According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.
They say you can drink tea your whole life and still not taste all the different kinds. For someone first getting into teas it can be hard to know where to start. RADII’s list of 10 Chinese Teas You Have to Know will introduce you to 10 teas you’ll find in any tea shop. These are historically popular, and tasting them all will give you an idea of the wide variety of flavors offered in nearly-five-thousand-year-old beverage.
You can’t talk about Hangzhou without mentioning Longjing tea, the most famous tea in China, from the village of Longjing; across the world, it is recognized for its refinement. In fact, here’s Barack Obama drinking it with Xi Jinping:
Known for its refreshing quality and chestnut aroma, Longjing is recognizable by the flat shape its leaves take on from being stir-fried in a wok heated to 200 degrees Celsius.
In Hangzhou, this tea is most commonly enjoyed by simply adding the leaves to a cup of hot water and watching them slowly dance to the bottom.
Not far from Hangzhou is the city of Suzhou. Just as Hangzhou and Suzhou are neighbors, if Hangzhou’s Long Jing is No. 1, Suzhou’s Bi Luo Chun green tea is a close second. Picked when the bud is very young and rolled by hand into a small spiral shape, the physical leaf of this tea is one of the smallest. When the leaf hits water, it expands in size, giving off a flavor like no other. While it shares the same floral-nuttiness as Longjing, Bi Luo Chun is stronger and better for the days when you need a little more kick in your cup.
When I’m asked what tea coffee drinkers would like, I always say Yan Cha, otherwise known as Wuyi Yan Cha. Translated as “rock tea,” Yan Cha is an oolong from the Wuyi Mountains. The rich texture and natural floral aroma of this tea has made it a gift to emperors for more than 1,000 years. The tea is finished by slowly simmering over coals for over 12 hours, imparting a perfect deep and full roast, and giving you the comfort of sitting in front of a fire with every sip. A perfect tea for cold weather days or when you need a little warmth.
A Chinese emperor is said to have remarked, “The leaf is heavy like iron, but the flavor is light like [the goddess] Guan Yin,” after tasting this beautiful oolong tea, thus giving it its name: Iron Goddess.
Tieguanyin comes from Anxi in Fujian province and is arguably the most floral of all oolongs. It comes in two styles: light, which is light green with a refreshing, freshly picked blueberry flavor; and dark, which has a soft roast giving a rice aroma; both styles are incredibly floral and are known for the beautiful flavor that lingers in your mouth long after you have finished.
In all my travels across China I have never seen people drink tea as much as people in Chaozhou in Guangdong province. Walk down any street in Chaozhou and everyone, from local grocer to bike mechanic, will have a small tea table and a pot of Phoenix tea. These oolongs are loved for their fragrant and fruity aromas. Be careful when you steep these though, Phoenixes become very bitter very easily, but to some, that’s just the way they like it.
In any world, there are trends; the most recent trend in the tea world is Pu’er, sometimes written in the West as “Pu-Erh.”
Hailing from Yunnan, this tea was basically unknown to most of the world until the ’90s, when a group of Taiwanese traders with a passion for the tea started a wave of popularity that would change the way people viewed Pu’er and its home region of Yunnan province in southwestern China.
There are two main styles of this tea: Shou Pu’er (or Shou Pu for short) has a bold earthy flavor balanced by smooth body and sweet notes. It is usually enjoyed during dim sum, its strong flavor able to stand up to the greasiness of the meal. Sheng Pu is the original version of Pu’er and boasts a larger range of flavor and varieties. Sheng Pu can be very bitter and strong, taking a little getting used to, but at its best, has thick, heavy body with notes of dried fruit and fresh mushroom.
My white tea farmer friend from Fuding on the eastern coastal province of Fujian likes to repeat a phrase:
“White tea is the most natural tea. The oldest tea. The healthiest tea. The best tea.”
Baihao Yinzhen, or just Yinzhen for short, is a white tea made only of the buds of the tea plants. As the bud of the plant is the most potent part, this tea has a complexity that outranks most other teas. This tea is made very simply by being dried in the sun for 55 hours, making it the most natural tea. You can taste the warmth of the sun in a well made Yinzhen, but the flavor is sometimes a mere whisper, so you have to slow down and really listen.
A tea drinker’s first experience with Hou Kui leaves the mouth gaping, just by its look alone. Standing at 7 cm long, each leaf is individually hand-folded to achieve this neat, flat shape. Hou Kui’s home village of Hou Keng was the most beautiful place I visited in my travels. Nestled in the mountains of Anhui province, the land sits next to Taiping Lake, creating a picture-perfect scenery for drinking green tea. A pan-fried green tea, this tea has a soft vegetal backdrop with a chestnut flavor to compliment.
Every now and then you have a tea that breaks all the rules. For most green teas the bud is the most sought after part and is essential to the flavor, Lu’an Guapian (also called “melon seed tea”), on the other hand, does not use the bud at all. A tea made from only leaves, Guapian is recognizable by its dried raisin look and its memorable flavor. Bold and vegetal with a remarkable sugary sweetness, this tea has no secrets to hide and gives you everything it has. Easy to brew and hard to ruin, this tea is perfect for beginners just getting into green teas.
“Maofeng doesn’t care about beauty, it’s all about flavor,” my tea farming friend in Huangshan (a mountain range in southern Anhui province) explained to me. While other teas go through a shape-making step that makes the finished leaf visually beautiful, Maofeng takes on its natural shape during the drying process. Extremely refreshing, this tea fills your mouth with a sweet savoriness. On days when it is super hot but you still want to have some tea, nothing beats Huangshan Maofeng.
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