the first "tea soup"), because it won’t be good to drink. (With green tea, you would never chuck out the first rinse, as that is the best you will ever get out of those leaves.) Because you will be steeping the tea for longer and doing a couple "rinses," it is wise now to use a tea holder made out of pottery, as that will keep the heat in better. Not that using glass would be wrong, the tea would just not be that hot.
Now, a few days later, I can't say that I remember all of the new instructions or know exactly what to do, but I did get some basics under my belt and now know what to pay attention to next time I reach for the Chinese tea. Or I might just grab that bag of Pickwick tea from the shelve and do it the "ole British" way! :-)