Tea refers to the agricultural products of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the colloquial name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself. After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter, flavour. Wikipedia
(Note: the sections following referring to brewing and enjoying tea apply to Chinese tea, meaning tea grown in China or Taiwan.)
Of late, I have had a number of discussions on tea that did not include a discourse on variety and flavor. Sooner or later, in conversation, the fact arises that I am training with a Chinese Tea Master. Someone will say, “Oh, I had a lovely rooibos tea this morning.” I no longer argue. But, folks, if the beverage is not based on the plant camellia sinensis, it is not tea!
Blame the early importers of tea. Someone asked a Chinese local, “What do you call that stuff?” The reply, “Té.” Welcome to the slippery slope. This was a local colloquial nickname for tea. The Chinese word for tea is “Cha.” 茶 The Japanese word for tea is “Cha.” Or if it is a particularly good tea, “O Cha.” But we had to go and screw things up and call it “tea.”
What about herbal teas? No, sorry, that is not a tea. Rooibos is not a tea. There is a nice French word for almost anything brewed in hot water: “Tisane.” You had a lovely rooibos tisane this morning. “How was your chamomile tisane?”
Listen, unless camellia sinensis is present, you are not drinking tea! Interestingly, when I have the audacity to correct slurpers of various concoctions, they either grow angry or refuse to hear me. I am not speaking ill of any of the beverages, I am merely giving them their correct names.
So, as of today, I am undertaking two missions. 1. I shall do my utmost to never ever remark on the name of someone’s drink. Don’t even get me started on Martinis and the sludge that bears that once noble name. 2. I am beginning a campaign to change the English language name for the camellia sinensis plant and any beverage brewed from it to “Cha.” Now wouldn’t that be simple? We give the tree and drink its true name back, and that leaves “tea” to everyone else in the world.
When I was little and sick I was given a beef “tea.” My organic gardening guru brews up all sorts of “teas” to encourage plant growth. Yes! Take it, take the word, keep it, call cats “tea” and dogs “coffee” for all I care. Just refer to the plant and drink as “Cha.” Isn’t that a nice sounding word?
While we’re at it. I no longer want to hear about any tea, any cha that anyone drinks and considers lovely that comes from a tea bag. Or any cha that is brewed in a tea ball. God save us from all of these devilish contraptions that get in the way of drinking a good cup of tea cha.
Briefly, the cha ball, when used with loose leaf tea, usually stops the tea leaves from properly rehydrating because they cannot expand completely as they absorb the water. The Chinese call this initial reabsorbtion of water, “Awakening the Dragon.” What a lovely image. But, if you cruelly imprison your dragon, it will never lift its head up and spread its wings (If you are imagining a Western dragon), or stretch out its powerful limbs and give you the utmost and best cup of Cha. Instead you get a wimpy little chihuahua of a dragon and a poor cup of cha.
Now, consider the tea bag. First the bag. They range from unbleached to bleached cotton, to silk,to plastic. Plastic? And the contents–in the tea industry, the designation for the camellia sinensis that goes into tea bags is FNG. So, what does “FNG” mean? It is an abbreviation that became a sort of acronym. It is far enough removed from its source that we forget the origin. It’s kind of like not seeing the pig slaughtered. FNG is an abbreviation for “fannings.”
Hm-m-m. That’s a curious word. Why would that word be applied to tea? I’ll tell you why. Originally, the loose leaf tea, the good stuff, was fanned with a…well with a fan. And the dust that blew off, probably onto the floor, this dust was swept up and put in tea bags for the rubes. Yum!
Now, modern tea bags do not contain floor sweepings, I hope. In fact, some “premium”–I put premium in quotes because any tea bag tea being premium is doubtful, in my deranged mind–some premium tea bags contain high quality tea. During tea production a certain amount of the good stuff, the loose leaf tea, some of those leaves get too broken to sell as loose leaf and these get turned into FNG.
I occasionally drink tea bag tea. In the airport, what other choice is there? Tazo makes good tea bag tea and so does Stash. But at home? No thank you. Depending on the brand, you can wind up with more stems than leaves and no buds whatsoever.
On the road, and I travel a lot–on the road I bring along my own loose leaf tea and some contraption or other for brewing it. I like the TeaMaster Brew-cup. It’s portable, easy to clean, has enough room for the Dragon to awaken, and makes a darned good cup of tea. That said, I use a polycarbonate cup. My family doctor, a fellow Tea-head, will only use the glass version.
Strange interlude: And what makes a good, dare I say “great” loose leaf tea cha? 1. Lineage. What varietal did the leaves come from? In what region of China is it grown? 2. Process. Organic or “Organic Process” preferred. Good soil. Now the nitty gritty–3. Leaf style. Part of this is determined by the type of tea. Compare Mao Feng green with Dragonwell (Longjing) green. The best tea is all buds. In my opinion, the finest tea in the world is Yin Zhen Bai Hao from C.C. Fine Tea. This is usually called Silver Needle or Silver Needle white, and it is all buds. Oolong tea is traditionally one bud two leaves. Good to great tea is either all buds, one bud one leaf, one bud two leaves…and one bud three leaves is debatable. Anything past that: Phooey! 4. Freshness, includes storage methods.
So, in bagged tea you don’t know what you are getting. It may even be adulterated, cut with some kind of filler.
As to freshness, smell it. If it smells lovely and fragrant it will probably taste that way too. Which means you should purchase tea someplace that allows you to smell what you are buying. This eliminates the supermarket. I have seen tea shops that sold very nice high quality loose leaf tea, except they didn’t turn it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and taste it.
To finish this rant, I recently heard “I drink a lot of tea every day. I can’t afford to buy good tea.” Westerners tend to brew their tea once, let the tea sit in the water forever until it is strong enough to repel sharks, and then discard the leaves. Proper Chinese brewing puts the water on the leaves for the minimum time required to extract that flavorful goodness (Awakening the Dragon can be used to get the leaves in the right mood to be drunk.). A good Chinese tea cha may be infused anywhere from 4-7 times. Notice and enjoy the differences each infusion offers. A GOOD Chinese Cha will still offer flavor even after the color of the liquor begins to fade.
The easiest way to brew a good cup is with a French Press. Tea Masters often use a traditional Gaiwan for themselves. The Chinese Gongfu (Kungfu) method using an unglazed clay pot (Yixing Clay only! Otherwise beware of possible lead contamination in the clay.) may ultimately be the most satisfying. I have a tiny pot about the size of my fist. Two grams of cha suffice to provide me with a satisfying experience. There is available a porcelain brewer called the TeaMaster Automatic Tea Brewer, that emulates the Gongfu method and is a good way to start enjoying Chinese tea.
Name it right, brew it right, and as my Cha Shifu (Tea Master) says, “Tea makes a Happy Day.”
Rant addendum: 99% of all white tea sold in the US is not. At best it is green.
The following video advertising Japanese tea is hilarious, but note that they are only picking leaves, no buds. Third rate tea. It should be left to the bugs.