Twixt Cup and Sip by Guy Nicholls

In 1237 BC, the Chinese emperor turned up a new leaf and the world went to pot. Today, the simple cuppa infuses pleasure into the lives of billions of people. In the ultimate sipping forecast, Guy Nicholls tastes the best of the China teas.

From its ancient origins in Imperial China, the humble tea leaf has risen to heady new heights and is now used to make the world’s most popular beverage. Every day three billion people raise their cups in an unconscious tribute to the Chinese emperor who stumbled across the potential of an aromatic leaf. Few of these would disagree with the sentiments expressed by Anglican divine Sydney Smith when he wrote: “Thank God for tea. What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” Many other literary figures have been moved to put pen to paper in praise of tea.

Indeed, tributes have poured in thick and fast. Playwright John Gay penned the famous phrase, “While there’s life, there’s hope,” but many feel that Sir Arthur Wing Pinero put his finger on the true meaning of life when he wrote, “While there’s tea, there’s hope.” The pick-me-up importance of tea has also been described as “vaster that all the tea in China itself”.

To the tea-holics of the world, tea truly qualifies as the nectar of the gods, even though it is as potent a drug as alcohol if drunk to excess. To dismiss it as a banal botanical thirst-quencher produced by brewing a spoonful of Camellia sinensis in boiling water is to sell it unforgivably short. It is a truly universal drink which knows geographical or cultural boundaries.

Tea, and everything about it, is steeped in history and its traditions are infused into the very souls of its fans. The Japanese perform an elegant tea ceremony called the cha no yu, which embraces the religious art of the fine serving and sipping of tea and is carried out according to strict 600-year-old rules. The ceremony, in less elaborate form, originated in China in about 2700 BC. Its adaption by the Japanese could well have been the first example of their proclivity for taking something from another culture and embroidering it for their own purposes – just as, hundreds of years later, they were to do with everything from cameras to motorcycles. Thomas Lee, managing director of Fook Ming Tong chain of teashops, explains: “The original Chinese tea-drinking ceremonies were far less formal than the one developed in Japan. They were more laid back and contained only minimal ritual.”

It was not until the Sung dynasty (10th-13th centuries) that a large number of ordinary people could afford to drink tea. By that time, tea ceremonies had taken on the form of competitions between wealthy, highly skilled tea makers. These men developed a way of creating bubbles in the shape of mountains and clouds. As the water reached the boil, a small dishful would be scooped from the urn, would be allowed to cool for a while, then would be reintroduced to the boiling water to create bubbles. “How they actually arranged the bubbles into specific shapes is beyond me,” says Lee.

Special brew
The art of Chinese tea making has evolved over thousands of years and the age-old intricacies involved in creating that perfect cuppa persist today. Each blend has developed its own particular tea-making ritual.Oolong tea should be made in a small clay teapot. This should be thoroughly warmed and then one-third to one-half of it should be filled with tea leaves. Boiling water should be poured in from a height of about one foot and then quickly emptied out. This process ensures that the leaves have been properly warmed. The pot is then filled with more boiling water and the tea should be left to brew for 30-60 seconds. Oolong is best served in small cups and some people prefer to ensure each cup is of equal strength by first pouring the tea into a jugThis process is in sharp contrast to that employed in the making of long jin tea. Experts recommend that this is made in a tall glass so that the visual impact of the tea leaves can enhance the overall tea-drinking experience. Long jin should be brewed in water of a temperature of 70-75 degrees Celsius. The tea is ready to pour after three minutes.

While tea-drinking ceremonies in Hong Kong are now as rare as cocoa conventions, the arts of preparing, serving and consuming tea to age-old standards remain. These are best enjoyed in the four Fook Ming Tong teashops, the more upmarket Chinese restaurants and in private homes where old values prevail. Lu Yu, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet and tea connoisseur, was the first to lay down the proper techniques for making the finest tea. He believed that one of the most important ingredients was wholly pure spring or river water, which was abundant in his time but is somewhat harder to come by these days. However, Lee believes that today’s water can make equally fine tea as long as it is not overboiled. A pinch of salt also adds a certain piquancy.

A first-rate cup of Chinese tea embodies three essential qualities: fragrance, vivacity and clarity. These are provided by amino and organic acids, polyphenolic bodies, sugars and caffeine. Tea also contains a little of the alkaline theophylline, which is reputed to aid digestion, relax the bronchioles and make the heart beat faster. It is the caffeine in tea which helps produce a warm feeling of satisfaction.

Foreign visitors to Hong Kong most commonly seek out jasmine tea (heung peen). “It’s a blend of fine green tea with the jasmine flower, and provides very refreshing aroma,” says Lee. For the best results, the tea should be brewed in water at a temperature of 75-80 degrees Celsius. Oolong, a dark tea which is made from leaves which are partly fermented before being dried, is another well-known blend. One of the most expensive of these teas is ta hung bao, or ‘big red gown’, which costs $110 a tael and gets its unique flavour form the chesima plant. One tael (37.5 grams) serves four people.

Long jin is a rare tea that only becomes available during the Ching Ming festival. A green tea from Hangzhou, it is also known as ‘Dragon’s well’ because it was originally brewed with water from a village well which was reputed to contain a dragon. Experts say that long jin should be served at 70-80 degrees Celsius so that its young leaves do not lose their special flavour. Rich, robust bo lai, from Hunan province, is the tea most commonly served with dim sum in Hong Kong restaurants. Chrysanthemum tea (guk bo), the leaves of which lose their flavour when exposed to sunlight, is increasingly popular.

Most connoisseurs are horrified by the emergence of the ubiquitous tea bag, but Lee says that the convenient packaging has a place in the modern world. “That s especially true in Hong Kong, where people do not have time to brew tea properly,” he says. Even Fook Ming Tong toyed with the idea of introducing herbal tea bags, but the teashop decided it was impossible to blend its special flavours in a bag.

All teas begin life in a similar fashion; it is the different processing techniques which result in the various blends. For example, black tea, which accounts for 98 per cent of the world’s consumption, is fermented, while the more delicate and subtly flavoured green tea is not. Cured tea in itself is virtually tasteless, but when it is blended with flavours such as gardenia, jasmine, orange, lychee, lemon and chrysanthemum in becomes an enjoyable drink.

Tea merchants buy on the advice of tasters, who can immediately detect a dry tea’s appearance, its infusion qualities and the density of the leaf. Fook Ming Tong teashops’ nearly 50 varieties of tea were selected by renowned tea master Wong San-chun. “He can detect every nuance of any tea, no matter how many he samples in one tasting,” says Lee.

Although Japan and China are without doubt the masters of ceremonial tea drinking, certain less intricate rituals persist elsewhere in the world. In the far-flung Asiatic reaches of the CIS, a tea-drinker removes his shoes, steps on to a cushioned platform and drinks green tea from a wide-mouthed earthenware communal bowl. Down under, the legendary Australian bushman will toss a fistful of tea leaves into the boiling water of his soot-stained billycan, let is simmer throughout the day, then return to enjoy a brew so thick that he could almost stand his spoon upright in it. For flavour, he adds a leaf from a gum tree.

Tea drinking is so firmly embedded in British culture that its inhabitants consume more per person than those of any other country. Enter any British home, and you are far more likely to be offered a ‘cuppa’ – a cup of tea – than any other drink.

It was, perhaps, inevitable, that sociologists would come up with a paper on the traditional tea breaks which stop work on British factory floors and in offices. The latest 96-page study concludes: “The tea break fulfils a function far beyond a mere rest pause.” When the British government tried to install tea-vending machines in civil servants’ offices, the powerful trade union reacted with a 170,000-signature petition protesting that “the machines just cannot match the personal touch”. True connoisseurs of tea will be relieved to hear that the pen-pushers won the day.

In the bag
While tea bags can produce an enjoyable cuppa, their users tend to make the mistake of brewing up “with their eyes”. When the liquid assumes a satisfactory colour, they stop the steeping process. Experts say to get the best from a tea bag it should be left in hot water for a few minutes. Today’s bags contain about 35 grains of tea. One pound of tea should produce 200 cuppas.

Stirring Story

Legend has it that tea originated in China during the reign of Emperor Shen Nung in about 2737 BC. Apparently, some leaves drifted into an open kettle while the imperial drinking was being boiled and the emperor insisted on tasting the brew.

Tea did not find its way to Europe until the early 17th century when it was such a scarce commodity that containers of it, known as caddies, had to be fitted with locks. Keys had to be hidden from thieves – in London cockney parlance, “tea leaves” – who prowled the fashionable parlours and tearooms in search of the herbal gold dust which could be easily traded. It was the arrival of high-speed said-driven tea clippers, carrying hundreds of tons of tea from the East, which popularised the new beverage at all levels of society. Caddy locks were no longer required.

China remained the main tea-producing country until the 19th century, when it was discovered that the camellia sinensis shrub also grew in the Assam region of north-east India. Although technically the bush can grow to a height of 30 feet, it is commonly pruned to between three and five feet.

When Ceylon’s (now Sri Lanka) coffee crop failed in 1870, tea was planted and before long seeds were sown in the trans-Caucasian region of Russia, in the East Indies, in Africa and anywhere else which had equable temperatures, fertile and loamy soil, rainfall 90-200 inches a year, a high percentage of humidity and enough people to do the picking.

If you’d like to have a chat about what I could write for you, please give me a ring on 07747 636 938 (UK). Or drop me an email.

Back to feature writing