Green tea is a hot keyword these days. Many however understand it through the images and articles portraying it as a pale green colour liquid medicine – with a long list of health benefits.

Green tea was discovered accidentally and had been consumed in China for 2000 plus years before we started studying its health benefits. Our ancestors drank it because they enjoyed it.

Over the long history of green tea consumption in China, more than 300 varieties have been invented and it has become a product of history, culture and art.

Green teas are made of the leaves of a simple plant called Camellia sinensis.  The hundreds of varieties, each with its unique natures to mark their own identity are a result of their different: plant species, cultivation environment, harvesting skills and making skills. The final product is a unique leaf beverage with nothing but individualities.

There is a culture build around each green tea production and consumption, the final brew looks similar in bright light green, but their aroma, taste, texture and after taste can only be experienced and described individually. The most amazing bit is that all these come from a simple plant leaf – no additives are required. In fact the additives are only used when covering up is needed for the low quality products.  (Very similar premium wines.)

To fully benefit from green teas’ rich anti-oxidants, the first step is to lean to enjoy the tea itself.

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Teas are categorised into 6 classes according to the degree of fermentation during their processing: green teas are unfermented; white teas are lightly fermented by hardly processed (rubbed, rolled or baked); yellow teas are partially fermented, but being put through a unique process called ‘Men Huang’ to produce the unique yellow appearance and yellow tea taste; Oolong teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented. There is also a sixth category called compressed tea (Pu-erh tea) that the teas continue to ferment after being produced.

The confusion starts when a tea brew without added milk is called black by certain western cultures.  With the increasing popularity of green tea in recent years largely due to their numerous health benefits, it adds another dimension to the confusion – many call any leaf tea green including herbal teas (teas made of all other plants and parts apart from Camellia sinensis leaves). The classification becomes more intangible when white tea is mentioned: it is a black tea with added milk by western culture and the real white tea is a unique class of teas that are lightly fermented by least processed, nothing to do with if milk is added or not.

The discussions about teas, especially their health benefits are intense these days. Let’s start from getting the terms right so that at least we know we are talking about the same things.

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Tea was invented more than 2000 years ago and has stood the test of time for more reasons than one. It has also produced many ‘offspring’, mostly under the umbrella of ‘blends’ or ‘chai’ created through simple mixing but which makes them appear to be exotic and exciting.

Caught in the middle is tea itself; it came from ancient times and seems to want to be left just the way it always was: it loves natural spring water, an open fire and unglazed clay tea ware. The modern synthetic products take the real glory out of it.

To the younger generation of tea drinkers however, the good old cup of tea somehow belongs to their grandparents’ era. It is simply not flashy enough for their modern life styles. Yet, they are attracted to tea because of the continuing publicity in the media portraying tea as a healthy, carb free beverage which offers many health benefits. The market somehow has managed to create various ‘creative versions’ in a short time to meet demands and these are called blends. A fancy label is usually attached under the brand of the company.

Mankind consumes tea for several reasons: to relieve thirst, for taste enjoyment and more recently because it has been advocated as a beverage that offers many health benefits. There are no apparent reasons for the new ‘blends’ to offer anything additional apart from in the area of ‘taste’.

As democratic as we are, we do believe that ‘everyone has a different taste’. It is only fair to allow the space for creativity and experimentation. My personal experience so far however has led me to believe that the original is still the best.

Tea is similar to wine to a large extent, the art of growing and processing is highly specialised and there is a strong culture associated with its consumption. In China, there are sub-cultures associated with individual teas, in relation to their production and consumption. For example in the green tea family alone, there are more than 300 Chinese green teas. They are produced in different areas, using different species of tea plants, cultivated under different climate and soil conditions and produced for a harmonic match with the local diet. There is one thing that the Chinese do NOT do, however, which is to blend/mix the premium teas. These teas are naturally balanced in their aroma, flavour and texture and are there to be enjoyed but not covered or converted. A good cup of tea is described as dew from heaven.

Teas of low quality are handled differently; they are often turned into teabags and used in blends. Generally speaking, the low quality teas are bitter with a rough texture, they need a ‘face lift’.

Finally, traditional teas do not necessarily stay as fossils forever.  They are often regenerated and fine-tuned by the specialist tea masters for further developments. This art requires special knowledge and experience in the area of tea processing.  For example, a Chinese premium black called JinJunMei has recently been developed on the back of the traditional black tea Lapsang souchong. Its unique high class quality has been acknowledged and accepted by the tea drinking community almost immediately and it has very quickly made it to the top selling tea list in China.

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With teas becoming more popular each day, vastly due to the negative health effects of sugar rich beverage consumption and health benefits of tea drinking, teashops are sprouting up daily. The new shops and exiting suppliers are also scrambling to invent ‘exotic new teas’ to attract customers. Blending (or mixing) teas is a quick and easy fix, blending conventional teas with blossoms, fruits or spices.  The question is if it is the right thing to do?

Teas are ancient products, invented by the Chinese more than 2000 years ago and categorised into six main categories based on their processing methods. There are many teas within each category, each developed over a long period of time with their unique appearance, taste, production and culture of consumption.  Attempts to ‘modernise’ this product is like trying to modify and polish antique objects.

Premium teas, should it be green tea, white tea, Oolong tea or black tea, are rich in their own distinctive aromas, flavours and aftertastes. They are there to be enjoyed, but not covered up.

The low quality ones however are different. They are often stile and heavily oxidised (please see the note below), resulting in the teas being bitter with rough texture. These teas are often used in blends for the purpose of ‘face lifting’ in the teas’ native country China where appreciation of quality teas is highly developed.

Note: Many confuse oxidisation with fermentation – they are very different mechanisms. Black teas are fully fermented, but not necessarily oxidised. Read more about tea quality at: Tea Quality

black tea

Pure tea

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I have come crossed some questions recently on Linked in which I believed are for many:

  • Hello XXX, do please throw some light which is the best area which produces the best Oolong tea. I thought Taiwan was superior. Anything better still? XXX
  • Taiwan does have outstanding oolongs, and many people consider them to be some of the best — especially their high mountain oolongs. Personally we buy most of our oolongs from Taiwan, but favour China for many of our top quality green tea and white tea.
  • I would like to add a comment to XXX’s question – In my mind, Oolong is not the same as Wulong. Oolong tea is a short fermented (less oxidized) tea with less color and closer to a green tea and Wulong which is also called Wu Yi Oolong is a more fermented (more oxidized) tea with more color, closer to a black tea. Some of the less oxidized high elevation Oolongs come from Taiwan, but China is gaining ground in this sector also. Wu Yi Oolong on the other hand comes only from China. I am open to correction.

My response to this:

Hi every one, I am from Fu Jian province – the birth place of Oolong teas. Here is some info on our site regarding Oolong, Wulong and Wu Long:

Teas are categorised by degree of fermentation: green teas are unfermented, black teas are fully fermented and Oolong teas are semi-fermented. It is a class of teas including Taiwan Oolong and Wu Yi rock teas. Wulong is just a different version of English translation from a different Fu Jian dialect. The Fu Jian province is the birth place of Oolong teas. One of the most popular one is called Tie Guan Yin and some early migrants took it to Taiwan, modified it over the years to become Tiawan Oolong. Tiawan Oolong is produced by slightly different method and more fermented than Fu Jian Tie Guan Yin. Taste wise, it has a stronger after taste, but less up front floral aroma.

Wu Yi rock tea is a sub-class of Oolong tea, produced in Wu Yi mountain area of the Fu Jian province. Because the bushes are grown of rocky mountains and they have their own unique making method, people tend to call them Wu Yi rock tea as a sub-category.

Hope this is of some help.

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There has been a recent report that many top brands of Chinese teas have been found to contain banned pesticides. For those who enjoy their daily serving of tea, what are the implications?

This article attempts to explore the reasons behind the use of pesticides in the tea farming industry in China, the ways to avoid/minimise the potential adverse effects, and how these claims will benefit the tea industry in the long term.

Reasons behind the use of pesticides:

  1. High demand for quantity. The tea market in China is much bigger than in the west. It would be hard to find a Chinese family that does not have a tea set in use. With such a big population and so many tea drinkers, the demand is understandably high.
  2. High demand for quality. Similar to wine in the west, high quality teas are sought after in China. To produce high quality teas, well developed tea leaves are the first step and the cost of using manmade pesticides is much lower than an organic one.
  3. Lack of knowledge of certain Chinese tea farmers in relation to the potential health impact of harmful pesticides.
  4. Residuals in the farm lands from previous agriculture.
  5. Some are just bad ethics, practice driven by profits only.
  6. Lack of effective monitoring systems to regulate and track the pesticide use in the industry.

Ways of avoiding/minimising the potential pesticide contamination and their adverse effects:

As the original report pointed out ‘most of the residue levels are far below the national standard so people do not need to panic’ – the traditional Chinese way of saying it is: the clouds do not always mean rain.

I personally do not have serious concerns when I drink my cup of tea, provided the tea is in the premium quality range. My reasons are:

  1. The farmers producing the premium quality teas are aware that to safeguard the quality and price of their final products, they need to take good care of every stage of the tea production and therefore have less tendency to overuse pesticides like the mass producers of low quality teas (often used in blends or tea bags).
  2. The teas themselves have a detoxifying capacity. The noble Chinese ancient herbalist Shen-Nong used to drink teas daily to combat the toxicities as he tasted thousands of herbs/plants (some being health beneficial and others toxic) for the compilation of his first ever herbal dictionary – Shen-Nong Ben Cao. Recent researches have also documented that tea drinking can reduce the effects of various harmful substances including heavy metals.
  3. Tea consumers also need to be aware that when pesticide residuals are tested in the labs, the tea leaves are ground for the extracts to be tested. When teas are consumed as beverages, we rarely digest the whole tea leaves.

If the above is not enough to bring about some peace in tea consumers’ minds, there are also various ways of reducing the potentially adverse effects of pesticides:

  1. Purchase organic teas or wild plant teas. The cost of purchasing these teas is higher for the same quality grade. These teas (or at least those offered at Valley Green Tea) are, however, produced from plantations where organic farming is certified by the regulating bodies, or leaves harvested from wild plants.
  2. Rinse the tea leaves for 30 seconds with hot water (add hot water to the tea leaves in a teapot for 30 seconds and dispose of the water before brewing) to substantially reduce the potential dust and pesticide contamination.
  3. One of the routine sayings at Valley Green Tea is to ‘know the farmer, know the products’.  We make every effort to get to know the tea farmers and plantations. I believe that only when I get to know the tea producers, will I get the first-hand knowledge of whether the farmers are environmentally-conscious and practise ethical farming, or are driven by profits only. We select our suppliers carefully and change them whenever necessary.

Good news or bad news?

Finally, I believe that the recent claim may damage consumer confidence to some extent, but will benefit the Chinese tea industry in the long term. It will draw more attention from the regulating bodies to further monitor the products and farming practices and introduce relevant guidelines to ensure the healthy sustainability of the industry. Teas have been consumed in China for more than 2000 years and there is no sign of this stopping.

And for the tea consumers and tea suppliers like VGT? We believe peace of mind goes down well with a nice cup of tea.

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Much attention is given to losing weight, with many techniques and approaches advocated.

Why such an issue?

The human body will gain weight when we consume more energy than we can expend. It’s a simple flow equation.

For most of human history the odds were heavily stacked against this flow ever being positive or sustainable. For our unfortunate ancestors, food, especially high energy food was generally scarce or took lots of energy and risk to hunt down, had to be shared widely across the tribe, or would be putrid or stolen in a couple of days. It made sense to totally gorge when food was on. Bodies that could accommodate the additional energy had better survival rates during the inevitable shortages that followed. Those whose appetites and stomachs adjusted to accommodate larger meals when available, shortened survival odds.

In more recent times human society, aided by labour saving devices of all sorts has tipped the battle for survival in our favour. The flow equation is now easily positive all the time for large numbers of people – especially in the west.

The human body however remains as adapted as ever for those periods of food shortage, except they mostly now don’t happen!

With all the food now so easily available, appetites expand with waistlines true to design. When we reduce the flow we immediately feel hungry. The body’s response from history is to attempt to maintain body size via increased appetite. Our brains complain – “just one more major food experience is normal – indulge and live!”. I understand that people who deliberately “supersize” experience greater difficulties in getting weight off than anticipated.

So what to do in the modern age when diets aren’t enforceable by “kind” mother nature?

Our subsequent posts will attempt to discuss some strategies.

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Pu-erh tea

Pu-erh tea

There has been a recent surge of Pu-erh tea prices in China, 36%-150% over the last 12 months.

Pu-erh tea is a tea class of its own, similar to premium wine in many aspects, it value increases with age. Its unique post –fermentation nature enhances its aroma and texture with time. The market value of aged Pu-erh tea generally increase by 10%-20% every year depending on the tea variety and original quality.

The following reasons are believed to have contributed to the recent surge of Pu-erh tea market prices:

  1. The inflation in China is high, especially in foods.
  2. The basic labour cost in the Yun-Nan Province has gone up significantly – reported to have doubled since last year. Tea making is a labour intensive process, from leaves picking to the final processing.
  3. Due to the radiation concerns about Japanese tea products after last year tsunami, many tea retailers have switched to products such as Pu-erh tea. Most of Pu-erh teas are high altitude forest wild gown with low risk of industrial pollution.
  4. Financial value: some investors use Pu-erh collection as investments. Many have tried share market and property investments during the last a couple decades. Property market in China now is considered to be overvalued and share market has been unstable. Pu-erh tea value increase is considered to be relatively steady.
  5. Personal value: Pu-erh tea is also believed to have many potent health benefits including reducing cholesterol and weight, and assist digestion.
  6. Pu-erh tea is still considered to be relatively cheap compared to other premium Chinse teas. There is therefore a bit of catching up happening.

In summary, the current demand of Pu-erh tea is high and the tea prices in China are largely driven by the balance of demand and supply.

Similar to share market, we cannot predict at this point where the direction the Pu-erh tea price is pointing at. It is however the tea producer’s believe that it is unlikely to go down.

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The recent history of Chinese tea consumption

The history of tea consumption in China is long.  Its path is, however, not at all straight.

As a young child growing up in China during 60s-70s, tea and water were the main beverages available.

During the 80s when I was a new university graduate, I remember China’s tradition of tea consumption was overshadowed by coffee, coke and bottled drinks with the younger generation looking to the west for inspiration and ideas of freedom and modernisation.  This was during the period that China was opening up to the west. The beverages coming from the west were considered to be ‘cool’ and tea was an old fashioned drink that was out of date. Tea’s market price was low and the main demand for it came from the ‘older’ generation.

This phenomenon lasted for a couple of decades. 

Reasons for the ancient green tea’s phenomenal comeback

The tea drinking culture, however, returned with a vengeance in the late 90s, attracting a bigger numbers of enthusiasts, both in China and worldwide.

One of the reasons for this rebirth is that after a couple of decades of ‘opening up’ to the west, the younger generation adjusted their views of the world and started to think: ‘hang on, there may be something that we, in China, can offer to the world instead of simply copying what the rest of world is doing’. This re-adjustment in thinking also came on the back of the younger people being more health and culture conscious than previously. 

The drive in the renewed interest in tea in the developed countries came mainly from societies which had become burdened by the so called ‘life style related health conditions’ such as obesity, cancer, high cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. Western medicine seemed to be running out of answers to these serious and growing threats. When modern scientists turned their attention to the ancient beverage green tea about 30 years ago, they discovered that not only is it calorie free, but also a preventive to all these conditions, plus many other health benefits.

Over and above green teas

Following the green teas’ overwhelming positive results, the researchers also started studying other categories of Chinese teas, including white tea, yellow tea, Oolong tea and black tea. Most of the dieticians believe that here are more overlapping than differences in their benefits. They all have high anti-oxidant contents and are beneficial to human health.

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The discovery of Chinese green tea

Tea was discovered by the Chinese more than 2000 years ago. It is believed that the Chinese emperor Shennong was resting under a tree while travelling, when some leaves fell from the tree above into the pot in which his servants were boiling water for him to drink. The brew turned out to be immensely refreshing and thirst-quenching and this marked the beginning of human tea consumption.

Tale or not, there was one thing for sure, tea consumption did not start as a result of the health benefits reported by laboratory studies today; such as it being high in anti-oxidants and able to reduce blood cholesterol levels etc. The ancient Chinese needed a drink, and this leaf brew happened to serve the purpose. A supply met a demand and a new product was born.

The varieties of Chinese teas are a result of various drying processes

To preserve these leaves for later use, people started drying them. The various methods of drying have since produced hundreds of varieties of Chinese teas, beginning with the unfermented green teas. Chinese teas have always been categorised according to the level of fermentation during the drying process; for example green teas are not fermented; Oolong teas are semi-fermented and black teas are fully fermented.

Through the modification of tea making skills, numerous tea varieties have been developed, taking many factors into account such as climate conditions, soil conditions, tea bush/plant variety and local diet etc.

Chinese tea was born to be enjoyed first, health benefits second

During the history of tea consumption in China, the Chinese have made a connection between tea drinking and better health. Part of my fond memory of my grandmother was that she always made a strong cup of tea first thing in the morning, often followed by the comment: ‘tea is good for you’, although she did not know how and why.

There is no doubt that Chinese tea was born first as a drink to be enjoyed.

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