A primer on teas from Shanghai-based Chinese Tea Expert Wayne Huang
Meet Wayne Huang – a co-owner of Cha Mi Living tea shop in the Tianzi Fang arts and shopping district. Wayne has recently opened Cha Mi with his wife after both spending years studying and researching Chinese tea. Ever since I moved to Asia, bit by bit I have switched from coffee to tea. But I realized that despite my enjoyment of tea, there was actually very little I knew about the finer points. After a few awkward tea ceremonies, I decided it was time to educate myself and so called upon Wayne to give me a crash course in Chinese teas.
As it turns out all Chinese teas, no matter what kind, come from the same plant. Wayne tells me this plant is the Camellia Sinensis – originating in China and SE Asia (“sinensis” actually means Chinese in Latin) today it is cultivated across the world in tropical and subtropical areas. This small evergreen shrub is the root of all teas, from white to green to black to oolong and more…
As Wayne describes tea, I start to realize tea is actually kind of like wine in its complexity from the level of oxidation of the tea to the production process and resulting flavours. Actually there are 6 main categories of tea:
Oxidation: no oxidation / lack of fermnatation is what makes it so healthy…it’s chock full of polyphenol which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics.
Bud or Leaf: Green tea uses the bud of the plant, which generally means it must be handpicked to protect the fragile bud. This is why it is generally more expensive. Type: Famous Chinese green tea types include Long Jing, Gua Pian, Bi Luo Chin and Hou Ki.
Taste: Typically light, refreshing and slightly sweet
Of Interest: Because this tea is unfermented, it does have a limited shelf life, so be sure to check if your tea was harvested this year. Also it must be protected to retain its freshness – refrigeration is key. This is why it’s probably not best to buy your green tea from the grocery store where it has been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long.
Oxidation: less than 10% oxidation. If you haven’t already figured the patter out, oxidation reduces antioxidants, so the less fermented a tea is the more health benefits it will have. Thus yellow tea, also has a higher level of antioxidants than black tea.
Bud or Leaf: Still only the bud.
Type: The most famous Chinese yellow tea type is Yin Zhen which is known for its mild and fresh taste.
Taste: Typically mellow, sweet and fresh.
Note: Some people think it is yellow because of a mistake in the process, but the yellow color actually comes from a special process called “sealed yellowing.”
Oxidation: also less than 10% oxidation.
Bud or Leaf: Still only the bud, but this one is different. If you look closely this tea bud is actually slightly furry, this explains the particles you see sometimes floating on the surface after brewing, it is the fuzz coming loose. White tea has a different production process in that they are left under the sun or shade to wither, letting all the water evaporate and then when they are dry the flat leaves are rolled.
Type: Famous Chinese white teas include Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) and Bai Mu Dan (white eyebrow).
Taste: sweet with a slight taste of honey, fresher tasting than green or yellow yet still quite mild
Note: There seems to be a bit of a marketing craze around white tea. When we were in Sri Lanka, they talked about it never being touched by hands and harvested only with golden scissors. But Wayne tells me the hype around white tea is more of a marketing story, as in China it not usually higher priced than green tea.
Oxidation: partially oxidated at 20-60%. You can actually see the oxidation if you look closely – it visually manifests in the red tinged edges of the leaf.
Bud or Leaf: Using the tea leaf and not the bud, some types (leaves are rolled into long curly leaves (Da Hong Pao tea) while in other types it is roleld into a ball (Tie Guan Yin tea). This means that as the tea tree grows it sprouts buds, when the buds stop sprouting it grows leaves, so the leaves are in fact also slightly older than the buds. Because this tea is partially fermented and roasted, it takes on a slightly sugary and smoky flavour.
Type: Famous Chinese teas include Da Hong Pao, JinXuan, Tie Guan Yin and Oriental Beauty. Oriental Beauty is actually from Taiwan and is unique asits distinctive taste comes from a bug which eats parts of the leaves giving it an even sweeter honey flavour.
Note: This tea usually comes from the Fujian province and is often the tea used in typical Chinese restaurants. If prepared traditionally it is brewed in a Yixing clay teapot.
Oxidation: 100% oxidized through roasting.
Bud or Leaf: Both rolled tea buds and leaves are used. The leaves have a deep red tinge form the process which results in the characteristic reddish brown look of the tea liquid after brewing.
Type: The famous Chinese type is Qeemen. But this type is in fact less popular in China than the fresher, less oxidized versions above.
Taste: smooth, warm and rich flavour
Note: 100% oxidation means it has the longest shelf life and can be stored at room temperature. This is why it is the tea most known in the West because it could be transported on ships without suffering quality degradation and thus was heavily traded in Europe and the US. .
Oxidation: green tea + post fermentation, it is fermented for 3-4 years after roasting and actually starts to develop a fungus like cheese.
Bud or Leaf: leaves which are pressed into bricks after roasting
Type: The classic Chinese version is Yunnan Pu-erh.
Taste: dark and intense flavour
Note: “Mature” Pu-erh is produced by putting rough processed green tea in controlled environment to accelerate the fermentation, which then only takes several weeks.. On the other hand, the “Raw” Pu-erh leaves the rough processed green tea in natural storage to allow the fermentation happen naturally – thus requiring years of time to get to the proper “post fermentation.” Pu-erh is become an investment tea, kind of like vintage wines, as it is the only tea that gets better with age. As a result there can be some counterfeit versions on the market.
Scented & Blended teas
Scented teas – These teas range from teas like Jasmine, Crysanthemum and Osmanthus which use tea as a base (typically green or oolong). Typically the process is to layer the tea with the flower petals 5 times to infuse the tea with the flower scent naturally. The flowers are then removed.
Blended teas: The best known example is Early Grey. Created by blending something into the tea to generate the desired flavor. This is because some of the flavors are not easily absorbed by the “scented process” above. These flavors are blended in the tea content, without removing from the tea base. e.g. Earl Grey tea uses black tea as the base, and add the oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange to achieve its special flavor.
While tea is much more complex than I imagined, enjoying it is simple. Wayne gave me some excellent tips for enjoying a perfect cup of tea that I would like to share with you.
Wayne explains to me that “air, light and heat are the enemies of tea” and can encourage oxidation. So protect your green, white, yellow and oolong teas by keeping them refrigerated. Black teas can be kept at room temperature, just be sure to keep them away from light.
Brewing is simple if you follow Wayne’s instructions.
HOT brewing – for one cup, use approximately 5g of loose tea in a cup. Pour in about 250cc of hot water, temperature based on the tea type. For green, yellow and white teas keep the wanter in the 75 – 85 degree range. For oolong and black teas the water should be 90 – 95 degrees. Basically the finer the tea bud the lower the temperature of the water. A tip is to pour boiling water into a room temperature cup – this will lower the temperature by about 5 degrees. Steep for 4-6 minutes based on desired strength.
COLD brewing – to make iced tea, simply put loose tea in a bag and submerge in room temperature water. Refrigerate for 12 hours and enjoy.
To learn more about teas and actually taste them, I highly recommend visiting Wayne’s family shop in the Tainzi Fang area of Shanghai. Both English and Mandarin are spoken at Chai Mi Living and there is nothing the husband and wife duo enjoy more than sharing their knowledge of tea. If you are already interested in tea then they can be your tea gurus leading you through the finer points of tea enjoyment. If you are curious and new to Chinese teas, let their passion inspire you and introduce you to what is sure to be a new favourite drink.
Cha Mi Living
Tianzi Fang Shopping District
No 6 Lane 274, Taikang Lu
Telephone: +86 21 6473 1086