Autumn 2014 Green Tea
Green tea is one of the purest kinds of tea, and the least processed. It is often a Chajin’s first love—the Tea whose aroma carries us to the places where names like “Temple Mist” and “Dragonwell” make perfect sense. Green teas often taste of such vistas as well, recalling clear stream water singing over stones, forest pines, or sometimes the lightest fragrance of a flower caught on the breeze, though not for long enough to identify… There is a magic in these light aromas, and in the uplifting Qi that often sweeps us up off our cushions. Sometimes it is nice to return to our roots, remembering Nature through perfect fragrance. The freshness of green tea also reminds us of the weather, though it is often great when it is aged, too. Let us all celebrate the poetry of tea fragrances this month, as we stray into old dreams of bright leaves floating around a cracked bowl…
The official beginning of spring in ancient China was the day the emperor sipped the first cup of the first flush of green tea, heralding the arrival of the Lunar New Year as well. Preserving the freshness is the key to all green tea processing. This is done by intruding but minimally. The two most important aspects of green tea production are reducing the withering/oxidation as much as possible and shaping the leaves in a way that suits their nature, color and fragrance.
Green tea is lighter than other teas because the processing is minimal. Plant cells have thick walls, and so without cellular breakdown, the tea does not release as much of its essence. It is impossible for tea to be processed without some oxidation; it begins oxidizing the moment it is picked. Also, the water content of fresh leaves is too high to process. If you fired or shaped such tea it would break, being brittle from the water in the leaves. During the trip from the field (or forest if it’s Living Tea) to the processing area, the tea naturally withers, losing moisture and becoming soft enough for processing. Ideally, green tea should be processed quickly, on the same day as plucking.
Traditionally, the best green teas were made from buds only. It takes tens of thousands of buds to make one jin (600 grams) of such tea. The buds can also be processed with less oxidation, retaining more of the essence of the fresh leaf. They are also young and Yang in energy, which contributes to the magic of green tea. Over time, a greater demand for green tea has led to many kinds of green teas that are combinations of buds and leaves, or even just leaves. In many instances, such blends or leafy green teas are inferior quality. But as green tea has gained popularity, more regions are producing it and using many different varietals that weren’t traditionally used in green tea production. Sometimes, depending on the varietal and terroir, a leaf/bud blend can actually be better than just buds, adding depth and Qi to a particular green tea. Our tea of the month is a good example of this, as we will soon see...
Though we love green tea, we don’t often get the chance to share it here in Global Tea Hut, because it is a genre of tea that has less Living and/or organic representatives. As you know, we only share Living Tea or organic plantation tea (or the middle ground we discussed in the November, 2014 issue, which we call “ecological garden tea”). In China, green tea accounts for more than 70% of all tea produced. It is the drink of the masses—often tossed in glasses at restaurants to be slurped with noodles, in tea bags or bottled teas, etc. Just about every Chinese person drinks tea daily, and since almost three-fourths of it is green tea, this has created a very, very large demand. As a result, most green tea in China is mass-produced on large plantations, and in a way that is destructive to the environment. Though rows of “pretty” green tea bushes rolling over the hills may look nice in a photo (we don’t think so), it is actually the result of mass deforestation and a loss of ecology to millions of species. Monoculture just doesn’t work, and it isn’t a sustainable way to support agriculture for the population we have on the Earth now, let alone into the future. When you add to that the agro-chemicals that harm the land, eventually ruining it fallow, and the run-off which harms environs in the valleys around the tea mountains—all of that puts green tea production/producers up amongst the worst agriculture for the environment.
While there are plenty of inspiring Living Teas and/or organic plantations in all the seven genres of tea, we find that there are much less great examples of such teas in the genre of green tea. But we promise to find them and share them in the spring and summer, when such tea is the most pleasing to drink (for most climates, anyway). As we do so, and as this global community grows, we can use our voice to support the growing trends of sustainable, healthy teas of all genres!
There are many ways of processing green tea, based on local varietals of leaf and terroir—especially if we include the mastery of tea production handed down generation to generation within the umbrella of what “terroir” is. Remember, “terroir” is a French word that is generally used in discussions of wine, but it is so applicable to tea as well that most tea lovers have adopted it into their discussions of the Leaf. Terroir denotes the special characteristics of a place, found in its geology, geography, climate and even cultural heritage which interact with a cultivated plant species to create unique expressions. Terroir is the soil and weather of a particular region; the geography and culture of the people and their relationship to the plant, and even the microorganisms and their interaction with the plants. Every place has a unique soil composition, pH, minerals and climate—all of which create a distinctive tea. When we talk about a tea’s terroir, we are speaking to the unique environment that created it, one which couldn’t be reproduced elsewhere. Even if you took a grafting of a tree and cloned it elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the same since the sun would be weaker or stronger, the soil composition different, etc.
Whether or not the green tea is all buds, bud-leaf sets or just leaves will also determine how it is processed. The basic kinds of traditional hand-processed green tea are: pan-firing, basket firing, oven baking and steaming. With the introduction of modern machinery, however, many of these steps have changed. Pan-firing to arrest oxidation and de-enzyme the tea, for example, is often done in large, heated tumblers nowadays. Our tea of the month was pan-fired. Steaming tea is only done in Japan, which is how they arrest oxidation/de-enzyme their tea. The result is the dark green color of Japanese teas, as well as the bright green liquor and distinct flavors such teas offer. (Some of you have been around this Hut long enough to remember the gorgeous Japanese Sencha Steve Kokker donated some years ago!)
Most Chinese green tea will spend some time in a tumbler nowadays, as farmers are dealing with a volume that exceeds what they can handle. This arrests the oxidation and helps kill bacteria/mold on the fresh tea, often before a partial pan-firing, basket firing or oven baking. After this step, the tea is shaped/rolled, especially if it contains leaf-bud sets or just leaves. Sometimes, the firing/baking and rolling/shaping will be repeated until the tea is dried, and the desired shape created.
There is great skill in processing green tea, since it is so simple. Sometimes we assume that mastery is in the more refined of the arts, but it is often the simplest things that take the greatest effort and skill. Great chefs don’t need to cook with tons of spices all the time; they can also bring out the natural flavors of ordinary ingredients in unexpected ways. We once had a vegetarian chef stay at the center and he cooked up the carrots we eat regularly, only they tasted somehow more “carroty” than usual! They were delicious.
And it was carrots, oil and salt— nothing else! Similarly, green tea at its finest is an expression of simple tea leaves as they are in Nature: bitter, astringent with a transforming sweetness that lingers on the palate. And the simplicity shines when a green tea is good, like ours this month!
Tea of the Month
Temple Mist is a beautiful and very special green tea from the highest peak of Yunnan, Wu Liang Mountain. Some of you may remember that one of our 2013 Light Meets Life sheng puerh cakes was from there. Wu Liang Mountain is really a chain of mountains and hills in Puerh Prefecture. Since tea from there is not as popular as other regions of Yunnan, much of the area still remains pristine and pure. There is a lot of great puerh, red (Dian Hong) and green tea produced there every year.
Our gorgeous Temple Mist is certified organic (JN Organic Certification). It is unique because it is produced from large-leaf varietal trees (Camelia sinensis var. Assamica). We find that the big-leaf trees, which may have some age, lend the tea a bit of Qi and depth that is often missing from most commercial green teas these days. It is also much more ‘patient’, which means you can steep it many, many times. Temple Mist is also processed beautifully. Big-leaf tea leaves are more bitter and astringent than the small-leaf varietals usually used in green tea production. That, along with processing, is why most young sheng puerh is bitter and astringent. But Temple Mist transforms beautifully, starting out with bitterness and then immediately cascading through the five flavors of tea (bitter, astringent, gan, sour and sweet) to leave a long lasting and coating sweetness in the mouth. This means it was processed well. Tea lovers should grow to love the bitterness in Tea. After all, Tea is a bitter herb!
This batch of tea is known as “Mao Feng, 毛峰”. It is a high grade of green tea picked when it’s just a few days old. Mao Feng is picked as one-leaf-one-bud sets, which are all covered with downy hairs. This makes the flavors milder with floral and fruity notes. The lasting sweetness reminds you of spring water from the mountains, bringing lasting satisfaction. Though it is an autumn tea, Temple Mist is still fresh and strong. Because of Yunnan’s tropical climate, green tea has more than one season and they aren’t as different in green tea terms as they are in puerh, though they do vary. The autumn version tends to be milder and calmer, with a bit more balance of Yin in the small Yang bud sets. Spring tea, on the other hand is very Yang. We like the balance. Anyway, we received this tea before the spring harvest, and are very grateful to have it and share it with all of you!
We named this tea Temple Mist because of its transporting and uplifting nature. And the Qi wavers and pulses, as a temple would seem from the mountain path below—as you hike up the old stairs, you catch glimpses of it through the morning mists. You truly need poetry to describe the sensations of drinking a fine green tea! We know that you will enjoy this herald of spring, which hopefully accompanies a dramatic shift in the weather where you are. For most of us, it is a change towards warmer, longer days—days that are more inspired with some gloriously green leaves unfurling in their warm waters…
There is magic in the way tea trees have changed over time, evolving into new varietals based on their terroir. When you see just how much variety there is in the tea world, you can’t help but feel some awe, as well as a sense of great excitement and adventure, for there is so much to learn, so many teas to taste and so many cups to share! Some of the famous varietals of tea are wild mutations, created by the energies of Nature and Earth, while others are the genius of generations of farmers and masters who devoted their lives to the Leaf. And looking back at the many millennia of culture, heritage and spirit that have gone into tea, a Chajin (tea person) can’t help but be overwhelmed with gratitude.
Many authors, especially in English, write that all tea is Camellia sinensis and that the differences in teas are all in the processing. There is truth in this, though it is also potentially misleading. It is important to remember that processing methods developed over time in response to certain varietals of tea, which in turn evolved in response to a particular terroir. Farmers were learning, honing their skills through some trial and error, as well as a deep connection to a life of tea. It would not be correct to say that oolong, for example, is just a method of processing tea, because that processing was advanced to suit certain varietals of tea. And as oolong varietals have changed, moving from place to place (whether naturally or carried by men), so too have processing skills adapted and changed, creating a whole array of different oolongs. So you could say that oolong is both a processing method and a varietal (or more correctly varietals as there are now many).
Nowadays, there is a lot of experimentation, processing teas form one region in the way that they are made elsewhere. Like most of the modern world, this fusion is due to faster communication, more access to information, easier travel and a greater connection to the rest of the tea world that modern farmers enjoy. And a lot of that is great. People traditionally only ever bought tea from tea shops, but nowadays many people can purchase directly from farms, often resulting in a fare trade for the farmers themselves. And some of the new experiments do result in amazing teas, like the purple red tea from De Hong many of us know and love. But the majority of such teas don’t turn out well, like the modern attempts to cultivate Taiwan’s Three Daughters, as well as Ching Shin oolong, in Vietnam and Mainland China. No matter how nice the trees or the skill of the farmer, you can’t find the same quality elsewhere. In other words, a Taiwanese tea processed like a Wuyi Cliff Tea might be a nice tea in its own right, but it will never compare to a real Cliff Tea, at least not by Cliff Tea standards.
When it comes to Taiwanese varietals, there is a lot of misinformation and debate about details. Much of what a farmer understands about the fine details of tea genetics, hybrids and varietals is uninteresting to us. Still, a basic understanding of the main varietals of oolong that has made Taiwan famous is worthwhile, especially the “Three Daughters” as they are called. In exploring the amazing variety of tea that has made Taiwan famous, we can learn about the heritage, culture and history of tea here, and also about the amazing variety of energy and healing available through tea.
Many of you will recall that there are two broad categories of tea trees, big leaf and small leaf. Big leaf tea trees are the original tea, born in Yunnan. They have a single trunk, with roots that grow deeper and more downward-facing. As tea traveled north and east, whether propagated naturally or carried by man, it evolved to suit the colder climes. Small leaf tea is more of a bush, with several trunks and, of course, smaller leaves. In fact, the further north you go, the smaller the leaves—until you get to Japan where the leaves are so small they are like needles when they are dried and rolled. And all oolong tea is considered small leaf tea.
Oolong tea in Taiwan can be broadly divided into two main categories: the traditional varietals that were brought from the Mainland and the hybrids which were researched and developed specifically in Taiwan. As we discussed earlier in this issue, when we explored the tea of the month, the traditional, classical varietals were brought over with immigrants during the Qing Dynasty. The native hybrids, on the other hand, are the result of decades of research that began when the Japanese controlled Taiwan from the end of the nineteenth century up until WWII. The work the Japanese initiated, with the help of local farmers, continued after they left and resulted in the creation of the Three Daughters of Taiwan tea in the 1970’s, all of which have contributed greatly to the success and fame of Taiwanese oolong. In order to better understand and appreciate Taiwanese tea, let’s explore these varietals…
Traditional Oolong Varietals; Gentle Heart Oolong (Ching Shin)
At the start of the Qing Dynasty, farmers transplanted several varietals to Taiwan, mostly bringing them from Wuyi. All the varietals that they brought were lesser-known and under-valued teas. The famous varietals, like the Four Famous Teas of Wuyi, were protected and weren’t allowed to travel. Even within Wuyi, it isn’t easy to get cuttings of first, or even second generation Da Hong Pao, for example. Several of these varietals were later abandoned, found to be unsuitable to Taiwan’s unique terroir, while others still thrive here—in new and bright forms only found on this island. In Beipu, where Eastern Beauty comes from, they have Huang Gan and Ching Shin Da Mu, the latter of which can also make a nice green tea. In Ping Lin, and to a lesser extent also Beipu, there is also the Wuyi Cha varietal (sometimes called “Da Ye”, which means “big leaf”, though that’s confusing because it isn’t a big-leaf tea tree; it merely has larger leaves than other varietals in Taiwan). There is also the legendary Tie Guan Yin, brought from Anxi, Fujian and cultivated primarily in Taiwan’s Mu Zha region. The most famous of the tea varietals that were brought here from the Mainland long ago, however, is Ching Shin oolong, which means “Gentle Heart”.
Some say Gentle Heart Oolong is named after the tenderness of the fresh leaves, while others suggest that the name refers to the fact that this kind of tea tree is sensitive. Ching Shin doesn’t do well at lower altitudes, since the trees can get sick easily, having delicate constitutions. Ching Shin is by volume the largest percentage of Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong, thriving at high altitudes where the air is fresh, clean and cool. Of the four tea varietals we are going to discuss in this article, Ching Shin is closer genetically to Four Seasons Spring (Si Ji Chun). It also produces the best, and highest quality of Taiwan high mountain oolong teas. With the right terroir and processing, a Ching Shin oolong can shine brightly, indeed. In order to distinguish these four teas, you have to look at the leaves, their shape, and most especially the veins. All tea leaves have a central vein that travels from the stem to the tip, but it’s the branching veins that help determine the varietal. Ching Shin and Si Ji Chun both have branching veins that join the central vein at angles from 30 to 60 degrees, while Jing Shuan and Tsui Yu display veins that come out at an 80 to 90-degree angle (almost straight). You can then separate the pairs by looking at the shape, because Tsui Yu and Ching Shin are longer and thinner shaped, while Jing Shuan and Si Ji Chun are rounder. We’ll highlight these characteristics again as we discuss each varietal individually.
Ching Shin tea has a dark green hue when viewing the bushes in a row, though color is never a clear determiner—not without analyzing the leaves. The foliage is also not as dense or vibrant as Tsui Yu or Jing Shuan cultivars. Ching Shin tea is often produced as lightly oxidized oolong nowadays. It has a refreshing flavor with a light liquor that tastes of flowers, green leafy vegetables or orchids. The light greenish-yellow to yellow liquor is clear and thin, with some bitter astringency at the front, and a lasting hui gan (a sensation of cool, mintiness on the breath) when it is processed properly. The Qi is light and uplifting, cooling and breezy.
The Three Daughters
Golden Lily (Jing Shuan)
Jing Shuan oolong is a hybrid that was established in the 1970’s. Its Taiwanese number is TW #12, though farmers often refer to it as “2027” or just “27”. These numbers refer to the process the Taiwan Oolong Tea Research and Development used to classify the teas as they were developing and testing them. As mentioned above, the leaves of Jing Shuan are more round while the branching veins come off the central vein at an almost right angle (80 to 90 degrees). From a distance the bushes have a yellowish-green hue, which may also help distinguish this cultivar. Jing Shuan tea is primarily grown on Mt. Zhu in central Taiwan. It doesn’t thrive in the extreme cold of very high altitude gardens or plantations like Ching Shin, but isn’t as susceptible to cold as Tsui Yu. When it is healthy, Jing Shuan has more vibrant foliage than other varietals.
Jing Shuan is one of the easiest of the four teas to distinguish. The dry leaves have a golden, yellowish-green hue, as does the liquor. Jing Shuan is famous for its milky texture and fragrance—often referred to as “Milk Oolong”. There is misinformation in the tea world that this name is due to using milk as fertilizer, but the name actually comes from the tea liquor itself: Jing Shuan is thick and creamy, and if the terroir is right, with more sun, and the processing done well, it has a definite milky aroma which is very pleasing. Its fame has resulted in fake “Milk Oolongs” produced in Mainland China that are sprayed with artificial milk flavors post production, giving them a strong and unnatural fragrance of milk. (Yuck!) Real Jing Shuan has only a subtle hint of a milky fragrance in the aftertaste. The thick, oily liquor coats the throat. It has a deep and lasting Qi that resonates inwards.
Kingfisher Jade (Tsui Yu)
Tsui Yu oolong is also a hybrid which came to life in the 1970’s, after decades of research. In the Taiwanese index it is TW #13, though farmers often refer to it as “2029” or just “29”. Like Jing Shuan, the leaves of Tsui Yu have veins at 80 to 90-degree angles, though they are long and arrowhead-shaped. When you stand back from a field of Tsui Yu, the leaves have a bluish-green (kingfisher) tint to them and they are more vibrant, with lusher foliage than all the other four varietals we will discuss here. Tsui Yu dislikes cold weather, so it can’t be grown at very high altitudes. It is predominantly grown on Mt. Zhu and in the lowlands around Ming Jian, where our tea of the month comes from. As we discussed earlier in the magazine, Tsui Yu has a flavor of seaweed, lima beans and often fruit. It is more famous for an aroma of wildflowers and an aftertaste of fresh fruit. Some say it tastes of lotus or lilac, others say cassia or peach. Much of this depends on the terroir, the season and the skill of the producer. The Qi is Yin. It centers you in the heart.
Four Seasons Spring (Si Ji Chun)
Though you could perhaps call Si Ji Chun a hybrid, it is a natural, wild varietal that arose in Mu Zha. Since it is a more natural varietal, it is heartier than the others. This is a testament to one of the principles we always promote in these pages when discussing what we call, “Living Tea”, which is that the leaves produced by man will never compare to Nature’s. It’s possible to further distinguish manmade teas by calling them “cultivars”. These trees yield buds at least four times a year, which is where its name comes from. “Si Ji Chun” might also be translated as “Four Seasons like Spring”, referring to the fact that this bush can produce as much in other seasons as in spring. It is also thought to be the youngest of the Three Daughters, coming into commercial production in the 1980’s. Si Ji Chun does not have a Taiwan classification number, since it evolved naturally. Of the four teas here, Si Ji Chun is more closely related to Ching Shin than it is to Jing Shuan or Tsui Yu. The leaves of Si Ji Chun are round in shape, with veins that shoot off at 30 to 60-degree angles. The leaves have a light green hue, with less foliage like Ching Shin. The buds of Si Ji Chun are often a gorgeous reddish hue when they emerge.
As many of you will remember from June of 2013, when we sent out this fabulous tea, Si Ji Chun has an exuberant, golden liquor that blossoms in a fresh, musky floweriness. It is tangy, with a slightly sour aftertaste, like the Tie Guan Yin varietal it evolved from. Many Taiwanese compare the aroma to gardenias. Of these four teas, it is the most distinguishable flavor. The Qi is cleansing, pushing outward from the center. It rises up in gusts, and leaves you feeling refreshed.
Perhaps a friend brought you to tea, or you were passing by a tea shop on some trip and your eye was drawn to a certain pot or cup. Maybe the Eastern exoticism enticed you to Tea—the rich flavors, aromas and sensations. And nothing has been the same since that first sip. The doorway cracked and you saw open before you a vast and clear world waiting to be explored...
For thousands of years we’ve been ensorcelled by the Leaf: it has built and destroyed empires, been the currency of nations and wars, spanning the vast human spectrum from greed and selfishness to the highest of spiritual states. And when you include the hundreds of generations devoted to the farming and processing of tea, the creation of myriad teapots, cups, whisks and scoops, you can appreciate just how immeasurable the tea world is, as if looking into this new world you first only noticed that there were beautiful flowers and trees in the vicinity of the doorway, but later looked further and saw mountains and rivers, villages and cities beyond...
Amongst the many genres of tea, there is one called oolong. Continuing our metaphor of Tea as a land you’ve begun to explore, we might say oolong is a city in this foreign place. Oolong is a great and bustling city, one of the biggest in Tea. It is grown on several mountains, one of which is the famed Mt. Wuyi, in the province of Fujian, China. The oolong tea produced there is called “Cliff Tea” or “Rock Tea” and is one of the brightest and richest of all oolong teas. And there are hundreds of kinds of Cliff Tea, each with its own distinct bush, flavor, aroma, etc. The point being that one kind of tea, oolong, is grown on dozens of mountains, and that any one of those mountains produces a plethora of teas, each an adventure in and of itself... We discuss this only to demonstrate just how huge the tea world is, encouraging you to develop an appreciation for the rich history, culture and spirit in Tea, as well as a patience in your exploration, since there are lifetimes of tea to be drunk.
We know that many of you are just starting this journey into Tea and thought it might be helpful if you had a rough map of the terrain to help guide you. Before we give you that, though, we thought the more poetic description of Her grandeur would inspire you to travel on. It is also important to note that the map is not the terrain, and the categories of tea we are using here, and their descriptions, are only general overviews. You’ll need a more detailed map when you get to each of the Tea cities, in other words. Some teas rest near the borders of one category or another, whilst a few defy all categorization, especially with all the experimentation that goes on in modern tea production. Nevertheless, knowing the different tea processing methods and the basic categories of tea can help start you off in the right direction.
Throughout history, different tea scholars have categorized tea into different groups—some have five, some six and some seven. It isn’t important how many we use. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be discussing tea in seven main groups: white, green, yellow, red, oolong, black and puerh.
Especially in the West, we find that there is sometimes a slight confusion in written tea materials about the nature of these categories. It is often said that all tea is a single species, Camellia sinensis, and that the differences in the categories of tea are all to do with how the tea is processed. There is some truth in this, which is why it is so often published throughout the tea world, but it is also potentially misleading. Let’s clarify this before we map out each of the kinds of tea and their processing.
It can be confusing when tea people say that the categories of tea are strictly defined by processing methodology, because the seven kinds of tea weren’t invented at once, but rather evolved over time in response to the variations in the plant as it changed terroir. It is a very modern, and in many ways unhealthy practice to tell Nature what to do. Traditional farming was always about accepting the bounty of Nature with gratitude, rather than coercing Her to give certain kinds of foods in certain amounts. Consequently, ancient tea farmers were conversing with their trees and adapting their skills to suit the tea they plucked. Cliff Tea processing was developed in response to certain bushes, in other words. And while you could potentially process any tea in the world in the same way you process a Wuyi Cliff Tea—and some people are doing that very thing, even right outside Wuyi province—it will never be the same as genuine Wuyi Cliff Tea. So is Cliff Tea a kind of tree or a kind of processing? It’s hard to say, which is why the issue is complicated.
In this day and age, farmers are more and more trying to set themselves apart by processing tea in unique ways: taking tea from trees that have been used to make puerh for hundreds of years and processing the leaves like red tea, for example. And sometimes the results of these experiments are amazing— even beginning whole trends in the industry, like the movement towards greener Tie Guan Yin in Anxi province, as well as in Taiwan, over the last two decades. For the most part, however, these experimental teas rarely compete with the traditionally processed teas of a region. The fact is that the processing of each particular kind of tea evolved over hundreds of years by skilled craftsman who were conversing and listening to the local leaves and refining their skills to produce the tea in the way that best suits it. There are exceptions, however, and it is important for innovation to continue, especially when the adaptation occurs in the true spirit of Tea.
Before we begin exploring the different categories of tea, we need to clarify that Taiwan oolong tea, for example, is a kind of bush as well as a processing method (actually many kinds of bushes).
The seven kinds of tea we are discussing relate only to the processing methodology and therefore do not take into account all of the regional variations or the different kinds of trees there are in the world. We could easily have a hundred or more categories of tea, and this would then turn into a book. We think the analogy of a map is perfect here, as you can then think of this article as the most general of aerial views, showing only major mountains and big cities. As such, it is a good place to start if you are just getting to know the country, but eventually you will also want to get some more detailed maps that explore all the roads and lanes of all the big cities, and even the small hamlets as well.
THE SEVEN GENRES OF TEA
White tea is a simple kind of tea. The tea is picked, withered and dried. It is most often dried in a controlled way, though traditional white tea was sun-dried in the province of Fujian, where they say white tea began. Like green tea, the highest quality white teas are often all buds, while lower grades contain a mixture of buds and leaves. The tea is called “white” because the buds of certain tea varietals have white hairs on them, which lend the small buds a whitish-silver appearance. As there is no processing to break down the thick cell walls, the only way to get at the real juice of this tea would be to boil it, which no one does these days. Instead, we steep this tea at lower temperatures. This produces a light-yellow, golden to clear liquor that is often floral and fragrant. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Green tea has a bit more processing than white tea. It is processed in many different ways depending on the region. Basically, though, it is picked and then goes through some form of heat to arrest oxidation. This could be steaming, baking or most commonly pan-firing. It is then dried. The best green teas are often only composed of buds. After firing, green tea is then rolled/shaped before drying. The rolling breaks down the cell walls and oxidizes the tea slightly. The rolling for a green tea will always be significantly less than for other teas. Sometimes the firing/ rolling will be repeated a few times until the desired shape/color is achieved. The liquor of green tea can be clear to yellow or even vibrant green, depending on local variations. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Yellow tea is only produced in a few places and is therefore one the rarest kinds of tea. It is almost always made of buds alone, requiring much more work than leaf and bud teas. It is processed a lot like green tea, with the added step of “sealing the fragrance”. This entails draping a wet cloth over the tea and steaming it. Tea is very sensitive to aromas around it, so the tea is in essence releasing and reabsorbing its own fragrance, or “sealing” it in if you wish. The liquor is golden and fragrant. Great yellow tea can be amazing. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Oolong tea is the pinnacle of tea processing. It is the most involved of all the methodologies, and requires the greatest skill. Oolong is partially oxidized tea. As it requires the most complicated processing, there are also greater variations—minor and major—from region to region. Basically, oolong tea is picked and then goes through indoor and outdoor withering in order to dehydrate/soften the leaves and oxidize them. The most distinguishing feature of oolong occurs during the withering, in which the leaves are shaken in bamboo trays to bruise the edges. The best oolongs have a red ring around the edges of the leaves, as a result of masterful shaking. The shaking oxidizes the tea in a particular manner. The tea is then pan-fired to arrest oxidation and kill various green enzymes that make tea bitter. The fired tea is then immediately rolled to break down the cells and further oxidize the tea. Finally, traditional oolong is charcoal roasted, though there are many greener, less-roasted oolongs around these days, and often in electric roasters.
Oolong is either striped or balled. If it is balled oolong, it is rolled into tightened balls of three or more leaves using a cloth wound up into a tight, round shape. This tradition began in Anxi, Southern Fujian and then spread from there to Central Taiwan. If it is striped, the rolling occurs across ribbed bamboo mats, which creates long, twisted stripes of tea.
There are many levels of oxidation in oolong tea. It is a vast and populated city of Tea. There are so many varieties: from greener to traditionally roasted, striped to ball oolong, and even Oriental Beauty. Oolong is the most refined and elegant of teas, and best prepared gongfu style. It can be light or dark, and the Qi almost always flows through the aroma and mouth, rising upwards
Red tea is what people in the West mistakenly called “black tea”. Of course, names aren’t important. Tea is called many things in different languages—“a rose by any other name…” But, in this case, calling red tea “black tea” will cause you problems as you explore the world of tea, for as you can see below there is another genre of tea called “black tea.” And so if you call red tea “black tea” then what do you call black tea itself?
Some say that the reason for this error lies in the fact that Europeans carried the red tea back to Europe by ship, which took a long time and the environment in the cargo holds further oxidized, or even fermented the tea. Actually, the primary reason for the confusion comes from the fact that European traders were only allowed within two hundred meters of the dock during early trade with China. Consequently, they never saw the tea trees, processing, etc. and all they knew about tea came from the broken pidgin of the dock merchants that sold it to them. This, of course, caused all sorts of confusion.
Red tea is picked and then goes through pre-processing piling. The tea is withered in deep piles for anywhere between twelve and twenty-four hours. This greatly oxidizes the tea. Then the tea is rolled for a long time—up to ninety minutes—which produces a thick paste on and around the leaves, further oxidizing the tea. Sometimes the tea is re-piled at this point to ‘fully’ oxidize it (it is never 100% oxidized). Red tea can be oxidized to various degrees depending on the region, but it is almost always the most oxidized of all teas. There are other variations in some regions, like smoking the tea to add flavor.
Much of the red tea in India, Sri Lanka and other places outside China is processed by machine in what is called CTC (Cut Tear Curl). This low-quality tea is shredded up and oxidized in machines, primarily for use in tea bags which are meant to release all the tea has to offer in a single steeping. We wouldn’t recommend buying such tea, though. The long rolling really breaks down the cell walls, which means they can release more of their essence. This is why red tea is richer, darker and has a more full-bodied liquor. Because of this, red tea is often best drunk in the morning. The Qi is often more in the body.
Up until recently there weren’t many kinds of black tea left in the world, and only three famous ones: Liu Bao, Liu An and Hunnan “Thousand Tael” teas. Recently, however, a few older kinds of black tea processing from other regions have been revitalized. The main characteristic of black tea is a post-production piling. Unlike the pre-production piling of red tea, this is more like composting and involves bacteria. It is therefore “fermentation,” rather than “oxidation.” The tea is usually processed by picking, withering, pan-firing and rolling. The methods of piling vary in each of these teas, but all require moisture and temperature to facilitate bacterial growth. The liquor of black tea is dark and rich, with a warming Qi that spreads out from the chest.
Puerh tea is sometimes put into the black tea category, but it should actually have a category all its own. Traditional puerh is made from large-leaf, old-growth trees in Yunnan province, the birthplace of all Tea. The tea is picked and then withered to soften the leaves and oxidize them a bit. This withering can be done indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather. Then, tea is pan-fired to kill the green enzymes and arrest oxidation. It is next rolled to break down the cellular structure and shape it. Finally, traditional puerh tea is sun-dried. At this stage it is called “rough tea (mao cha).” Puerh tea is then often compressed into cakes, but can remain loose as is. The defining characteristics of puerh production are a shorter firing (sa qing) and sun-drying, both of which contribute to its fermentation.
Puerh tea is unique because the trees in the jungles of Southwestern China are covered in hundreds of species of molds and bacteria before the leaves are even picked. The relationship puerh tea has with these microbes is magical, allowing it to ferment over time as it ages. All tea can age and improve over time, but none like puerh. Puerh tea transforms completely over time, changing from a bitter, astringent liquor to a deep and dark brew that is full of more Qi than any other kind of tea. Nowadays, tea drinkers mostly feel that even twenty or thirty-year-old puerh is ancient. But there was a time, and not so long ago, when tea drinkers only drank puerh teas that were above seventy!
Starting in the 60’s, and then officially in 1972, several puerh factories were working to try to speed up the fermentation of puerh artificially. Of course they weren’t successful. How could science ever create the magic of seventy or a hundred years? What they did do, however, was create a new kind of tea, called “ripe puerh (shou).” Ripe puerh is processed like traditional “raw puerh (sheng)” only with the added step of post-production piling. They moisten piles of rough tea (mao cha) and then cover the pile with a thermal blanket, trapping heat and moisture and speeding up the bacteria’s work. This is much like composting. This idea to artificially ferment the tea post-production came from the puerh factory owners’ and researchers’ trips to black tea factories. Because ripe puerh was developed out of black tea production, many authors put all puerh in the black tea category. The problem with this, however, is that it ignores all the raw puerh (sheng), which is nothing like black tea; and is furthermore the traditional, and by quantity and quality the greater kind of puerh tea as well. It is, therefore, much more logical to give this unique tea its own category altogether.
The manufacture of tea is a series of integrated steps that starts with freshly-plucked leaves and ends with what we in the trade refer to as ‘finished’, or ‘made’ tea. The seven classes of tea (green, yellow, white, oolong, red, black, and Puerh) have several steps in common (such as plucking, primary sorting, finishing, etc.) as well as other aspects that are unique to only one or several particular finished tea(s). Oxidation is one of the latter, a chemical process that must occur in the manufacture of several of the classes of tea, and prevented in others. In fact, the world of tea has historically been divided into two broad categories based on whether or not a finished tea has been oxidized.
Oxidation in Tea
First, let’s define oxidation: Oxidation is a biochemical, enzymatic activity during which oxygen is absorbed by and subsequently causes changes to the host physical matter. In the case of freshly plucked leaf for tea, this is plant matter. Oxidation can be spontaneous or controlled and cause positive or negative change. A familiar example of spontaneous negative oxidation is what happens when one cuts an apple or banana and leaves the cut side open to the air. The exposed cells absorb oxygen, soften and turn brown. This is a very simple form of oxidation that most people have witnessed. Left undisturbed, the fruit may simply air-dry or it may rot, depending on the atmospheric conditions present in the room. Similarly, cutting an apple into slices and drying these in a dehydrator is an example of controlled oxidation, occurring within the process of drying. The browning of the cut surfaces is not considered aesthetically pleasing in the marketplace, so sulfur compounds or citric acid are sometimes used to mitigate the color change, but oxidation occurs in this situation even without a visible change in color.
During the manufacture of tea, both spontaneous and controlled oxidation occurs. Spontaneous oxidation occurs during the withering phase of the manufacture of white, oolong, and red teas. An exacting phase of controlled oxidation is one of the most important components of the manufacture of both oolong and red teas. Green and yellow teas are prevented from oxidizing by meticulous drying and/or frying techniques.
Oxidation is a chemical process that requires an abundance of moist, oxygen-rich air. For red tea production, oxidation rooms (or chambers) must provide ample humidified air to guarantee complete oxidation. The polyphenols in the leaf (tea catechins) bond to oxygen molecules, particularly during the early stages of oxidation. Oxidation in tea manufacture officially begins during the withering stage as spontaneous oxidation, and then accelerates gradually during the subsequent steps necessary to transform fresh leaf into finished red tea. After several preliminary steps, prepped leaf is ready for the controlled oxidation process that is often incorrectly referred to as ‘fermentation’. Several chemical reactions that together comprise oxidation take center stage now under the controlled environment of the ‘official’ oxidation phase in the manufacture of red tea. In traditional oxidation the sieved leaf is spread out in a thin layer (maximum 2 to 3 inches, or 5 to 8 centimeters) on the floor of the factory, on tables or perforated trays that are similar to the withering troughs used during the (earlier) withering stage. The oxygenation of the polyphenols stimulates them to start the series of chemical reactions that ultimately yield the flavor components and cup characteristics that we expect in red tea. During the first and most important period of the enzymic oxidations, the enzymes polyphenol oxidase and peroxidase act on other polyphenols to produce theaflavins. These red-orange compounds then react with more polyphenols to produce thearubigins, the chemicals responsible for changing the leaf’s color from green to golden, coppery, or chocolate brown. The thearubigins, meanwhile, are also busy reacting with some of the amino acids and sugars in the leaf, creating the highly polymerized substances that develop into the various and distinctive flavor components that we expect in red tea.
In general, theaflavins contribute to the brisk and bright taste of red tea, while the thearubigins are what provide strength (depth or body) and color. If the temperature of the leaf is allowed to rise too high, the controlled oxidation will rage out of control; and if it falls too low, oxidation will cease.
At this point the oxidizing leaf takes on a new moniker in Indian/Western tea classification: “dhool”. Oxidation requires two to twenty-four hours and is controlled by experience, not by science. Although there may be technical markers for determining a prospective end to the process, so many variables come into play that the best method for concluding that the proper oxidation level of the leaf has been reached is to rely on the experienced nose and eye of the expert monitoring the process.
The tea producer must control the thickness and raking of the leaf, which determines the exposure of the surface area of the dhool to the air; the ideal ambient temperature (85°F, or 29°C) and relative humidity (98 percent); and the ventilation (ten to twenty complete changes of air per hour). Also, the environment must be completely hygienic; bacteria must be prevented from ruining the dhool.
During oxidation the dhool goes through a predictable series of flavor profiles: brisk, high color, and overall strength. The tea maker can direct the dhool into a particular style by adjusting the length of time allowed in oxidation in combination with regulating the temperature/humidity of the oxidation chamber. Most tea is manufactured to yield a balanced cup showing bright liquor, good intensity in the aroma, and a solid full body. When the tea maker has determined that the dhool is oxidized to the desired level (‘fully oxidized’ is a degree, not an absolute) the critical phase of controlled oxidation is halted by the final process of red tea manufacture: drying.
Fermentation in Tea
Fermentation is an important component in the fabrication of Puerh and other aged teas like Liu An, Liu Bao, some Oolongs, etc. Therefore, any discussion of fermentation in tea manufacture ideally focuses on— and is well illustrated by—the manufacture of Puerh. So let’s examine what fermentation is and why careful, expert fermentation is so integral to the manufacture of traditional, high-quality Puerh. While it is one of the oldest and simplest forms of tea production, the world of Puerh is complex and exacting, to the extent that volumes have been written on the subject by Asian tea experts. However, we will not examine the specific complexities of the different types of Puerh manufacture here, as this article seeks only to offer a more general description of fermentation and oxidation.
Fermentation is microbial activity involving one or more types of bacteria, molds and yeasts. By definition, fermentation occurs most readily in the absence of oxygen, though exposure to some is ideal for aging Raw (Sheng) Puerh. The leaf that is being transformed into Puerh must be exposed to bacteria (or have bacteria present inherently) in order for fermentation to occur
As is the case with the fabrication of traditional ‘hard’ cider or Roquefort cheese, the bacteria necessary for microbial activity to commence is present naturally, in the atmosphere and/or on the interior surface(s) of the chamber in which the fermentation occurs (the cider-house or cheese-curing cave). In the case of Puerh, the bacteria required to both initiate and maintain fermentation are potentially present during several aspects of its production:
- On the surfaces of the leaf of the old-growth plants themselves in the primordial forest where the large leaf tea trees grow—most famously in the mountains of the Xishuangbanna district of southwestern Yunnan Province, China.
- In the controlled environment of the tea production rooms in which the ‘Raw’ (Sheng) ‘mao cha’ is temporarily stored as it awaits compression; in the piles of mao cha during the artificial fermentation of Ripe (Shou) Puerh; and finally in the humid steam-enriched environment in which the cakes are compressed.
- To a lesser degree, in the monitored curing rooms where Sheng Puerh cakes are stored during post-fermentation and aging.
During the fermentation phase of Puerh manufacture, several important factors must coalesce. Following the harvest of the appropriate leaf, there should be ‘wild’ bacteria available on the leaf itself. This will range from ‘very little’ to ‘an abundance’ (#1 above). Leaf destined to become Puerh (‘mao cha’: withered, fried in a ‘kill-green’ (sa qing), kneaded (ro nian), and then partially-dried leaf) is bagged and stacked to await compression in bacteria-friendly steam; or in the case of Ripe tea (Shou), piled in a room whose exposure to the elements is traditionally controllable (#2 above). Unlike the shallow, porous piles of leaf created for oxidation, the mounds of mao cha that encourage the artificial fermentation of Shou Puerh are stacked thickly, densely and with minimal surface area exposed. The critical bacterial activity being encouraged at this point requires some oxygen replenishment but, as with a mulch pile for a vegetable garden, the mao cha pile is stirred infrequently, allowed to rest and generate the heat desired to encourage the multiplication of microbes and the paced decomposition of the leaf. Thermal blankets are often used to cover the surface and further encourage the process. Careful and methodical stirring periodically maintains the proper surface area exposure, temperature and minimal oxygenation of the tea in the pile.
It is somewhat understandable to imagine the early confusion regarding withering, oxidation and fermentation. Seeing piles of leaf on the floor being stirred and piles of leaf in troughs or on slats being turned, early tea traders may have been easily confused as to what processes were occurring during the rudimentary, artisan tea manufacture they were viewing (compounded of course by the reluctance of the Chinese to explain their ‘secrets’). However, over the last 75 years much has been written, and definition has been accomplished as to the clear differences between these processes.
I n this day and age, simplicity and emptiness have become the rarest commodities. Finding the space to be free from clutter, noise or disruption is challenging indeed. In Chinese, the word for a sage, a holy man, is “mountain man (shien ren 仙人)”, because there was a time where the only thing one had to do in order to seek isolation and peace was to head up into the mountains. The Chinese cliffs and crags were above the clouds, and free of the dust of the city. It was assumed that the only reason someone would retire from civilization was to seek spiritual insight, and so anyone you were likely to encounter in the mountains would be holy. Also, ‘holy’ in Daoist philosophy could not be other than Nature—sagehood by definition is a harmony with Nature. And where better to find such peace and harmony than in the pristine mountains?
These days, things are different. We must seek the mountain within. Ultimately, so did the sages of old. There is an old saying that it ‘is easy to be a sage in the mountain, greater still in the city; but the highest master is at peace in the palace’. External quietude helps us to achieve inner stillness, but in the end it is much more beneficial to rest in a stillness that is not dependent upon external circumstances—a peace that can weather the storm. Otherwise, your peace is fragile, shattered by the first airplane that flies overhead.
In the Daoist way, peace is about stillness and simplicity. Turbid water is still clear in nature; it is only because it has been upset that it has become muddied. To still the water we have but to leave it for some time. Like that, it is our nature to be bright and serene, if we rest in the simple and quiet. And it is often the simplest things that bring the most joy and lasting peace: like sitting in meditation, quietly walking in Nature or drinking tea. These are also the gifts that bring us closer to each other. In the world, we compete and arm ourselves. We get busy achieving and accumulating, but in the spiritual world it is necessary to let go, step back and find the space to appreciate the simple; and the simpler the better.
Tea of the Month
This month’s tea is as simple as it gets. It is a green tea we call “Calm Light 靜光”. This tea is an organic green tea from Nantou in Central Taiwan. It is from a pure area, where all the trees are organic. It was contributed by our dear friend Master Tsai, who has shared so many teas with us. You can read more about him in the April 2012 newsletter, which is on our website.
A lot of farms in Taiwan would have difficulty achieving organic certification in the West since they cannot control what their neighbors do and Taiwan is a small island, meaning that nearby, inorganic farms will influence theirs. Still, we must support the revolution that is happening island-wide. This month’s tea, however, is from a pristine area where there are no nearby farms, making it thoroughly and completely clean.
Green tea is often made exclusively of buds, but this is a simpler tea that includes leaves. It is made with a casual air. Green tea is processed to reduce oxidation as much as possible. If it is made from only buds, it will be picked and immediately fried or steamed to arrest oxidation and de-enzyme. (This process is literally called “kill green” because it kills green enzymes that make tea bitter.) Of course, the moment the tea is picked it starts oxidizing, so completely oxidation free tea is impossible, but green tea is as close as it gets. However, when green tea is made from bud and leaf sets or just leaves, then it is allowed to wither for a short time. This softens the leaves for processing. When green tea is made only of buds there is also no rolling—the shaping is done during the frying/steaming. Our tea was picked, withered, pan fried and rolled before being oven-dried. In the worldly sense, this tea is simple, cheap and “lower quality”; but in Zen our weeds are treasures and our treasures often weeds. Besides, fashion always seeks the flamboyant, missing the great joy to be had in the unadorned.
Calm Light is the simplest of teas. It is almost like drinking water—clear, simple and open. It doesn’t leave a strong impression. It doesn’t explode in your mouth; it moves through like a soft, cooling breeze that enters unannounced through an open window on a Spring day. It moves like the Dao itself.
We suggest you brew this tea in a bowl, perhaps outdoors. It is a tea that you should definitely enjoy in silence, and in relation to Nature. If your friends join you, you may want to set the intention to have a few bowls in silence. It may also go with some quiet, peaceful music like the CD we have included as this month’s gift. Put a few leaves in the bowl and add water. You may want to use slightly cooler water, like shrimp eye. Hotter water or conversations will overpower this subtle tea. The tea will merge with the quiet and fill the tea session with an extraordinary ordinariness—with Zen.
It is nice to end such a tea session with a bowl of water. You may also want to try using a single bowl, no matter how many guests you have. Passing a single bowl around is unifying and creates a different kind of heart space. The final sips of water remind us where the tea began and where it ends—from out of Nature and in returning, through us, to the Dao. There is an old saying that true friendship is like clear water; it leaves no trace.
Calm Light is calm and it is bright! You will find the tea cooling, with a soft Yin energy that uplifts you—Qi rushing upwards from feet to head. There is not much to speak of as far as flavor and aroma, other than to say it is simple and refreshing, clean and purifying. It washes out the mouth and palate and frees us, as only simplicity can do. May you find in this month’s bowl a simple, still mind. And may that empower you to act from that center!