To the inexperienced palate, tea is a complicated business. Or not, depending on your preferences. Up until a few years ago, I was perfectly content with heapfuls of Mariage Freres’ Earl Grey Imperial for an afternoon brew. Sure, I’d drink any tea if you put it in front of me, but if I had to brew it myself? That stout black tin would be the one I’d reach for. I’m a simple girl with simple tastes, after all.
Things changed after I did a piece for Etsy about a two-generation, family-owned artisan tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Over a leisurely tasting of oolong, white and green teas, I discovered the delicate beauty that is Taiping Houkui, from China’s An Hui province, ranked as one of the top ten teas in China and a common choice for diplomatic gifts. Whereas my beloved Mariage Freres earl grey derives most of its character and aroma from bergamot oils, the fragrant nose of a cup of Taiping Houkui is entirely reflective of the quality of the leaf. Good leaf, good flavor. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
“If the flavor is not in the leaf, you’re not going to get it in the subsequent steps of tea processing. You need to start with good quality leaves”, said Ned Hegearty, owner of Silk Road Teas, an established importer of rare artisanal Chinese teas. We met at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco where Ned’s booth stood out among the countless iterations of flavored popcorn and rice crackers. Silk Road Teas has been around for over two decades, which, in this business, is an invaluable asset and a testament to the quality of their relationships with tea artisans and growers in China. The best deals are to be found in local villages close to the site of tea production where small-batch, custom-crafted teas for the local palate are created. In other words, you’ve got to know who to talk to and where to look.
Between the harvest and packaging of tea, the leaves undergo different degrees of processing depending on the type of tea being produced. Leaves harvested for their Silver Needle white tea for instance are just left to wither and dried out (“fired”, in industry parlance), whereas green teas go through an additional step of shaping, becoming flattened, torn or curled, before being fired in a wok. Oolong teas, which are semi-oxidized (as opposed to black teas which are fully oxidized), are shaped, then fired at higher temperatures than green tea.
“Shaping tea leaves help with the development of their taste and aroma in the cup,” Ned said.
“Shredded leaves give their flavor out immediately while curled and flattened leaves reveal their flavors over a series of steeps. A mix of small and big leaves (which you’d commonly find in tea bags) yield a balance of flavors – you’ll start with flavors from the smaller leaves and gradually discover the flavors of larger leaves with successive steeps.”
The firing process reduces the moisture in tea leaves to levels ranging between three and nine percent, and makes the leaves more shelf-stable. According to Ned, “You can use this process to ‘nudge’ the flavor in leaves that may be a little less fresh or a little young, to ‘wake them up’ but you have to know what you’re doing as it’s a fine line between coaxing flavors and burning the leaf.”
In the case of Pu-Erh tea, which yields distinctly different flavors depending on whether the tea is ‘cooked’ or uncooked’, the craft of this process comes in deciding how long to let the leaves ferment for before firing and pressing them into ‘cakes’. Fermentation before leaves are fired are considered ‘cooked’ Pu-Erh, yielding teas with a minerality that some have casually described as having a ‘barnyard flavor’. ‘Uncooked’ Pu-Erhs on the other hand, are left to age after firing and shaping, leaving the residual bacteria and moisture in the leaves to continue the fermenting process, albeit at a slower pace.
With such a dizzying array of Chinese teas to choose from, where is the novice tea enthusiast to start in her appreciation of quality tea?
“Look for a hint of astringency beneath a tea’s dominant sweet note. This creates a tension on the palate that’s a sign of a good Chinese tea”, Ned offered.
“The Chinese government used to regulate tea production and its quality, and there were was a structure of standards that you could refer to. Since the industry opened up to private enterprise, there’s now a bigger spectrum of tea quality, so you’ve really got to know how to evaluate and identify quality tea.”
As with any exercise involving the cultivation of one’s palate, the initial learning curve is steep and opaque to the beginner. But the key here, as with most gustatory forays, is to keep at it, and taste as big a variety of teas as you can, in order to understand the difference between a really good green tea and a mediocre one, a nuanced, full-bodied oolong and your dull tannic versions found in Chinese restaurants around the country. It doesn’t take much to start at home if you follow their tea-brewing tips, which can be broadly summed up in two principles: paying attention to the quality and temperature of the water used, and adjusting the steeping time according to the leaf.
“For drinking tea you want water that’s about 165-185F, and either filtered or distilled. You want to heat it, not boil it, especially if you’re having green or white tea because boiling temperature water removes their delicate floral notes,” Ned explained.
“Be careful not to steep the leaves for too long as an extended steeping time will eliminate the tea’s nuance. There will be too much flavor in the brew which overwhelms the palate and becomes too ‘simplified’. You want to leave flavors behind for successive steeps. Tea-brewing is about extracting flavors of the leaf a little at the time. It’s about slowing down.”
This is especially true for big leaf teas such as oolong, where the first steep delivers the aroma of the leaf and the second steep reveals its taste. “Oolong leaves are bigger and therefore take time to open up,” Ned said.
After running a mostly-wholesale business since they started, Silk Road Teas is starting to venture into the retail, direct-to-consumer market as a way to diversify their business and customer base. In addition to their extensive catalog of loose-leaf teas, the company now offers a line of eight teas packaged in individual satchets for quick and easy brewing. Given their experience in sourcing carefully crafted Chinese teas, one would imagine that this isn’t a bad place to start the journey of tea appreciation.
Looking to swap your morning joe for a cup of tea but not sure where to start? Here’s a brief guide to the main types of tea found in the market, their characteristics and suggested varietals.
White Tea: Floral, delicate notes, subtle flavors. Use hot, not boiling water and don’t steep for too long. Suitable for drinking any time of the day. Try: Silver Needle (Yin Zhen) or White Peony (Bai Mu Dan).
Green Tea: My personal favorite for a mid-day pick-me-up. Slightly more full-bodied than white teas but less pungent than oolong or black teas. Grassy, creamy finish. Try: Dragon Well (Lung Ching), Green Monkey King (Taiping Houkui) or get a Green Tea Sampler to start you off.
Oolong Tea: Great for all-day drinking, and for noticing how the flavors develop with each steep. Some oolongs are complex and smoky, reflective of the firing process. I love this varietal with a meal of strong flavors as it clears the palate between bites. Try: Plum Blossom Fragrance (Mi Lan Xiang), Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin) or WuYi Yan Cha.
Black Tea: The sort of tea I’d consume at breakfast. Strongly aromatic and full-bodied, it makes a decent substitute for espresso. Best of all, you can keep refreshing the leaves all day and discover different nuances of flavor. Try: Golden Needle (Gin Zhen), Yunnan Black or Wu Yi Black Oolong.