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A Brief History of the World’s Oldest Tea: White Tea

White tea is renowned for being the least processed kind of tea, even less so than green tea. Crafting a white tea usually involves just a few simple steps — handpicking young buds and leaves, withering, and air or heat drying.

Chinese White Tea White Peony 

Because this tea involves such little processing, it has become quite appealing for those looking for a kind of tea that epitomizes purity, rejuvenation, and health.

And yet, in spite of its deceptive simplicity, did you know that this form of tea has the lengthiest history of all? Many, for instance, trace white tea’s origins to the Song Dynasty (920–1269 AD), but there’s good reason to push its date back even further.

Although it’s a far cry from our current understanding of white tea, we know that during the far earlier Shang Dynasty (1766–1050 BC), tea preparation was a little more experimental. The tea leaves were plucked from wild growing tea trees along with leaves from other herbs, often set out to air dry. These ingredients would then be combined with other fruits and spices into a boiling pot of water to create a medicinal drink. Because of the way the tea was processed, it would have been very similar to a white tea, except the finished product would be much more similar to the tea blends of today (although far more potent in flavor).

As history would have it, it wouldn’t be until more than almost two millennia later that tea would evolve in an important way, becoming less regarded as just another ingredient in a medicinal drink and more appreciated as a satisfying drink in and of itself.  

It was during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) that tea drinking started to flourish as a common way of life, not just for royalty and wealthy, but a special drink to be shared amongst one’s closest confidants (much like the custom of wine-drinking). It was also during this period that tea grew as an important trading commodity, leading to the establishment of the famous Tea Horse Road.

Given these innovations and cultural achievements, it’s no wonder that this is the period that produced the famous tea sage Lu Yu (733–804 AD) who sought to teach and educate us about tea, helping people view it as a rich, aesthetic experience that contributes to a fulfilling life.

Following the tea revolutions during the Tang Dynasty and continuing to refine them to a point of perfection was the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). During this period, the white teas that we know today were first discovered in Fujian Province where tea farmers were beginning to craft what would come to be known as Silver Needle and White Peony. Selecting only the most delicate of tea buds in an effort to craft the perfect tribute tea, these new cultivars were dazzling to behold in the sunlight, covered in splendid, shimmering white downy hairs.

Meimei Fine Teas White Peony

Interestingly enough, when the finest teas were selected for tribute, the practice at this time was to pulverize them into a fine powder to be mixed with boiling water and whisked, much like how one might prepare matcha today.

Eventually, however, thanks to a royal ban on brick teas in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), farmers and artisans found themselves challenged to find ways to craft, process, and dry loose-leaf teas, relying on them for trade and personal enjoyment. It was also decreed at this time that the loose-leaf teas for tribute must be white teas, creating additional pressure for developing this type of tea in particular.

Although much of the style of white tea enjoyed today hearkens back to this Ming-way of preparing it, it’s astonishing to reflect back on the amazing journey that this type of tea has made, and perhaps even more astonishing that the many steps it has taken can still be found with us today. For example, just like the original tea during the Shang Dynasty, we still find white teas selected as a base for exotic tea blends.

The Complete Guide to Iced Tea, Pt. II: Cold Brewing

In last week’s post, we offered a step-by-step guide to “flash chilling,” a method used to make iced tea that is quick and easy, but in spite of this convenience, flash chilling doesn’t always afford the best flavor. It requires that one exercise a great deal of precision when measuring the leaves, monitoring the water temperature, and timing the infusion, and if things aren’t just right, the iced tea can taste either too weak and without flavor or else too bitter. Flash chilling also requires that you use more of your loose-leaf tea leaves than you might like. 

chinese green tea

Fortunately, there’s another method for iced tea, and although it takes a little longer than flash chilling, the flavor tends to be much better and more consistent. This method is cold brewing.

Let’s take a look at how to make the ultimate cold brew iced tea.

Method Two: Cold Brewing

Cold brewing can take hours (compared to the few minutes needed for flash chilling), and so this is not a method for those in a hurry. Still, regardless of how long it takes to cold brew, the technique is pretty hands-off and doesn’t require much of your attention. As a bonus, since you will be using water at room temperature or colder, there’s less to worry about when it comes to the chemical by-products of plastics exposed to high heat, which means this method is plasticware friendly.

The concept behind the cold brew is fairly straightforward — tea extraction from the leaves occurs when they’re placed in water, but the temperature of the water influences just how quickly the tea can be extracted. When we use water near boiling, this happens within a few minutes, but as the water lowers in temperature, the extraction time increases exponentially. By the time you’re working with cold water, you’ll want to let your tea leaves infuse for hours

The good news is that you won’t need any extra tea leaves than normal since the only thing you’re changing is the temperature at which your tea is brewed. The bad news is that some flavorful compounds are only released at high temperatures, and so you’ll miss out on those. This is generally a bigger problem with herbal teas though, not so much true teas.

Here’s an example if you’re aiming to cold brew a 12oz iced tea (feel free to adjust the ratios to your needs).

Step OneMeasure Out 6g Loose Leaf Tea + 12oz Room Temperature (or, Ideally, Colder) Water

Tea buds green tea gongfu cha 

Another benefit of the cold brew is that you can use any true tea in your cabinet with this method, regardless of their recommended infusion temperatures. Once you’ve settled on your tea, carefully measure 6g on a scale and place in either a biodegradable tea bag or else an infuser basket.

After you do this, you’ll want to measure out approximately 12oz of water. While you can use room temperature water (certainly no warmer), it’s better to use colder water if it’s available. Precooling a bottle of spring water or filtering some cold tap water is recommended.

Tea Hack Bonus: You can even use leaves that you’ve already infused earlier in the day. They won’t have as much flavor, but it’s a perfectly fine way to get the most out of your leaves.

Step Two – Cool and Wait

Once you pour the water over your tea leaves, you’ll need to place your infused leaves in the refrigerator and wait for the infusion to finish.

If you used room temperature water, you’ll want to check back on your tea in approximately 4–6 hours. This is because your tea will extract faster at a warmer temperature. If you used cold water, then you’ll want to wait 8–12 hours. If you time your preparation in the evening, you can let your tea brew in the refrigerator overnight so that it is ready to enjoy by morning.

And that’s it! You should find a flavorful, naturally sweeter iced tea by the time you’re done!

Some Considerations

Other than the fact that the cold brew method takes time, it can be a little complicated adding thicker sweeteners to your cold brewed tea as they tend not to dissolve very quickly in colder water. Honey or sugar cubes, for example, might settle at the bottom or take a while to disperse. In these cases, you may want to consider the flash chill instead.

In addition, another drawback is that any leaves used for a cold brew will be finished, unable to be infused any further (whereas with a flash chill, you can still conceivably steep your leaves a few more times).

Depending on your goals, you may find yourself preferring one method to another, and it’s a good idea to get comfortable with both. When it’s all said and done, neither is superior to the other; they’re just different, each better suited for different circumstances.

Hopefully this two-part guide helps you make the most out of your iced teas this summer!

The Complete Guide to Iced Tea, Pt. I: Flash Chilling

Summer is quickly approaching, and as the temperatures begin to rise, so do our desires for cooler drinks to combat the heat. A long-time favorite in this regard for many people the world over is iced tea, and it’s easy to see why. It’s cold, thirst-quenching, and flavorful.

 

Everyone has their own unique preferences when it comes to serving and garnishing their iced teas, and there really isn’t a correct or incorrect way as far as those things go. Some people enjoy a sprig of mint or lavender, for example, while others just enjoy a neat iced tea. Likewise, you may find it pleasant to sip your iced tea from a cylindrical glass or else you may prefer stemware. These little details are up to you and your imagination.

But how do you make iced tea in the first place? Or to put it more precisely: how can you make the best iced tea? Do you need help with your iced tea? We’ve got you covered.

To answer those questions briefly, there are two popular ways: flash chilling and cold brewing. We’ll walk you through each of those methods over the next two posts to help you make the best iced tea for yourself and your guests.

Method One: Flash Chilling

This method is great when you’re in a pinch, but it’s difficult to master and will never taste superior to a slow brew. You also have to exercise a bit of caution in your preparation since this will require using hot water. In other words, if you’re worried about chemical by-products in plastics, you may want to forego using plasticware when you flash chill.

So what’s this all about and how do you do it?

The basic idea behind the flash chill is to brew an extra strong concentrate of your tea with hot water before pouring it over ice. In so doing, some of the ice will melt, diluting your concentrate into a nice, tasty tea while the quick exposure to ice lowers the temperature. The end result is a perfectly iced tea.

The trick to the flash chill is to anticipate the dilution of your tea. Not only will you want to use less water to brew it, but you’ll also want to use more leaves. The problem this poses is that if you use too little water, the ice won’t melt quickly enough, but if you use too much, the tea will taste weak. You really have to try to get it just right.

Here’s an example if you’re aiming to flash chill a 12oz iced tea (feel free to adjust the ratios to your needs).

Step OneMeasure Out 6g Loose Leaf Tea + Heat 6oz Water

Before you begin infusing, make sure to remember that you’ll be pouring this tea over some ice in a different mug or glass (and if it’s glass, make sure it’s heat-resistant, such as borosilicate — otherwise, a quick change in temperature from cold to hot risks cracking or breaking your glass).

For the infusion itself, you may want to consider using a fair cup or server for infusion. These are ideal because they allow you to quickly and easily pour your tea off into something else.

As far as selecting a tea, feel free to use almost any tea in your cabinet with this method. While oolongs, black teas, and pu’erhs are already generally brewed just off of boiling temperature (205°F or 95°C), you’ll want to consider brewing your green teas and white teas at a slightly higher temperature than usual, such as 185°F (85°C) for green and 190°F (88°C) for white.

Once you’ve settled on your tea, started to heat your water, and found the perfect temporary cup or server for infusion, you’re ready for the next step.

 

Step Two – Set Your Timer and Infuse

No matter which tea it is, set your timer for approximately 2.5 minutes. The hotter temperatures and longer brewing times with the extra tea leaves will ensure that your tea concentrate is of the right strength for dilution and temperature to melt the ice.

While you’re waiting for your tea, this is an excellent time to add any sweeteners of your choice, such as honey or sugar. The hot water will help these ingredients dissolve more quickly and evenly as the tea continues to brew. Note, however, that if you intend on using milk, cream, or lemon juice, you’ll instead want to add those to the next step instead.

In any event, you should also be using the infusion time to prepare for the next step.

Step Three – Fill Your 12oz Mug (or Glass) with Ice Cubes

When you’ve decided on your 12oz mug or glass, be sure to fill it ¾ of the way full of ice cubes while you’re waiting on your tea to finish brewing (you do not want to fill it to the brim or else you’ll risk filling your mug too high).

The reason that you want to add your ice cubes as you’re waiting for your tea to brew is that this prevents your glassware from getting too cold, protecting it from shock breaking or chipping when exposed to heat. Adding the ice cubes too early in the process risks chilling the glass too much.

If you planned on using milk, cream, or lemon juice, here is where you’ll want to add any of these ingredients. Simply pour them over the ice. Just keep in mind that you’re dealing with a concentrate and there will be ice melt, and so you’ll want to use no more than 1–2 oz of milk or cream.

Step Four – Pour Your Tea Over the Ice Cubes

As soon as your tea concentrate is ready and while it’s still hot, pour it over the ice cubes in a quick, controlled manner. You’ll notice that about ¼ to ½ of the ice cubes will have dissolved into your concentrate, leaving you with just a few ice cubes left and a happy amount of iced tea.

Whether or not you added anything to your iced tea during any of the steps, such as sweetener or cream, you may want to reach for a spoon and gently, slowly stir your iced tea. This helps ensure that your concentrate is evenly distributed throughout the water.

If everything went according to plan, you should be ready to enjoy a great cup of iced tea!

What Makes for a Good Green Tea?

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes for a good green tea

a cup of green tea meimei fine teas 

With so many options on the market, how can you tell which is better than which? Is it all a matter of opinion? Are green teas supposed to taste grassy? Bitter? Astringent?

Contrary to popular belief, green teas vary wildly in aroma and flavor, and three of the biggest factors that determine these qualities are terroir, chlorophyll content, and infusion method. We’ll consider each of these by working our way backwards.

Green teas are one of the more delicate teas that you can purchase. Its polyphenols and antioxidants can usually be reliably extracted in water at lower temperatures than other tea types.

Researchers in Turkey,1 for example, discovered that green tea brewed at 85°C yielded the highest amount of ECGC — a promising phytochemical found in tea that is widely researched. Interesting, ECGC levels dropped as the brewing temperature increased (largely owed to changes in the chemical from the hotter temperature). They then had a panel of professional tasters sample the green tea brewed at the different temperatures and lengths of time, concluding that 85°C was, indeed, optimal for the palate if you intend to brew a single cup.

Such research only backs traditional tried-and-true advice for optimizing your cup of green tea.

If your tea tastes too bitter or grassy, either lower the brewing temperature or decrease the infusion time. Likewise, if it tastes too weak, either raise the brewing temperature or increase the infusion time (although a 3rd possibility is to reevaluate your water for mineral content).

Dragon well green tea 

Regardless of how you infuse your tea though, one thing that does affect its taste is the chlorophyll content, and this is largely influenced by how the tea was processed.

In Japan, for example, it is customary to cover some of the green teas, which is why they are referred to as “shade-grown.” Using a cloth or a net, the green tea will be hidden from direct sunlight from 20–30 days, overproducing chlorophyll and turning a dark, rich green.

Thus, it is chlorophyll that contributes to the grassy flavor of any green tea, and the darker it is, the more likely it is to have this flavor. This is wholly determined by sunlight exposure, whether natural or artificial.

However, trying to judge the chlorophyll content of green tea by looking at the dry leaves is a mistake, for the color of the dry leaves is a result of the processing method used. Instead, you’d want to consider the greenness of the leaves while they’re still growing, something that isn’t easy to do as a casual shopper.

We know this because there are some green teas whose dry leaves are very dark but they lack a prominent grassy flavor. In particular, one of our favorites is the Chinese green tea, En Shi Jade Dew Green Tea.

how to brew green tea

Whereas most green teas are pan-fired, En Shi is unique in that it is steamed, and while it shares in the rich, brothiness of a Gyokuro, there’s a pleasant floral note to it since it isn’t shade-grown. It’s an exciting, tasty green tea whose flavors are unexpected given the dark green appearance of the dry leaves.

In addition to En Shi’s brothy, floral notes, there’s also a minerality to the flavor, thanks to naturally high levels of the mineral selenium in the plant. It is this precisely this flavor that points us to the 3rd component of green tea taste: terroir. The soil in which En Shi grows is rich in this mineral, unique to this area. Two teas, no matter how similar they look, can have completely different qualities all because of the chemical content of the soil and other growing conditions.

For this reason, if you find a tea that you like, take note of where it is grown! It just might turn out that your favorite sensory qualities come from the land, wildlife, and sky rather than the particular species of plant or type of tea. No two dragonwell green teas will taste the same if they’re grown in different areas, and the same is true for the rest of our teas.

Spring Harvest marks a great occasion to sample green teas and start taking note of your favorite regions and styles!

 

1 Saklar, Sena et al. (2015), “Effects of different brewing conditions on catechin content and sensory acceptance in Turkish green tea infusions,” Journal of Food, Science, and Technology 52(10): 6639–46.

Why Tea Lovers Look Forward to the Tea Harvest

Imagine if you had a chance to rewrite a calendar. Specifically, imagine that you’ve been tasked with designating the holidays. What would you do?

You might, at first, wish every day were a holiday, but then you would quickly discover that this would hurt productivity and detract from that special feeling a holiday is supposed to bring. What are some more reasonable alternatives?

For a tea lover, an obvious choice would involve taking a long, hard look at the annual harvest dates. These times of the year are so important that they already feel like a holiday for tea enthusiasts around the world. After all, there’s little more exciting than eagerly anticipating what kinds of tea the new year will bring.

 In China, there are three seasonal harvests: Spring, Summer, and Fall.

 Even though each is distinct, there’s not a particular date that everyone has agreed upon to go out and pluck their teas. Like farming, you have to pay attention to the temperatures and weather, ready to take advantage at different times throughout the season to optimize your quality and maximize your yields.

 So, for example, during the Spring, tea leaves will be plucked anytime between late February and late May, but in general, when a tea is harvested during this time can have a significant impact on the quality of the finished product. Much of this turns on the Qing Ming festival (清明), a holiday that starts in the first week of April. Most (but not all) of the highly-regarded, top-quality spring teas are harvested in March.

Summer harvests occur between June and August. At this time, many of the tea bushes have grown their mature, larger leaves. Although the tea leaves are larger, they haven’t yet had sufficient time to develop the complex compounds that make for the rich flavors found in Fall harvest teas.

Summer teas thus kind of represent a compromise between the Spring and Fall, a transitional period that offers qualities from both but also misses some of the distinctiveness of each. One benefit is that this time of year offers peak production, and so costs tend to be at their lowest. In addition, the diminished flavor in these teas often make them the ideal candidate for a base in tea blends.

Finally, there’s the Fall Harvest. To use an analogy, if Spring Harvest is to Christmas, then Fall Harvest is to Thanksgiving, the 2nd most important holiday in the west with its large family gatherings and hearty meals. And indeed, occurring primarily throughout the months of September to November, the Fall Harvest happens to produce a cornucopia of oolongs, pu’erhs, and decadent black teas! It’s this time of the year that introduces teas with thick, creamy textures, complex flavor profiles, and deep aromatics.

So if a tea lover were to designate the new holidays for this hypothetical calendar, no doubt she would circle a couple of weeks in late May / early June to introduce the Spring Harvest teas to the world, a week in September to introduce the Summer, and a couple of weeks in December to welcome the Fall.

With Spring Harvest reaching a close, like this tea lover, we’re excited to showcase this year’s teas to you!

Over the next two months, we ask that you stay tuned as we begin to roll out some of this year’s amazing teas. We, of course, will be reintroducing some of your favorites, such as the coveted Pre-Ming Dragonwell, one-of-a-kind Anji Bai Cha, brothy and delicious En Shi Jade Dew, and the punk rock Liu An Gua Pian.

But we’ve also got a few new surprises planned as well!

Happy Spring Harvest!

Meet the Legendary “Mother of All Teas”

Nestled more than 2200m high in the mountains of the Fengqing region of Yunnan province is a small village by the name of Jin Xiou. But in spite of its small size, its reputation is quite large, for it is not far from here that in serene meadow, alone, grows the legendary Xiang Zhu Qing (香竹箐), “the Mother of All Teas,” watching over everything as if with a loving, maternal instinct.

Those who take retreat and pay homage are quick to report the feeling of awe and humility that overwhelms them when they lay eyes upon her for the first time.

This majestic tree towers in her field at more than 10m high (unusually tall by tea tree standards), her foliage engulfing the sun as you draw near, and her trunk boasts an impressive circumference that exceeds 5m, easily requiring seven or eight people to wrap their arms around her.

The Mother of All Teas was long revered for her sheer size, but it was only within the past 50 years that we really began to understand precisely who she is.

Beginning in 1982, Professor Wang Guangzhi, director of the Beijing Agricultural Museum, determined that the tree was more than 3,200 years old. Since then, other experts have weighed in and reached similar conclusions, such as Dr. Ye Chuangxin, a botanist at Sun Yat-sen University, and Dr. Lin Zhi of the Tea Research Institute.

If these estimations are correct, Xiang Zhu Qing has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous empires as well as some of our most crowning achievements, from Greek poetry and Chinese philosophy to Arab medicine, Song Dynasty engineering, and Renaissance art.

As far as we have been able to tell, Xiang Zhu Qing is the oldest tea tree in the world.  

It is very rare for anyone to actually harvest tea leaves from this tree, and when they do, it is usually auctioned off for outrageous prices. For the most part, though, she serves as a symbol, a point of reference that stands tall and strong through the sea of change that we call life.

The Mother of All Teas acts a poignant reminder of the strength that adversity can bring, the wisdom that patience can instill, and the peace that waits to be cultivated from the silence. In a fast-paced world such as today, a world that changes quickly from year-to-year, even day-to-day, our Mother still has much to teach us if we are willing to listen.

Enjoy your tea.

A Brief Guide to Steeping Loose Leaf Teas

Some who turn to loose-leaf tea for the first time find it immediately distasteful. Perhaps the most frequent complaint is that their tea tastes bitter or astringent. No matter how well they “follow the directions”—and they insist that they do—the tea just doesn’t come out right.

But what if we told you that you were following the wrong directions? 

Some of this confusion comes from bagged tea vendors, and so those who have been using bagged teas for a long time (or have watched others use them) are the most likely to make these mistakes.

One prominent manufacturer of bagged teas, for example, writes:

Add the tea bag to your cup.

Boil water and pour over the tea bag.

Let the tea steep for at least 5 minutes to get the strongest flavor possible.

We couldn’t imagine much worse advice for loose leaf teas, and this seems to stem from a combination of tradition in the west (“this is how it’s always been done”) and a fundamental misunderstanding of how flavor is extracted from tea leaves. If you’re going to make a successful transition to loose-leaf tea, then you’ll need to ditch these directions as quickly as possible.

First, astringency can be an inherent quality of your tea, and in many cases (but not all), it can be a sign of the inferiority of the tea leaves.

Were they plucked too soon? Grown at a low elevation? Improperly roasted? Crushed into fine particles?

These are just some of the important factors that can affect astringency, and in general, many high-quality teas lack astringency altogether, making them especially suitable for brewing grandpa style.

As for bitterness, however, it’s a little more complicated.

There’s a close relationship between time, temperature, quantity of tea leaves, quality of flavor, and bitterness. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just limit this to the following three variables: time, flavor, and bitterness.

While time is needed to boost flavor, at some point, the amount of flavor extracted rapidly decreases in proportion to the amount of bitterness created. This is because the longer your tea is steeping, the more the tannins are released into the water, and it’s the tannins that make your tea taste bitter. In other words, there’s an infusion sweet spot, and the longer you steep your tea, the worse it will taste—an undesirable effect that can occur quickly if you wait too long.

What is that sweet spot?

Contrary to popular opinion, we find steeping your teas for just one minute (and sometimes even less) is optimal. It’s an easy guideline to remember, easy to follow while steeping, and tends to create the greatest amount of flavor with the least amount of bitterness.

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