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Chinese Tea and Tea Culture

中国茶文化 - 茶道

Spring brings us fresh bamboo shoots, fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms and – best of all – the first tea of the year. Tea that’s made before the Chinese lunar holiday Qingming is considered the best and is now widely available in Beijing.

Winding along the fragrant, green terraced slopes of Fujian province, an integral part of China’s tea country, the landscape tells of an industry that has changed drastically. I am on a tea adventure with David Hoffman, a US pioneer known for bringing quality Chinese teas to North America. He has been coming to China for over 20 years in search of unique varieties and was among the first foreigners to buy directly from farmers.

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Hoffman has spent his career discovering pure teas made with care by generations of family tea producers. His support of these small farmers and their sustainable growing methods has earned him great respect among Chinese tea bodies. His work can be seen in documentary All in This Tea by Les Blank (featuring a cameo by legendary film director Werner Herzog) and on his website The Phoenix Collection.

When Hoffman began coming to China, tea was still generally being made by small farmers and brought to communes where it was sold in small lots, then blended in big batches. He found that single-sourced varieties produced the best teas, dependent on the natural conditions of the leaf, how it was picked and eventually processed.

Chinese tea


Tea has always been an integral part of modern culture but there have been significant recent shifts in how it is produced by the industry and regarded by consumers. Today’s techniques in processing and farming have consigned many once-great small tea makers to factory jobs. Mass-production tea factories are really churning products out and the romance of artisan skill is being lost as China transitions into a modern age. At the same time, boutique tea has kept a place in people’s hearts – with the price of certain fashionable varieties reaching stratospheric levels. Recently, a pre-Qingming Festival Longjing (Dragon Well) tea from Hangzhou made headlines when it went on sale at the price of 30,000RMB a jin (0.5kg).

For many, however, pu’er has been the ‘it’ tea of recent years. It is a Yunnanese variety that is processed in both raw and cooked forms, which tend to develop flavors and characteristics with age. Pu’er prices began to shoot up around 2005 among the Chinese.

Hoffman is credited with introducing pu’er and many other teas to America. His pu’er collection spans 30 years and includes prized leaves from old, wild trees called gu shou. However, he insists that ‘a mediocre tea that’s aged will always be mediocre.’

In distinguishing better teas, smelling and tasting are crucial, especially in the tea trade where many buy based on the leaf’s appearance, rather than its flavour. Hoffman dips his nose into a deep sack of freshly made bai mudan, or white peony, a ‘white’ tea named after the tiny hairs that cover the bud. It involves minimal processing and one whiff reveals a gentle floral fragrance in this particular lot of just-made tea. Hoffman walks among the stalls in search of a place to taste, a handful of leaves and a gaiwan (covered bowl for brewing) set in his pocket. After a careful steep, the taste falls disappointingly flat despite beautiful leaves. ‘This is what makes it so hard to find something that isn’t ordinary,’ Hoffman explains. ‘And that’s what my customers want.’

Price doesn’t always signify the best quality, and the most effective way to find great tea is to try different types often. Many native Beijingers prefer flower teas, including jasmine and straight flower teas without any leaf. Jasmine is usually a green or white tea infused with the scent of blossoms. In the past few years, black tea, referred to as hong cha or ‘red tea’, has taken an upswing, commanding higher prices than green teas, and looks set to become the new ‘it’ tea among the Chinese.

As China grows in wealth, tea continues to reach record prices. Each year brings tea that’s different from the last and that’s what makes the search so elusive. I now realise that the alchemy of processing a leaf is not unlike that of turning grapes into wine. Hoffman, like most professional tea buyers, tastes more carefully when buying large quantities, shrewdly measuring the amount of tea and rigidly sticking to optimum water temperatures and steeping times. All these factors affect the end result. Nothing should be added – no sugar, no milk. But, Hoffman says, personal enjoyment can also be a simple handful of leaves in some hot water.

As we sip from our eighth steep of this year’s ‘golden monkey red’, I have discovered a new taste for tea. There is no best, ultimately, there is only the one you like.

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 July 2011 09:30