kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake
A handle-less unglazed black ceramic teacup sits next to a glazed white teapot with a raffia-wrapped handle.

Tea is a huge subject. The most I can do in a single post is give an introduction, and offer some pointers to places where you can find more in-depth information.

The prices of good Chinese teas can come as a bit of a shock if you're not aware of how to use the leaves efficiently — the last batch of white tea I bought was £6.50 for 25g, which at first glance seems ridiculously expensive. However, like most good loose whole-leaf teas, you don't actually need that much of it to make a good brew, and the leaves can be brewed up to three or four times, with the flavour changing subtly each time.

The most important factors for a good cup of tea are:

  • The varietal and quality (grade) of the tea leaves you brew with.
  • The temperature of the water.
  • The length of brewing time.

Other factors can have an effect too. For example, if you reboil a kettle over and over then the oxygen content of the water decreases, and some people find there's a discernable effect on tea brewed with this water. Tea made with filtered water, or with tap water from different regions, may also taste different. However, assuming you use the same type of water every time and fill your kettle fresh every time, it's the three things above that deserve attention.

The optimal water temperature depends on the tea. Hopefully, either the packaging of the tea or the person you buy it from will provide this information, but a reasonable rule of thumb is 80˚C for green teas such as dragon well and white teas such as silver needle, 85-90˚C for oolong, and 95-100˚C for black teas and pu-er (which is sometimes classified as a green tea and sometimes as a black tea).

Brewing time varies depending on the amount of leaves that you use, and whether they've been infused before — second, third, and fourth infusions require progressively longer times, and while a first brewing may be perfect in only 2-3 minutes, the fourth may take as long as 15 minutes to extract all the flavours. As [personal profile] vatine points out in comments, different teas have different-sized "windows of opportunity", too — with some teas, you have to get the timing very precise, while others are more forgiving.

Note also that not all Chinese teas are actual teas, i.e. infusions made with the leaves of some varietal of Camellia sinensis. Chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶/jú huā chá), which I mentioned on Wednesday, is an infusion of flowers, and hence caffeine-free.

For more information on tea, the Single Estate Tea blog is worth a read, as are the Chinese Tea Files, Life In Teacup, The Mandarin's Tea, [personal profile] 0olong's overview of tea and tea types, and Life On Nanchang Lu's guide to pu-er tea.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2010-07-30 08:17 am (UTC)
jana: [Naruto] Sakura (Default)
From: [personal profile] jana
Very interesting. I LOVE tea, yes with capital letters :) Chinese green tea is one of my favorites, in addition to Japanese green tea. One of my cabinets is jam packed with all kinds of tea. I need my cup of tea in the morning like other people need their daily coffee fix, and whenever I'm in a tea shop I'll have to stop myself from buying more tea or teapots... ;)

Date: 2010-07-30 08:57 am (UTC)
vatine: Generated with some CL code and a hand-designed blackletter font (Default)
From: [personal profile] vatine
Brewing time also varies a lot depending on what tea you're brewing and the quality of the leaves.

As an example, the "ordinary" lapsang souchong from Teboden ("the tea hut", used to be my preferred tea vendor while at uni) should be allowed to steep for roughly 3m45s, less than that and you get a weak, unpleasant tea and any longer it turns bitter and unpleasant.

Whereas the "superior" version of essentially the same tea is acceptable with a steeping time anywhere from 4 to 8 minutes and needs to be left to infuse for at least 25 minutes before becoming unpleasantly bitter.

Ideally, either the tea packaging or the tea vendor's list of teas should indicate a brewing time that can serve as an initial guide for experimentation.

Date: 2010-07-30 01:55 pm (UTC)
superpitching: (Default)
From: [personal profile] superpitching
I reckon you should do a post about chilled teas! I.e tea inna can, tea inna bottle etc. (You can even do coffee in a can/bottle - or perhaps that should be one for me, rather than you :)).

My problem with the chilled teas is running the risks of them being oversweetened w/ approx 20 tonnes of sugar. I got a random bottle of Oolong tea before going to the cinema and think I developed diabetes before the end of the film! Curses...

PS I am afraid that in Chinese restaurants I order 'chinese tea', which inevitably is 'jasmine tea' which is GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME. In fact the only place where I've seen much of a 'tea menu' is Ping Pong (and that's only an excuse to rip you off and serve tea in a glass - wrong, despite what our continental coursins may think)!

Date: 2010-08-16 10:28 pm (UTC)
holdthesky: (Default)
From: [personal profile] holdthesky
Interesting to read about Russian Caravan tea on that site (one of my favourites). I should have guessed it was about the caravans crossing the majestic steppe.

I'd not really thought about it until now, but I'd an image in my head of a mobile home, perhaps on the south coast of England, where a migrant worker lives, and brews up a big pot of tea on a propane hob after a day perhaps cleaning a hotel and then sits down for a nice cup of tea.

Date: 2010-08-19 09:03 am (UTC)
shuripentu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shuripentu
*boggle* How can pu-er be classified as a green tea? It's superblack, if anything; AIUI what we call 'black tea' in English is called 'red tea' in Chinese, because 'black' is reserved for pu-er.

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