The loose Chinese teas of the past and today - what has changed

Tea was once a local produce

Bi Luo Chun green teaTeas have been consumed in China for at least 2000 years. For a long history they were largely produced and consumed locally as local produce. I still remember the days of my grandmother going to the local farmers’ market to purchase her tea supply. As the result, most of them have been typically named with two components: the name of their birth place and the name of the tea, such as Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao, Anxi Tie-Guan-Yin, Fuding Silver Needle, Suzhou Bi-Luo-Chun, Xi-Hu Longjing, Keemun black tea and Yunnan Pu-erh etc.

It was not long ago that one would have been assumed that it had come from Anxi if Tie-Guan-Yin was mentioned, or Suzhou if it was a Bi-Luo-Chun. Or for example there are a few pocket areas in the Fujian Province of China that produce the exclusive grade Fujian Silver Needle (white tea), Fu-Ding, Zheng-He and Jian-Yang. When Silver Needle was sold, the price was, and still is, ranged in the sequence according to their production areas which are believed to be directly associated with the quality of the teas, Fu-Ding Silver Needle most expensive, Zheng-He and then Jian-Yang.

The increasing interest in premium teas world wide

The interests in premium loose teas have been increasing world wide during the recent years, mainly due to the increasing exposure and the health benefits reported.

Teas once were not known outside of their local areas are now being sold internationally, accelerated by the recent internet and fast, convenient and relatively cheap international transportations.

The art of making the finest teas

The arts of producing the finest teas have been developed over a long period.

For example, Wuyi Rock tea has had a product and consumption history in the Fujian Province of China for at least 1000 years. Da-Hong-Pao has been the most well-known and highly sought after Wuyi Rock tea. The very original Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao was produced in a clearly defined area of the Wuyi mountain of the Fujian province ‘Jiu-Long-Zhai (九龙窠)’ . It is believed there are about 6 of original tea plants (or parent tea plants) are still existing in the wild and producing very limited amount of tea each year.

While the production area is constricted and the demand is growing, the natural approach is to cultivate and expend – the new generations of the tea plants have been successfully cultivated from the original and have been used for extended production.

Top quality Chinese tea production is a work of art, including:

  • The special tea plants
  • The unique environmental conditions of the tea plantation: the geographical location, the sunshine, the rain fall and the soil conditions etc.
  • The processing skills

Ways of increasing the production to meet the demands

The tea plants can be cultivated and the skills can be leant. We are however not able the replicate a unique environmental condition known to be ideal for a particular tea variety. With time, the cultivated tea plants under different environmental conditions will change to adopt their new environment and become ‘not exact the same’.

To further increase the production output, I have recently read a report that the tea farmers in the Wuyi area blend a few local teas together to mimic the Da-Hong-Pao flavor, close enough for the naïve tea drinkers to believe that they are the ‘real stuff’.

For the purpose of discussion, let’s call the limited availability of teas produced from the original site and plants ‘original tea’, and the teas produced from the cultivated tea plants under the similar environmental conditions but elsewhere or blended versions ‘reproduced tea’.

While the prices of the ‘original teas’ have sky rocketed, the ‘reproduced teas’ are far more available and affordable. For example, 20g of Da Hong Pao tea from one of the mother tea plants was sold for ¥208,000 in 2005 – that is ¥10,400 (or $1485 USD) per gram, while one can purchase nearly 15kg of the ‘reproduced tea’ with the same price.

This phenomenon is observed across almost all tea categories and varieties: green tea, white tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh tea.

Discussion

Consumers drink teas mainly for two purposes: to enjoy tea as a beverage and lately their health benefits. There has been no research to suggest there is difference in health benefits between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’.

The taste difference is therefore the focus of the discussion: is the astonishing price difference reflecting difference in the flavor?

Tea consumption in traditional tea consuming countries, such as China and Japan, is very similar to the wine consumption in the west. Time and experience are required to differentiate and appreciate the subtle differences of the various quality grades.

The questions the everyday tea consumers need to ask are:

  • Have I had enough experience to differentiate the fine difference between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’?
  • Is the difference worth of the extra cost?

Conclusion

The way the traditional teas have been developed and consumed is increasing becoming a thing of the past.

There have been a few relatively ‘new’ tea varieties developed during the recent years. Not so much focus on their birthplaces, but more as a variety/flavor which reflects some unique characteristics, for example:

  • Jin-Jun-Mei, a fine black tea developed on the back of the traditional Lapsang Souchong. Jin-Jun-Mei, is not longer associated with the Lapsang area, but more a unique technic developed to produce a new fine tea variety.
  • Ying Hong No 9, another top end black tea developed on the back of the traditional Yunnan black tea Dian-Hong. The tea was researched and developed in the Guang-Dong Province by a group of tea researchers over the last a couple decades, using certain carefully selected premium Dian-Hong plant species and optimized over time.

Teas today are becoming more of a flavor/processing type than a local produce. For example, the Longjing green tea is now widely produced in many areas around the Zhe-Jiang Province; countries like Vietnam and Myanmar are attempting to produce the renown Yunnan Pu-erh using the ancient tea trees found in the adjacent forests. Will this expansion inject a new life to this traditional product? Or will it kill the culture and tradition that has developed over a long history? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

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The transformation of Chinese tea from a local produce to a modern luxury

buy Chinese teaWe have witnessed the traditional Chinese tea, green tea, white tea, Oolong tea, Pu-erh tea and all others transforming from a country folk’s staple food to a luxury item today during our life time from aspects more than one.

A bit of history

My grandmother was a classic villager resided in a small country village in the Fu-Jian Province, the tea country of China. Following are some of my memories of the tea consumption when I was growing up in her village.

My grandfather died when my grandmother was in her late 20’s. For a woman like her of that time in China without a husband, the alternative name was extreme poverty as women simply did not have ‘jobs’. For rich for poor, teas however companied her for all her life.

Like many other villagers of her time, the first thing she would do when she got up in the morning was to get ready for a pot of tea for after breakfast. The teas were mostly locally produced, in her case mostly green tea and Oolong tea, and purchased from the local market with all other local produces. Tea was a must have every day. When visitors dropped in without any warning (phones were not available), the first thing she did was to put the kettle on and get the teapot ready for a pot of tea to share. Tea was a way of everyday life, not just for the rich.
The costs of teas have sky rocketed since largely due to the increased demand, in China and worldwide. This increase of prices affects categories of all Chinese teas: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh tea.

A Luxury for aspects more than one

Apart from the price increase, the is also another element of ‘out of reach’ that is much ignored, which is TIME. I have had so many inquiries for methods to: brew teas while customers are waiting; reduce tea temperature quickly so that the customer can consume immediately; tea bags suitable for those who are on the go and the list goes on. A crucial aspect of tea enjoyment with is sitting down, take time to share a pot of tea with families and friends over a chat, unnoticeably disappears into the history.

As a Chinese decedent who is proud of my inheritance, tea, not as a product but a culture, is one of the few that I wish we could turn the clock back a few decades. Off the treadmill of the modern life style and take time to enjoy a humble pot of tea like my grandmother’s generation did.

Additional note

Ironically, one of the reasons that the popularity of tea is rapidly increasing worldwide is their potential to combat ‘modern life style related health conditions’, such as cancers, cardio-vascular-diseases, overweight and diabetes etc. How much weight can the humble teas pull remains to be determined. This reminds me of a Chinese humour regarding our current lifestyle: the companies pay with money and we pay with our lives.

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Tea and mediation

I grew up in China with tea being a food and a way of life. There is even a term for it: 口粮茶 – staple tea.

I have however often wondered as why tea is associated with meditation and other spiritual practices, in the past and today, China and abroad. After some reading recently, the connection is clear.

Tea and Buddhist diet

tea and buddha monkBuddhism was first introduced to China during the Han Dynasty and meditation was part of the core practice. Buddhist monks mediated for long periods day and night. Their diet was constituted of vegetarian and none-alcoholic ingredients. Tea was considered to be an essential for the purpose of enhancing the alertness during the meditation, health and well being and even long longevity by many Buddhist monks.

High mountain green teas

After the Buddhism was first introduced to China, the religion was flourishing and many temples were built on remote high mountains as a way of 'entering' an elevated spiritual space. The monks would immediately clear the land around the temples and start cultivating to generate the means for survival in such remote places. Tea was one of the essentials.

For example:

Lu Shan (Mt Lu) of the Jiang-Xi Province was once a major Buddhist centre. The famous Chinese green tea Lu Shan Yun Wu (Mt Lu misty green) is believed to be a speciality of a temple in Mt Lu, where the famous Buddhist monk Hui-Yuan lived for 30 years.

Tea’s other connections to Buddhism and Buddhist activities

  1. The most known tea legend Lu Yu was raised in a temple as an orphan since he was 3 years old
  2. The green tea seeds were first brought to Japan in 805 AD by a Japanese monk Zui-Cheng upon his return from a visit to the Chinese tramples. This marked the beginning of the Japanese green teas

Tea is truly a fascinating product. Its historical significance is far beyond a merely daily beverage.

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