Chinese Tea Guide

Tea is more than just a drink in China – it’s a way of life. The drink is so important that one Chinese proverb claims that “It is better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one" and tea is included on the list of the seven necessities of Chinese life (alongside firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar). The historical origins of tea have their roots in a series of myths and legends involving an emperor and an accidental brewing of a tea leaf. What historians do know is that tea was first brewed in the Middle Kingdom more than 4,000 years ago and was popularised by the imperial family during the Tang Dynasty.

The Tea Master

In recent years, Chinese tea has crossed oceans with more regularity as orders from foreigners come flying in, fuelled by scientific studies linking tea consumption with a host of health benefits. But for the lucky residents of Shanghai, we’re just a train ride away from some of the best tea fields (and tea masters) in the world.

Ian Hanks, a Texas native who lived in Shanghai for years before relocating to Hangzhou, is something of a Chinese tea connoisseur. Working as a consultant in Shanghai, Hanks was introduced to the drink by a friend, but it wasn’t until he headed to Hangzhou’s greener pastures that he really began to delve into the complex world of tea.

“I moved out to the Lingyin Temple neighbourhood because I was looking for a quiet place to live,” says Hanks. “I didn’t realise I was actually moving into a community of tea farmers.” The tucked away village is where he met Mr Hu, the neighbourhood tea master, (pictured above) who introduced him to the art of tea drinking.

Hanks and his friends often hang out in Mr Hu’s meditation room, which sits above the store where the devout Buddhist sells tea to the monks and tourists from the temple. The walls of the room are lined with aged pu’er tea, Mr Hu’s personal favourite variety of Chinese tea, and an impressive tea table surrounded by simple pillow cushions takes up most of the floor space. Young monks and tea enthusiasts will gather here to study at the master’s feet, and Mr Hu is at his best sitting comfortably zen-like behind the tea table, pouring out cups of tea while waxing lyrical about the culture behind the drink and how it has penetrated every aspect of his life, including his marriage.

On the day of his wedding, Mr Hu and his wife purchased a cake of pu’er tea and enjoyed a cup together. Now every year on their anniversary, they sit down together and infuse another cup of tea from their wedding “cake”. Mr Hu explains that pu’er, like good wine, develops more complex flavours as it ages, so he and his wife discuss how the pu’er has changed and improved – a metaphor for their marriage that has also passed another year in the same house.

Mr Hu’s romanticisation of tea spills into his technical knowledge of the drink, turning even the simplest drinking procedures into a beautifully complex art form. In between sips of oolong tea, Mr Hu explains the “san kou” or “three mouths” of tea drinking in Fujian province. Oolong is a feast for the eyes, which serve as the first mouth, and one should evaluate the leaves and appreciate their beauty before infusing with water, he says. After brewing the tea, the drinker should then inhale the aroma of the tea to activate the second mouth: the nose. Finally the tea should reach the third mouth, literally this time when the drinker sips the warm beverage. Mr Hu then patiently instructs the best way to drink the tea, a multifaceted approach to ensure the drinker fully appreciates the flavour by hitting all of the tongue receptors in sequential order.

A quiet philosopher, Mr Hu preaches the gospel of tea to all his visitors. Hanks and his younger brother, Roger, have become his disciples, creating Hanks Brothers, an ecommerce site that sells the tea master’s wares around the world, along with helpful brewing tips that highlight the intricacies of each individual tea.

Hanks, who is practically fluent in Mandarin, has undertaken the demanding task of writing the website’s blog, which, with the help of Mr Hu’s encyclopaedic knowledge of tea, could easily trump the best of the internet’s English-language tea content. Together, the tea master and his disciple are building a virtual Silk Road that will demystify authentic Chinese tea for the English-speaking masses.


Types of Chinese Tea

The leaves used to make all types of tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. After being harvested, the leaves are then processed and oxidised to create so many different types of the beverage that one ancient adage notes “You can study tea all of your life and still not learn the names of all the different kinds.” For those who don’t want to dedicate a lifetime to tea, there are four major types that can provide enough tea drinking information to sate the thirst of any amateur.

Green Tea

Green tea leaves are only picked in the spring, and contain the youngest buds and tips picked from the top of the plant. Green tea picking season lasts for just a month, and the price of the tea picked goes down with each subsequent day, with leaves picked on the first day easily fetching hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars at the market.

Processing: After picking the new buds, the tea leaves are steamed to stop the oxidisation process that occurs from the natural enzymes in the leaves, then “fired”, which can either mean pan-fried in a wok or dried with hot air.

Serving: Green tea is very delicate, so boiling water should be allowed to cool to 70°C before being added to the leaves. Glass or ceramic tea ware is best used with green tea.

Health Benefits: Regular green tea drinkers have a lower risk for viral infections, bacterial infections, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, stroke, periodontal disease and osteoporosis. In addition, green tea lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, promotes fat loss, prevents cognitive diseases and improves insulin stability in Type II diabetics.

White Tea

White tea is the most precious variety of tea as it is made from adolescent tea leaves whose buds have not yet opened. This tea takes its name from the silver hairs that cover the leaves and turn white after being picked. White tea can only be picked over a two-day period in early spring.

Processing: White tea undergoes even less processing than green tea. The leaves are merely steamed to stop the oxidisation process.

Serving: Like green tea, delicate white tea should be served with boiling water that has been cooled for several minutes. Glass or ceramic tea ware is best used with white tea.

Health Benefits: Studies on white tea are limited, but scientists believe that since white tea undergoes less processing, its health benefits are even greater than green tea’s.

Oolong Tea

Oolong or ‘Black Dragon’ tea originated in Fujian province, and is considered a blue tea because its properties fall in between green and red teas.

Processing: Oolong teas are partially oxidised (from 15 to 75 per cent) before being heated in a tumbler of hot air until the moisture level is satisfactory. The arduous process can last up to 36 hours and gives the tea its nickname of gongfu cha (or kung fu tea) for the hard labour and dedication the brewing process requires.

Serving: Oolong teas are much hardier than green and white tea and can be served with water that is near boiling point. Porcelain tea ware should be used with oolong tea.

Health Benefits: Oolong tea has been attributed with weight loss properties, but is also used to aid digestion and cleanse the body.

Black Tea

While the Chinese call the colour of this particular tea ‘red’, in the West it is commonly referred to as black tea. The most famous black tea is pu’er, which originated in Yunnan province and migrated to the coasts along the Tea Horse Trail. The trek required the tea to come packed in compressed cakes. While green tea loses its flavour within a year, black tea retains its taste for decades.

Processing: Black tea’s leaves are fully oxidised – often for upwards of two months – for a drink that is full of flavour.

Serving: Black tea can withstand near boiling temperatures. Serve black tea in a clay pot (known as zisha yixing) that absorbs the flavours and re-releases them into the tea over the years of brewing.

Health Benefits: Black tea, especially pu’er, reduces blood cholesterol, enhances weight loss and counteracts excessive alcohol consumption

Where to Buy Tea?

Tea stores have made their homes on street corners all over Shanghai hawking every Chinese tea under the sun, but wholesale markets have the best deals, not to mention the widest variety of tea wares and the most knowledgeable salespeople. As if that weren’t enough, the friendly vendors are happy to sit down for a chat over a cup (or ten) of tea before you buy, so you can sample their product and prod them for information before settling on your purchase.

With four floors of tea leaves, tea wares and antiques, Tianshan Tea Market is the best bang for your buck in Shanghai. The upstairs Traditional Chinese Medicine floor is also fun in a creepy science project sort of way. Across town by the Fuxing Tunnel, the vendors from Tianshan have recently opened a second tea market called Laoximen Tea City. All the same goods are for sale, but they’ve scrubbed away the dingy dark halls of Tianshan in favour of a more sterile look complete with a fountain.

Located in Minhang, Jiuxing Tea Market is another wholesale gold mine for tea lovers. Stocked with tea from around the country and hometown advocates of their regional variety who have followed their teas to the markets, you won’t find a better-educated (or more passionate) group of salespeople.

Jiuxing Tea Market. No 6 Bridge Caobao Lu, near Hongxin Lu; Laoximen Tea City. 1121 Fuxing Lu, near Xizang Lu; Tianshan Tea Market. 520 Zhongshan Xi Lu, near Yuping Lu

Shanghai’s Best Tea Houses

When the cold winter air chills you to your bones, there is no better way to warm up than one of Shanghai’s charming tea houses. Settle in with a steaming cup of your favourite brew and while away the day.

Usually populated by a few gossiping taitai on weekdays, Nanxiang Tea House serves tea from three of its own plantations in Hangzhou, Fujian and Yunnan. The cheapest teas brew for RMB 88 per person, and you can spend upwards of RMB 2,000 if you want the best they have to offer, but you’re paying for quality.

Nanxiang Tea House. 438 Xiangyang Nan Lu, near Jianguo Lu. Tel: 6431 5012

Named after the expansive garden that opens on to the streets of the leafy French Concession, Gu Yuan Tea House is a good bet for a sunny day, and the indoors is as cosy and quaint as 960 year old tea houses come. Revel in the history of it all with an aged pu’er while sampling snacks from Shaanxi province.

Gu Yuan Tea House. 1315 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Fenyang Lu. Tel: 6445 4625

De He Tea House offers modern convenience to its customers. WiFi capabilities make De He the Chinese equivalent of a coffeehouse, but Mac users beware – their stubborn connection only works with PCs. The all-you-can-eat buffet featuring fruit, soups, mains and cold dishes and a wide selection of tea are definitely worth a trip.

De He Tea House. 135 Jianguo Xi Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu. Tel: 5468 1117