According to the Tea Association of the USA, tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, second only to water. Able to be consumed at nearly any time of the day and for any occasion, its versatility over coffee is clear. But have you ever stopped to wonder: just how old is the tea tradition?
The answer might surprise you.
Long ago, a farmer by the name of Shennong (神農) began to ponder the medicinal value of the plants around him. This curiosity was a natural extension of his agricultural passion. Not only did he use a wide variety of seeds in his lands, but like Thomas Edison, he was a revered inventor, identifying all manner of problems and devising wondrous solutions, such as the hoe, the plow, the axe, irrigation methods, and even the Chinese calendar. Like his body in the fields, Shennong’s mind was constantly at work.
As a natural inquisitive, he boldly sampled the various plants he would encounter, meticulously cataloging their appearances and any effects they had on himself, for better or worse. According to legend, he had the unfortunate experience of poisoning himself more than seventy times!
How did Shennong manage to survive?
On one account, as he lay dying, struggling to survive, a tea leaf managed to fall into his mouth, and as he worked up the strength to begin chewing it, he began to feel rejuvenated.
On another account, Shennong had prepared a fire in the wilderness, desiring to boil a cauldron of water. As he was waiting for the water to boil, some of the leaves from the twigs he had used for kindling were lifted up by a draft before floating back down into his water. Unbeknownst to Shennong at the time, he had accidentally made his first pot of tea (and grandfather style at that!).
Although there are many variations, the two stories aren’t necessarily at odds. It was long known that Shennong would use tea as a kind of antidote whenever he was out in the wilderness sampling herbs and plants, and so it’s always possible—and fun to imagine—that he was preparing an antidote brew in a pot when things went awry and, luckily for him, it just so happened that tea leaves accidentally infused his antidote brew by the time he reached it.
No matter your take on the authenticity of these accounts, the importance of Shennong to Chinese culture cannot be emphasized enough, and for those interested in the history of tea, his legend is traced back to around 2437 BC, more than 6,000 years ago! This means that for every sip of tea you take, you are participating in one of the oldest traditions alive today, beginning with Shennong’s adventurous spirit.
Although tea may not be able to instantly cure any deadly poisons in the way that Shennong had imagined, its health properties are the subject of many rigorous scientific studies today, and there’s little doubt that it has profound psychological effects on our well-being and mindfulness.
If you’re like most tea drinkers, you have a daily ritual that involves selecting your favorite tea, heating your water, and then infusing your tea leaves until it’s ready to drink.
But even though this ritual is broadly the same for most of us, the details make all the difference. Think about how many ways there are to make the same cup of tea.
Some of us sort through myriad tea bags while others might look at each of their loose-leaf teas. Some of us will heat our water in the microwave while others will gleefully fill the kettle and place it on the stove. And some of us have no qualms about using tap water while others prefer to purchase special bottled water. With so many variations, you might find yourself wondering whether any of this matters.
Isn’t tea just tea?
Is one way of doing it really better than another?
Researchers working out of Cornell University’s Sensory Evaluation Center were wondering precisely this, and the conclusion might surprise you.
Along with time, temperature, brewing vessel, and water-to-leaf ratio, the quality of water has long been known to be one of the most important factors that can influence the taste of your tea. Though seldom given a second thought by casual tea drinkers today, references to the importance of water quality are ancient.
The ever-wise Lu Yu, writing his The Classic of Tea in the 8th century, for example, went to great lengths to explain how we needed to be conscientious in selecting the right water. In that text, he strongly advises that we use spring water, fresh from mountain streams, but if we must, he says, then river water is sufficient. He believed well water, however, was inferior to both.
Lu Yu may have been on to something.
Today, we know that there are two minerals found in water that play a key role in ruining our tea: calcium and magnesium. And it isn’t uncommon to find high levels of these minerals in wells.
Calcium interferes with the extraction of phytochemicals from the tea, such as caffeine and theaflavin, while high levels of both calcium and magnesium can promote tea cream.
You may have seen this at one point or another. Tea cream occurs whenever your tea becomes slightly cloudy as it cools, looking as though there are particulates floating about.
But what else can we learn about water quality and tea?
Following up on previous studies, these Cornell researchers decided to test city tap water, bottled spring water, and deionized water. Using tap water, they were able to approximate Lu Yu’s suspicions about well water since tap happens to contain a far greater amount of calcium, magnesium, and sodium than either spring or deionized. In fact, deionized water, by contrast, had almost no mineral content whatsoever.
These three waters were used to brew a cup of loose-leaf green tea and loose-leaf black tea, and then they were presented in triplicate to a tasting panel of 103 participants, all of whom self-identified as regular tea drinkers who consumed tea three to five times each week.
The results were surprising.
Upon doing a chemical analysis of each, the teas prepared with spring and deionized water had higher concentrations of phytochemicals than teas prepared with tap water. Because research shows us that these chemicals are beneficial, especially the health-promoting catechins, this is a good thing.
However, upon tasting, the panelists believed that the teas prepared with tap water were less bitter, and they generally enjoyed sipping them just a little more. Scientifically, this makes sense as catechins also happen to be bitter-tasting compounds.
So who wins this debate?
Well, it turns out that Lu Yu was right after all—spring water really does make the best tea in terms of overall health and interesting flavor. Unfortunately, however, it also looks like many people’s taste buds might lead them to prefer the well water flavor, subjectively believing that a lack of bitterness is better in terms of taste.
At MeiMei Fine Teas, we’ve always believed in the importance of spring water and continue to do so. It’s a clear winner if you’re aiming to get the most out of your tea, all things considered (health benefits, complexity, pleasant appearance).
But if you happen to prefer the taste of your tea when using tap water instead, that’s okay too. Like our vegetables, it looks like many tea drinkers don’t always find the healthiest option to be the tastiest.
Reference: Franks, M, et al. (2019). “The influence of water composition on flavor and nutrient extraction in green and black tea,” in Nutrients 2019 11(1), 80, pp. 1–13. https://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu11010080.
Pu-erh is a unique form of tea that defies inclusion in the common categories of white, green, oolong, and black. Depending on its age, you might find it more similar to a green tea or a black tea in terms of its flavor and appearance, and yet, at the same time, you’ll notice that it manages to exceed both in complexity—the leaves tend to be larger, the flavors more pronounced, the colors deeper.
Other than the fact that pu-erh can be aged, another feature that accounts for the wide difference in aromatics and flavor profiles is the fact that there are two different types of pu-erh, sheng and shu. Do you know the difference between the two? Have you ever wondered which might be right for you?
Let’s take a look at this traditional distinction and see if we can shed some light on it.
Pu-erh is initially crafted using techniques similar to those employed in making green tea. Whereas in green tea, younger leaves tend to be more highly prized and plucked for processing, it is the older, larger leaves that are valued in crafting pu-erh. Once plucked and ready, these leaves are fired in a wok and then sun-dried.
At this stage, the pu-erh can be pressed into cakes to make sheng cha (“raw tea”). Even though the tea can be enjoyed immediately, sheng pu-erh is made with the assumption that it will be aged, its best flavors yet to come.
To help facilitate this, it is not uncommon for a tea master to initiate this process, keeping these tea cakes under strict storage conditions for a few months before presenting them to the market. These storage areas usually feature a well-ventilated space that maintains a temperature of approximately 60-85°F (15-30°C) and a humidity range of 55–80%, creating conditions that allow fermentation to take place (a natural metamorphosis of the tea that encourages the formation of wildly complex flavors).
Once in your possession, you may elect to drink your pu-erh now or continue aging it on your own. In terms of optimizing the flavor, at a minimum, such pu-erh ought to be reserved for six months from the date of production before it is infused, but storing it for longer periods of time is wholly dependent on the quality of the pu-erh. Inferior teas will see little benefit beyond a few years of storage while higher quality leaves will continue to mature and develop as long as 5, 10, even 40 years out!
Besides sheng pu-erh, there is also shu cha (“ripe or cooked tea”). Whereas the aging process that brings out the unique flavors of sheng pu-erh take some time, tea masters at the Kunming Tea Factory in 1973 discovered that this tea could be artificially aged, accelerating the maturation of the leaves by manipulating the environmental storage conditions.
Using some basic chemistry and piling a large volume of the damp pu-erh leaves together in a patented step known as wuodui, the leaves are then subjected to controlled air and forced heat. If the tea masters miscalculate anything during this process, the tea leaves can easily be burnt or ruined, and so they require frequent attention, needing carefully re-piled at least four to five times throughout a 45 to 60 day period. Once the leaves satisfactorily survive, they are then pressed into cakes and taken to the market as shu pu-erh.
Even though shu pu-erh is made through a process that simulates long-term aging, the taste of an artificially aged pu-erh is still very different from the taste of a naturally aged one. In neither case should a pu-erh ever taste moldy, but in general, sheng pu-erhs tend to develop more of a spring honey and wildflower flavor whereas shu pu-erhs will taste more similar to baked fruit and herbs. Of course, these are just general guidelines; each pu-erh is a world unto its own and many will surprise.
When you are ready to purchase pu-erh for yourself, be sure to take a look at our Three Things You Should Know about Pu-Erh Guide, which gives you an idea of how to evaluate the quality of a pu-erh when you are shopping online or elsewhere.
Moreover, if you happen to reside in the Washington, DC or northeast Virginia area, you may want to strongly consider signing up for our Pu-Erh Tea Fundamentals and Tasting Flight class, a 2.5 hr class hosted on Sunday, March 3rd (3:00 – 5:30 PM) and conducted by Victoria Wu, founder and curator of MeiMei Fine Teas.
Victoria travels to China at least twice each year to sample and source rare, high-quality teas. During this class, you’ll learn about the history of pu-erh, understand the importance of terroir, and experience the difference between sheng and shu pu-erhs. It is the perfect tasting flight for beginners and connoisseurs alike.
Family, Friends, and Community: The Importance of the Chinese Lunar New Year and What it Means for You
Last week, the world came together and celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year, a weeklong celebration that is the most important holiday of the year.
Drawing from China’s lengthy and rich tradition as an agricultural society spanning more than 5,000 years, the Lunar New Year has always been a time of festivity, celebration, community, and most importantly, rest. It is a tradition that, through the wonder of reenactment, unifies the present with the past; and similarly, as we dream collectively of better days yet to come, it unites us with the future.
The Lunar New Year is a time to strengthen relationships, to settle debts, to reflect on one’s shortcomings and failures, acknowledging them and making a commitment to change for the better. It is also a time to rebuild old friendships, repairing such strained relationships through acts of charity and heartfelt discussions, and it is a time to create new ones, getting to know those around you.
Every step is taken to ensure and promote nothing but a positive, exceptional experience with others. Discussions of grave and unhappy matters are shunned and avoided as unlucky, often portending a bad year ahead. Instead, games are played by families, gifts are exchanged with loved ones, and delicious foods and teas are shared with friends.
The Lunar New Year is, ultimately, a celebration of the best that life has to offer, a refocusing on what is truly most important.
This year’s holiday marked the beginning of the Year of the Pig, one of the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac—along with the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, and dog. According to legend, these are the first twelve animals who finished the race that the Jade Emperor had requested for his birthday.
The Year of the Pig is supposed to be a year full of joy, prosperity, luck, and good fortune, and although the Lunar New Year festivities are over, the Year of the Pig has just begun, inviting us to look for the good in our lives and experiences, to appreciate the talents and abilities of others, and to be thankful for everything that comes our way.
Given the season in which the Lunar New Year is celebrated, we think it is best and most auspicious to start your year with a dark or roasted tea. If you’re looking for something nice, consider indulging your company with the creamy Wuyi Golden Water Turtle rock oolong (Shui Jin Gui).
If, however, you’re unsure of what your company enjoys, then you may want to serve them a familiar, pleasant cup of Keemun Imperial black tea, a tea that is well-appreciated for its signature floral fragrance.
The Water Turtle is perfect for seasoned tea drinkers familiar with the world of oolongs while the Keemun speaks to every type of tea drinker, from the novice to the connoisseur. In any case, just be sure to listen to your guest and be grateful for what they have to say.
There is, after all, no better way to start a year than with good company.
Pu-erh is beloved by tea enthusiasts worldwide. The pressed cakes, often wrapped in eye-catching packaging, come in a medley of beautiful colors, and the range of exotic, complex flavors that each tea offers ensures that there is a pu-erh out there for every palate. It is not difficult to see why this tea belongs in a category of its own, and its especially long shelf life is a testament to this uniqueness, promising not just good tea over time, but better tea.
This same degree of flexibility, however, also leads to some confusion, and sometimes, pu-erh drinkers will accidentally ruin their tea, failing to entertain some important considerations from Storage 101, such as never storing their tea in an area with a strong scent or odor.
While those kinds of tips might seem like common sense, there’s still a chance to get it wrong, and these odds only increase if you are planning on any sort of long-term storage. To help prevent any unhappy outcomes, we’re going to share a few storage failsafe’s to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your pu-erh tea, guaranteeing a good cup before its too late.
We’ve mentioned it before, but this is so fundamental to pu-erh storage that it is worth emphasizing: your storage conditions matter.
There are certainly some similarities in basic storage etiquette between your regular teas and pu-erh—such as avoid sunlight or avoid moisture—but pu-erh storage also has a fair share of unique rules.
Unlike regular teas, for instance, you want there to be some air flow and you want there to be some humidity (60–85%), you want the temperature to be mild, and most importantly, you want these conditions to be relatively stable, especially over time. Without these guidelines in place, your prized pu-erh could end up at one extreme or another, astringent and bitter or, worse, moldy.
Remember, however, that these rules apply only when you’re deliberately trying to age your pu-erh. If and when it develops a flavor that you particularly enjoy, you’ll want to arrest the aging process by storing it in an airtight container and a cool, dry place.
Keep a Tasting Journal
A tasting journal is always a good idea for any tea drinker. It is a fun and creative way to train your palate, and it helps you remember which teas you’ve tasted and how much you enjoyed them. Rather than risk confusing your Wuyi Shui Xian oolong with your Wuyi Shi Ru Xiang, your journal can show you exactly which tea you tasted, when you tasted it, and how much you liked it.
But the tasting journal is not just a creative outlet.
There simply is no other way to keep track of whether your teas have changed in flavor and freshness without one. We have a tendency to rely on our memory, and while this can help to a degree, it is nowhere near as reliable as a journal that tracks the date the tea was sampled along with a few notes on the quality, colors, and flavors.
When it comes to pu-erh, the journal is indispensable in tracking its changes from the day it was purchased to the day it is brought out of storage, especially if you plan on aging your pu-erh for more than a year.
But knowing how your pu-erh tastes compared to day one when you bring it out of storage is one thing; knowing when to pull it out of storage is another.
Whether or not you decide to keep a tasting journal, there is only one way to know when your pu-erh is ready to be enjoyed: you have to taste it regularly. This is arguably one of the biggest mistakes that pu-erh enthusiasts will make, failing to taste their pu-erh as it is aging.
By tasting regularly, you can detect when your pu-erh is starting to taste “off,” giving you an opportunity to make adjustments to your storage conditions in order to salvage it. Some pu-erh drinkers, for instance, have noticed their tea just beginning to absorb an unpleasant odor, and by identifying it early, they were able to prevent this odor from hopelessly ruining their tea.
If you want to guarantee that your pu-erh is at peak flavor, you’ll want to break off a little of your pu-erh cake and infuse it every 6–12 months. By doing this, you ensure that your pu-erh is aging as expected, and you might even catch some storage problems before it is too late.
Our teas showcase a variety of sensory characteristics—shape, color, aroma, texture—that entice us, invite us to use and infuse, bringing us great pleasure and joy as we carefully walk through our tea ritual and sip from our cups.
While we might enjoy all of these characteristics throughout a tea session, it’s no secret that some teas captivate us by uniquely capturing the essence of just one characteristic, as if it were a paradigm, a representative against which all else is to be measured.
We can’t help but admire the wildflower aromatics of Anxi Tieguanyin, the caramelly smooth texture of Sichuan Imperial, and the gorgeous color encapsulated by the inimitable shape of artisanal hand-crafted Liu An Gua Pian. In each of these cases, the tea just is what it means to have a wildflower aromatic, a velvety texture, a splendorous color. So magnificent are these teas that our experience of them defines these features.
Now, though there is little question that Anxi Tieguanyin, for example, perfectly captures that wildflower essence in a way that no other tea can, it raises the question: are there any teas that embody aroma itself?
To meet this qualification, a tea would not only need to be highly fragrant, redolent of the land out of which it is grown, but it would need to go beyond this, to possess an outstanding complexity without overwhelming our olfactory sense, to be hypnotically ambrosial, completely enthralling us with every scent.
Is there such a tea?
The challenge of finding the perfectly aromatic tea would no doubt prove a difficult endeavor, perhaps even a fool’s errand, but there is a class of teas that, on average, stands out above all others when it comes to intoxicating perfumes: Wuyi Rock Oolongs.
Indeed, the Wuyi Yancha tea are the teas par excellence when it comes to heady aromatics. Each rock oolong hails from its own tea bush varietal, tested by the rugged, humid environment of Wuyi Mountain.
The combination of these two factors alone already serve to produce an extensive array of diverse, unique flavor profiles, but when you add the discerning eyes and disciplined hands of a tea master, the aromatic possibilities seem endless.
Consider, for instance, the famous Horse Head Rock Yancha, Rou Gui, a Wuyi rock oolong that treats the nose with herbaceous notes of true cinnamon sprinkled over baked stone fruits.
As alluring as this may sound, one would also do well to also pay heed to White Rooster Crest Yancha, Bai Ji Guan. Grown at Huiyuan Cave, this is a lighter-colored rock oolong that smells of freshly sliced pear garnished with almond slivers and infused with the essence of elderflower.
Or you might turn your attention and nose to Stone Milk Fragrance Yancha, Shi Ru Xiang. Cultivated from an especially rocky area known as Shui Lian Dong, this viscous tea, true to its name sake, pleases with a trace scent of milk poured atop a bowl of vanilla granola sweetened with sun-dried raisins.
To be sure, the entrancing aromas of Wuyi rock oolongs does not end with those three. Deserving a category of their own, these teas comprise a whole world unto themselves, begging to be explored by the curious adventurers and the discriminating connoisseurs alike.What’s your favorite Wuyi Rock Oolong?
In wine tasting, oenophiles, sommeliers, and other experts have long understood how the structure, shape, and material of a wine glass can influence the flavors and aromatics of the wine. Similarly, these same attributes in your teaware can enhance the flavors and aromatics of your tea.
It’s in the interest of getting the most out of your tea that we shared our blog last week on thinking regionally about pairing your tea and teaware, and today, we’re going to discuss some of the physical characteristics of teaware that can make your tea drinking experience that much better.
In general, there are three basic shapes to your various teacups.
The most common shape might be the shorter, wider teacup, sometimes known as a bowl or classic shape. Often when we think of teacups, we probably have one of these in mind, and they are sculpted with myriad variations. Some have taller, steeper sides while others feature thicker, shorter walls. What they all have in common though is a shape that maximizes the surface area of the tea.
Why would you want maximal surface area?
The answer is simple: the classic shape is designed with thought given to the texture or mouthfeel of the tea. By increasing the surface area of the liquid, these teacups increase the rate of flow as you tilt the cup towards your lips, enabling you to sip more tea than you would otherwise. In doing so, this creates an absolutely tantalizing experience when drinking any teas with rich, velvety textures, a feature common to black teas such as Sichuan Imperial Gong Fu or Yunnan Ye Sheng Gushu.
Often easily confused with the classic shape is the flared or “summer” teacup. What differentiates the flared teacup from the classic teacup is a lip or rim that gently curves outward. The importance of the flare cannot be understated, as it accomplishes quite a few functions.
In general, a teacup with a thin wall allows heat to transfer more quickly to your hands or fingertips, making it uncomfortable to handle freshly brewed tea. And yet, these same thin walls also cool down your teas much faster, which is commonly desired when drinking green or white teas. By introducing a flare to the rim, artists discovered a way to move part of the teacup further away from contact with the hot tea, creating a space where you can more comfortably handle your teacup.
Besides easy handling and quicker cooldowns, the flared teacup also gives you more fine-grained control over the amount of tea you sip. Whereas the classic shape directs all of the tea towards your lips as you tilt your cup, the flare acts as a barrier, allowing you to more carefully fine tune the rate of flow. These features are ideal for enjoying teas such as Dragonwell green tea or White Peony white tea.
Perhaps the least common shape for no good reason is the tall, cylindrical style, often referred to as a flute or tulip. Bearing a shape often associated with celebratory speeches and champagne glasses, the fluted teacup has not yet become familiar to much of the west, and this is unfortunate.
One of the key advantages of the tulip shape is that it concentrates the aromas of the tea into a smaller area before forcing them upward toward its narrow opening, delivering a wonderful bouquet of smells straight to your olfactory sense. This is an especially important attribute when tasting an aromatically potent tea, such as Wuyi’s Shui Xian rock oolong or Anxi’s floral Tieguanyin.
Hopefully this helps clear up some of the mystery behind all of these different shapes and sizes, revealing that there’s a functional reason underlying many of the choices that artists sometimes make.
Have you ever paid attention to the shapes of your teacups? What kind do you have? Do you have a favorite?
Share your thoughts with us below!