Chinese Tea 中国茶
Having originated in China over 2,000 years ago during the Tang dynasty, tea (chá) is an integral beverage to any Chinese meal, from dim sum to dinner.
There are many myths and stories about tea. One popular legend dates from around 2700 BC, when tea was accidentally discovered by the Chinese Emperor Shennong when a camellia leaf from a tree fell into his pot of boiling water, and infused it with flavor. From then on, tea is consumed during ceremonial rituals, for its medicinal properties, and even eaten as a vegetable.
China is considered the world’s largest producer of tea. Different regions produce different kinds due to varying geographic locations and their climates. The Jiangbei region to the north of the Yangtze River is the most northern tea-producing part of China, with green tea being the main variety cultivated. The largest producing region is Jiangnan, located south of the middle and lower parts of the Yangtze River. Green, black, oolong, and scented teas are all grown here where there is a wealth of rainfall with four distinct seasons. Southern China, which includes the Fujian province, is known for producing black, oolong, and white teas. Finally, Southwest China, said to be the origin of the tea plant, cultivates black, green, compressed, and post-fermented teas.
Although all tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis), they are differentiated by how the tea is processed. Chinese tea is made from leaves processed using traditional Chinese methods. They can be dried or withered in the sun. Some are fermented or semi-fermented, while others aren’t fermented at all.
Of all the Chinese teas, green tea is the least processed and belongs to the unfermented class. It is dried briefly, then either steamed or pan fired quickly, also known as “fixing” or “kill-green”, which stops the natural fermentation process, removes the grassiness and releases the tea’s true aromas, then rolled. Yellow and white teas follow a similar process as green tea, except the drying step is longer for yellow so the hue turns its color, and white tea is lightly oxidized and roasted. Oolong is a class of its own, in which it is withered in the sun, and semi-fermented. The final step for this particular tea is firing, in which it takes on smoky characteristics in the tea. Black tea is more oxidized than oolong, and is stronger bodied in flavor. Pu-erh is essentially black or green tea that after formed is then stored in humid conditions over time to further ferment and mature in flavor. Scented tea uses any of the primary teas such as green or black and adds to it flower petals, such as jasmine or chrysanthemum blossoms. Compressed tea which command high prices is usually made with a black tea base is steamed and compressed into shapes and can be aged.
To really embrace the flavors and nuances and subtleties of tea, different types require varied optimal steeping times at different temperatures. Water should be poured into the teakettle short of a rolling boil for delicate green and white tea leaves. Steeping times differ, but infusing too long, and the tea becomes bitter.
Some drink tea for its calming effect, others for the caffeine, while still others imbibe it for its health benefits. Whatever the reason, tea is a wonderful beverage to explore with all of its vast choices.
San Francisco Tea Shops to try:
Imperial Tea Court
San Francisco Ferry Building
Red Blossom Tea Company
831 Grant Ave. (between Clay St. and Washington St.)
Ten Ren Tea
949 Grant Ave. (at Jackson St.)