As a tea drinker living in one of the world’s coffee capitals – according to one website I checked, metropolitan Melbourne gets through three million cups of coffee a day – I’ve decided it’s time for tea to steal some of the bean’s thunder – you could say it’s the war of the shrubs, camellia sinensis versus coffea. Because although there are plenty of other tea fans out there, coffee is still the beverage du jour and it’s all got increasingly fancy what with hand-picked beans, computer-controlled roasting, humidity-controlledfridges, syphons, grinders, dripper, filters and frothing jugs. You name it.
The good news for us teAtotallers (teAtotal being the opposite of coffee careerist) is that tea drinking has also reached a level of sophistication that makes dusty tea bags dunked in a cup of hot water seem a travesty. Tea is a whole world unto itself as I have been discovering.
Writing an article on tea for a health insurance magazine recently, I discovered that tea drinking dates back to around 2700 B.C., making it older than coffee and younger than wine. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron and, hey presto, the cuppa was born. There are four main types of tea: Black ,Green, Oolong and White tea. The difference lies in the degree of fermentation and processing. White tea, for example, is made with minimal processing of young new leaves that can only be picked for a few weeks a year. So, while it’s one of the pricier teas, it’s also very high in health boosting anti-oxidants. And then there all the wonderful herbal brews and tisanes made from herbs, fruits, flowers and spices. I am currently drinking Revive tea from Husk, a gloriously fragrant blend of lemon scented tea tree and hawthorn berries.
In my perambulations around the subject, I came across Sarah Cowell of Teasense, whose love of speciality teas has taken her to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. She’s been a Tea Sommelier at Melbourne’s Vue du Monde and Storm in a Teacup and now runs tastings and trainings, encouraging people to approach tea as “a sensory experience and something you develop a ‘sense’ or feel for if you listen. Like commonsense, over time, you can develop your own ‘teasense’.” (See http://www.teasense.com.au).
Last week, I put my teasense to the test at one of Sarah’s events, a chocolate and tea pairing. We sampled 6 different teas: Roasted Green tea, Hojicha from Japan; Dry Season Uva Black tea, a high altitude from Sri Lanka; Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan; Bi Lu Chun green tea (translated as green snail spring) from China; Jasmine Green and pear tea from China; and Genmaicha green tea from Japan.
She encouraged us to engage all our senses – this was mindfulness in a tea cup – and to notice the aroma, colour, feel, taste, texture and flavour of the tea. Just like with wine, one of the best ways to ‘feel into’ the tea is by slurping and aerating it in the mouth.
One of the teas we tasted was Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan. Sarah teamed it up with a 64% dark chocolate from Vietnam. Some of us got vanilla notes from the tea and, from the chocolate (no biting allowed, only a slow sensuous melt in the mouth), notes of dried cranberry and banana. And, interestingly, the tea felt creamier and smoother in the mouth with the chocolate.
We ended with one of my favourites Genmaicha rice green tea from Japan. Now something of a delicacy and treat, this tea originated in post-war Japan when times were hard and puffed brown rice was added to make the tea stretch further. I love the toastiness of the rice and find it softens the green tea. What’s more, you can eat the pieces of puffed rice after brewing! We paired it with a green tea Kit Kat (available in Asian stores), an excellent combination of earthy greenness offset by the sweetness of the Kit Kat, which has a white chocolate base with green tea added.
It was an excellent evening and I learnt some great tips to enrich my experience of tea:
• Decant tea into a second pot to stop it brewing and getting too strong. This may seem obvious but rarely happens. If I order a leisurely pot of English breakfast in a café, it ends up like brown stew by the time I pour my second or third cup.
• Brew oolongs and white teas in a small pot and re-steep, because the second or third infusions are often the best.
• Heat the water to 90 degrees for green tea. So, for those of us without fancy temperature-controlled kettles, simply leave for a few minutes after boiling and then let the tea infuse for one and a half minutes to avoid bitterness.
• Aim to pour your tea anti-clockwise. In China, this means ‘come in and welcome,’ while clockwise pouring means ‘scarper, bugger off, go home’!
• And, one of my favourites, in Chinese tea ceremonies they never fill the cup full so there’s room for friendship.
The evening left me inspired to host my own tea tasting and to always leave plenty of room for friendship!