Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
Sep 27, 2010 By Jay Fial , eChinacities.com

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea

One of my favorite things about China is the tea culture. Being thousands of years old and used as a way to not only heal and strengthen the body, but also a central social focal point in Chinese culture, tea is the second most widely drank beverage in the world next to water. Now that you are in China or coming to China, why not take advantage of the bounty of tasty teas available just about everywhere in the country.

The four common styles of tea, in order from least oxidized to most oxidized, are White, Green, Oolong and Black.

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
White tea. Photo:pinpaitea.com

White Tea 白茶 is relatively unprocessed compared with other teas, and has been allowed to oxidize very little. The name comes from the fact that most white tea actually is white and grayish looking and often times have little white fuzzy hairs on the leaf. Because they are typically comprised of the newest leaves, which the plant has been pouring its energy into, they also tend to have the highest antioxidant content. White teas produce a very pale green or yellow liquor and are the most delicate in flavor and aroma. A tasty, but cheap daily white tea you can drink is called White Peony in pinyin Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹). My personal favorite white tea, but also the most expensive from Fuding, Fujian is Silver Needle, in pinyin Yin Zhen Bai Cha (银针白茶).

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
Longjing Green Tea. Photo: tea-trading.com

Green Tea 绿茶 is typically subjected to a multi-step process of steaming, pan-firing, and/or rolling before being dried to freeze the oxidation process. Little oxidation occurs in most green teas, and they are differentiated from white teas primarily by the extra steps of manipulating or processing the leaf before drying. The liquor of a green tea is typically a green or yellow in colour, and flavors range from grassy to sweet with mild astringency. In China, one of the most well known green teas is Dragon Well, pinyin: Long Jing (龙井) , from Hangzhou. I have found cheap Dragon Wells not so good, but if you are willing to spend a little money you can find some fantastic Dragon Well teas.

The Chinese often like to drink green tea out of a tall glass. It usually can be brewed 3-4 times.

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
Goddess of Mercy Tea. Photo: nhqcyw.com

Oolong Tea 乌龙茶 also goes through a multi-step process of steaming, pan-firing or rolling. Although unlike green teas it is allowed to "wither" which gives the leaf time to oxidize. Oolongs usually range between 20% and 80% oxidization. This range results in a variety of colours (from green to nearly black) and an equally dramatic variety of flavours and aromas. Oolongs typically are stronger and bolder in flavor than Green or White teas and offer less astringency than either the stronger black or lighter green teas. Oolong’s smooth and rich flavor makes it an ideal tea for new tea drinkers.

The most popular tea in China these days is Iron Goddess of Mercy otherwise known as Tie Kwan Yin (铁观音) which is grown primarily in Anxi, Fujian. Everywhere I go in China I find people drinking Tie Kwan Yin. This is most commonly brewed in the Kongfu style tea set served in small sipping cups.

My personal favorite Oolong is Dan Cong (单丛) from Phoenix Mountain in Chaozhou. This is a very old tea which according to history records dates back to 900 years ago and was also an Imperial tribute tea during the Song dynasty.

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
Da Hong Pao Black Tea. Photo: bbs.funlon.com

Black Tea 红茶 goes through a similar processing to Green and Oolong teas but is allowed to oxidize more completely. The brewed liquor of a Black tea ranges between dark brown and deep red. Black teas often have the strongest flavor and, in some cases, greatest astringency. Westerners typically add sugar and milk to their black teas, but the Chinese frown upon this. Drink a quality loose leaf back tea straight and you will realize why the Chinese never need to add milk or sugar to their tea. 

The most known black tea in China is Wuyishan’s Big Red Robe, known to the Chinese as Da Hong Pao (大红袍). This tea can get pretty expensive, but buyer beware, there is a lot of fake Da Hong Pao on the market. One of my favorites is Lapsang Souchong from Tong Mu Village of the Wu Yi Mountains. It has a honey like taste that is unforgettable. Every year I travel to Wuyishan to taste the fresh harvests of their black teas. Black teas are almost always brewed with boiling water served in the traditional Chinese tea cups.

Quick and Easy Practical Guide to Chinese Tea
Pu-Erh Tea. Photo: wondersoftea.com

Pu-Erh Tea’s 普洱茶 processing is similar to Green teas but then is allowed to undergo an entirely different process of fermentation over an extended period of time, sometimes many years. I have drunk over 60 year old Pu erh tea. Pu erh teas are usually pressed into dense cakes or other decorative shapes that you may have seen hanging in a variety of shops in China. Pu erh is known for its unusual status as the only aged, fermented tea and is treasured for its earthy, musty aroma and rich, smooth taste.

Many people in China drink Pu erh to soothe their stomach. I personally drink a wild purple bud Pu- erh from Yunnan which has been shown in recent studies to reduce radiation in the body from things like using cell phones and computers too much. There are many Pu erh teas available so first smell it to tell if it is good or bad. If it smells like a moldy sock don’t drink it. Since most good Pu erh is aged you want to wash the leaves 2-3 times before drinking. Pu erh tea is best brewed with boiling water. It is best brewed in a clay tea pot which retains the heat and can literally bake the tea. Pu erhs can be brewed anywhere from 8-15 times, where I have seen some wild Pu erhs brewed up to 40 times!

Brew times for most teas depend on how big your tea pot is and how much tea you put into the pot. If you go to a local tea shop (there are plenty everywhere in China), the store clerk is almost always happy to let you try their many teas for no charge and also teach you how to brew each tea. I find this experience always a fun way to try new teas, learn something new, and meet the people as tea is regarded as a social thing in China.

If you are looking to improve your health, understand more about Chinese culture, make new local friends, or find a healthy social alternative to drinking alcohol, I am sure you will find the tea culture a rewarding experience.

Related links
Common Scams in China (Pt. 3): The Tea Scam
5000 Years of Chinese History: Myth or Reality?
Choose Your Poison: "Coffee Flavored" Beverages

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Keywords: practical guide Chinese tea quick guide to Chinese tea Easy guide to Chinese tea Chinese tea culture


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