The Tao Of Tea
An art and a discipline, Chinese tea is as valued today as it was centuries ago
It is the early hours of a brisk morning in spring and the tiny village of Bingdao in the Lincang prefecture of China’s Yunnan province is slowly stirring to life. Farmers are preparing for the arduous walk to the tea trees in the forest where they will gather what they can for the year’s spring tea harvest. When they return, the tea leaves will undergo a process of drying, pan-frying and rolling, which arrests the enzymes in the leaves and prevents them from rotting. The processed tea leaves, called maocha, will then be sold to the traders who descend on Bingdao from all corners of the country. The maocha will be taken to tea factories where it will be further processed and pressed into discs or bricks and retailed as Bingdao pu-erh, a label that fetches handsome amounts of money on the market.
A Taste Of History
Tea occupies a unique position in Chinese culture. According to a traditional Chinese adage (开门七件事，柴米油盐酱醋茶), tea is considered one of the seven daily necessities, which include firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce and vinegar. At the same time, it is also held in reverent esteem—the world’s first treatise on tea was penned by revered Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu. His Classic of Tea, or Cha Jing, recorded in painstaking detail the conditions required to brew a good cup of tea. Preceding Japan’s greatest tea master Sen no Rikyu by 800 years, Lu Yu’s work marked the formal beginning of cha dao (or “the way of tea”), investing the humble drink with extraordinary significance and turning it into a discipline.
“Cha Jing is the foundation of tea appreciation today,” says Li Hongyuan, founder of pop-up tea concept Pekoe & Imp, which conducts tea brewing and tasting workshops. “Tea culture, tea processing, tea ceremonies and tea brewing principles originated from China, from which Japanese and Korean tea cultures evolved.”
Up until the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, tea brewing involved whisking ground tea powder with a bamboo whisk—a practice still used in modern-day Japanese tea ceremonies. But the subsequent rise of the Ming empire, which lasted till the 17th century, saw a major transformation. For various political reasons, Ming founding emperor Hongwu decreed that tea should be traded in its loose-leaf form. As the form of tea changed, brewing methods and equipment followed, which gave rise to smaller clay teapots, kettles and teacups. Our modern Chinese tea ceremony began to take shape.
At its simplest, tea brewing involves steeping tea leaves in a brewing vessel and distributing the tea into individual teacups. But there is a more abstract aspect to its appreciation. Through highly ritualised brewing and careful selection of vessels, the connoisseur aims not only to capture all of tea’s elusive aromas and flavours, but also explore its artistic, aesthetic and poetic expressions.
“Tea brewing is a way to show off one’s cultivation with flair, intelligence, generosity and kindness,” says Carrie Chen, tea master and owner of Tea Bone Zen Mind. “It boils down to the interaction between the host and his guest.” Because the tea table is where one’s cultivation comes under scrutiny, basic manners and simple etiquette take precedence.
When it comes to tea ware, your tea should determine the appropriate equipment to use. “One of the most common mistakes that people make is to pick vessels that aren’t suited to the type of tea,” says Li Ying, tea master at Tian Fu Tea Room. “Lighter teas such as white tea or green tea should be brewed in porcelain or glass vessels, while darker teas such as oolong or pu-erh may be brewed in zisha clay teapots.”
Alex Lim, proprietor of Eagle Tea Merchant, believes that a thoughtful tea presentation heightens the pleasure we derive from tea drinking on physical and emotional levels: ”We tend to think of Chinese tea brewing as a rigid process, but in fact there is plenty of room for creativity and individuality.” Varying the type of vessels used, for instance, is one way to create an inspired tea setting. For a clean, minimalist aesthetic, one may opt for white porcelain teapots and cups. Glazed ceramics with earthy hues, coupled with wooden tea trays and coasters, on the other hand, produce a warm, restrained ambience. Studied repurposing of antiques or common household items is also a way to showcase creativity and flair, he suggests.
The Drinkable Antique
Since the turn of the century, pu-erh has consistently ranked high on tea connoisseurs’ lists. Falling under the category of post-fermented tea, pu-erh is unique in that it matures with age. Like wine, the harsher, rougher characters of youth are tamed by the passage of time. Well-aged tea is also valued for its purported health benefits, all of which make the buying and selling of vintage pu-erh—sometimes called “the drinkable antique”—a highly lucrative trade.
Lim, a specialist in zisha teapot and pu-erh tea, affirms that pu-erh accounts for the lion’s share in Chinese tea collection, with a growing demand for “big tree” (or “old tree”) pu-erh from prestigious growth areas. Essentially, this refers to “single origin” pu-erh plucked from wild tea trees that are hundreds of years old, as opposed to tea made from tea plantations.
“In recent years, farmers in regions such as Bingdao, Mansong and Lao Banzhang have been selling their big tree maocha in four-digit figures per kilogram,” he says. While Banzhang has long been crowned as the king, Bingdao now enjoys pole position in the region for the most expensive and sought-after pu-erh tea.
Indeed, for the past two years, Bingdao has been on the lips of every pu-erh aficionado. Its light fruity-floral fragrance coupled with its sweet nuanced flavours appeal to the increasingly sophisticated palates of avid tea drinkers. But with demand far outstripping supply, Bingdao prices have gone through the roof. It is as if the Chinese have all but forgotten the pu-erh crash of 2007, where irrational buying, selling and speculation resulted in the collapse of the pu-erh market. Businesses and investors went bust, and the price of tea in China—at least for pu-erh—saw major readjustments.
The popularity of pu-erh, however, entails a caveat—unscrupulous merchants may sometimes try to pass off inferior tea for the genuine stuff. This is especially prevalent in the market for aged teas, where investors and speculators pour hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a few discs of vintage pu-erh, which they then squirrel away for a little while before trying to sell them off at even higher prices.
“Dealers typically look at the type of paper used for wrapping the tea cake, the printing on the wrapper, the inner leaflet and how the wrapper is folded,” says Lim. “The smell, colour and condition of the tea leaves are also indications of whether the tea is naturally aged.” But with no point of reference especially for older teas, determining a tea’s authenticity is not always possible.
If pu-erh is not your cup of tea, there are hundreds of other varieties to choose from. Whatever your choice, Chen offers a simple piece of advice: “Buy what you like, but remember cheap is never good. Get the best you can within your means. That way, you will be happy with what you have.”
Tea Bone Zen Mind offers an extensive selection of fine teas from China, Taiwan, Japan and beyond. A private gallery in a neighbouring unit houses an extensive collection of ceramics made by artists. Tea sampling sessions are by appointment only. 98 Emerald Hill. Ph: 6334 4212
Tian Fu Tea Room draws in the crowd with over 25 types of tea, ranging from white and green teas to various oolong, pu-erh and floral teas. The teahouse’s Imperial High Tea is an easy, affordable and very sumptuous way to get acquainted with the finer points of Chinese tea appreciation. ParkRoyal on Beach Road, 7500A Beach Road. Ph: 6505 5722
Necessary Provisions is better known as a coffee joint, but the tea menu here is no less inspired, featuring teas from China, Taiwan, Japan, and India (as well as herbal tisanes from France and Morocco). 21 Eng Kong Terrace. Ph: 9231 7920