Despite the apparent global ubiquity of coffee culture, tea, rather than coffee, is the most popular beverage apart from water. Yet as the authors of Tea is for Everyone: Making Chinese Tea Accessible explain, Chinese tea is still not very well known outside Asia, despite tea having originated there.
Whether it’s discussed with reverence in academic texts for tea enthusiasts or mentioned in a few nonchalant sentences in the more generic tea guides, Chinese tea is treated as a niche topic when it should really be the default genre.
Tea, as it turns out, was introduced to Britain (whence it was ultimately launched as a global consumer good) by the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza when she married King Charles II. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade with China and Princess Catherine became an early devotee: tea “all of a sudden tea became a big deal among the English upper class.” The British East India Company then bought tea from China until it started tea plantations in India in the early 1800s.
The various types of tea are classified not by the leaf—they all use the same leaf and/or bud—but by the method in which the leaves and buds are processed. For instance, some are left to dry for longer periods of time, while others are allowed to wither. As a result, there are six types of tea: green, white, yellow, wulong, red, and black. Among these types of tea are many different styles. The bulk of the book explains these styles, mainly with alluring photos that show the tea leaves and pretty tea cups and pots.
Some engaging tidbits accompany these descriptions. For example, Longjin, or Dragon Well tea, from Hangzhou is one of the most popular and expensive green teas. Yellow teas are the least common of the Chinese teas. An white teas are processed the least.
If you’ve been to a dim sum restaurant, you’ve heard of Shoumei, literally meaning “longevity eyebrows.” It is the most well known and most produced white tea style, made with big, broken leaves and very little buds.
Since white teas are rarely found in North American dim sum places, the authors must be referring to the restaurants in Hong Kong.
Wulong tea is sometimes spelled oolong. One style of oolong, Wuyi Dahongpao or Big Red Robe tea, was a part of late 20th century Chinese diplomacy. Mao gave Nixon this style of tea when they met in 1972. And in 1997, Jiang Zemin gave this tea to Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, to mark the handover.
Red teas are known as black tea in the west and weren’t very popular in China until the early 2000s when Jinjiumei, or Golden Eyebrow tea, was introduced to the tea market. Before this, red tea in China had long been deemed inferior to green tea and was even looked down as simply a tea produced for export.
Pu’er is a popular black tea and for many is an acquired taste. Although originally from Yunnan province, Hong Kong has influenced the production of some styles of Pu’er.
Yunnan’s Pu’er tea became popular in the city of Hong Kong in the 1960s. But the great distance between the two destinations meant that the teas tended to develop a deeper color and richer flavors by the time they reached Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese tea makers sought to reproduce this particular Hong Kong-style of Pu’er for its export markets and in 1973, Yunnan’s Kunming Tea Factory adapted the wet-piling technique (traditionally used to make black tea) to its Pu’er Maocha and successfully produced the first Shu Pu’er, which literally means “ripe Pu’er” in Chinese.
The book concludes with features of several tea plantation owners in China and Taiwan. It’s a great introduction for people who enjoy tea and don’t know much about Chinese tea, but it’s also a helpful book to those who have been savoring Chinese tea for decades.