Deciphering a mystery tea: a beginner’s guide to reading tea leaves

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(IMAGE: The set-up for today’s tasting of a “mystery tea”)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We all have those moments: A friend knows you love tea and out of the goodness of their heart they offer you some tea as a gift. More often than not, when this happens, the tea comes in either a ubiquitous tea canister or Mylar pouch that says “茶” (“cha”, tea) or something slightly more specific. Sometimes it comes as a bunch of leaves in a plastic bag. Regardless, you have just been gifted a “mystery tea”.

Mystery teas are always an interesting case. Their quality can range wildly, from the ordinary to sometimes rare and exquisite. Given their indistinct nature, a bit of detective work usually needs to be done to determine what type of tea it is. Like anything within the scope of gong fu cha, this is a great time to practice one’s skills and figure out how to brew the mystery tea to the best of your ability.

Just the other day I was gifted one such mystery tea. In today’s blog post, I will take you through the deciphering process, offering to you my insight into how I went about determining what type of tea it was. Perhaps this will help you in your journeys.

Read the leaves, not the package

Having worked in the tea industry (and in marketing), I’ve learned not to read packaging. Instead, all you need to know is written on the leaves. Their shape, size, color, texture: everything that you would ever want to know outside of how it actually tastes is already right there in front of you. Given the nature of how Chinese tea is processed, there is a fairly distinct “spectrum” that most teas fall into, based on their processing and oxidation, starting from green teas on one end and ending in pu-erh and hei-cha (“black tea”) on the other. In between are all manner of tea types of which a mystery will fall within. Below is (hopefully) a useful image to help you to find the category of tea that your mystery tea belongs to.

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(IMAGE: Examples of tea leaves from every major Chinese tea category going from left to right: green (semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui), green oolong (Tiawanese Lishan high mountain oolong), Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong, Wuyi yancha, semi-wild hong cha (“red tea”, or black tea in the west), pu-erh.

In the case of the gifted mystery tea, the leaves were quite revealing. Their long, twisted leaves were like that of a Taiwanese baozhong or Wuyi yancha. However, unlike a vibrant and verdant baozhong, these leaves were dark. Unlike a yancha, these leaves were still quite green. From this I could deduce that these leaves must belong to the Feng Huang Dan Cong (鳳凰単叢,  “Phoenix Single Grove”) oolong category. However, knowing what particular Feng Huang Dan Cong this was would be quite the daunting task.

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(IMAGE: The “mystery tea” leaves in all their glory.)

Link the leaves to the history

The history and cultivation of Feng Huang Dan Cong is quite unique. The particular style of growing and producing tea of this nature probably originated in the Song dynasty as the development and cultivating of oolong tea began to take root in Fujian province (of which I go into more detail in this post). Adjacent to Fujian and part of a mosaic of politically (and culturally) autonomous regions along the east coast of China, from Fujian to the southern tip of Guangzhou, was the mountainous territory of Chaozhou. To this day, the tea culture of Chaozhou is markedly different from the areas around it, from their brewing practices to the teas they grow and process.

In Chaozhou, the best teas are grown in a manner that is distinctly more “wild” than the more closely cultivated domestic bushes of the Wuyi mountains or Anxi county in Fujian. Rather than keeping the tea plants pruned, resulting in smaller bushes and smaller leaves, Chaozhou tea plants are allowed to grow to the point where they become large trees. Some of these trees can be as old as 500 to 800 years old and grow to to the point where they begin to resemble a large, wiry oak tree. Each tree is treated as if it were its own varietal, and subsequent bushes that grow from it come to be regarded as part of a specific “grove” (“単叢”). Depending on the soil content, climate, and altitude (some of the best teas in Chaozhou come from the highest points on Wu Dong mountain), the quality and flavor of the tea will be affected.

Song Zhong Tree

(IMAGE: The famed Song Zhong tree of Wu Dong Shan, approximately 600-800 years old and more than 20 feet tall.)

As a result of the diversity of these factors present in the tea-growing mountains of Chaozhou, there is an equally diverse range Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong teas. Knowing which one is which depends on knowing the distinctive flavor profile of each tea, of which there are literally hundreds.

Brew the tea the way it wants to be brewed

When brewing this mystery Dan Cong oolong, I chose to do so in the manner that is practiced in Chaozhou, using a small zhu ni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) yixing teapot and a relatively large proportion of leaves so as to produce an intense flavor and residual mouthfeel. I arrange the leaves in the teapot so as to allow them to expand to their full potential. The teapot is a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot, well-suited for these large, twisted leaves. For brewing the tea, I use water that has immediately come off of a boil, quickly pouring the water over the leaves, closing the pot, and pouring water over the vessel so as to super-heat the contents within. Steeping is a quick process: Once the water poured over the teapot evaporates I begin to pour the tea out (for a stronger, more astringent brew, I wait for the meniscus on the teapot’s spout to go from convex to concave, an indication that the leaves have begun to unravel and absorb the water).

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(IMAGE: A top-down view of the fang-gu teapot.)

Appreciate the color of the liqueur

Pouring out every last drop, the tea reveals itself in a bright, light green liqueur. Unlike many Dan Cong oolong, which produce a bright orange or even pinkish-hued brew, only a few teas from Chaozhou will have this color. Already my mind has begun to narrow-down the possibilities.

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(IMAGE: The light green liqueur of the “mystery tea” against the pale celadon cup.)

Savor the aroma and decipher the flavor

Lifting-up the small Taiwanese-produced Ru Yao (窑窯, Ru Kiln) celadon cup, the aroma is sharp and floral, slightly grassy and slightly sugary. Upon the first sip an intense sugar cane note is present, the texture of the liqueur is juicy, and the mouthfeel is slightly astringent, lingering long after I have finished the small portion in the cup.

Trying to decipher what tea type this is amongst the panoply of Dan Cong oolong is difficult. Each tea has its own distinct flavor profile, ranging from orange peel, bitter almond, pomelo, or the scent of ginger flower (just to name a select few). In this case, I was lucky to have been gifted a wonderful and odd tea: Ya Shi (, “Duck Shit”). Unlike what the name might imply, this tea is renown for its pleasant sugar cane flavor with distinctive subdued astringency. The name, as local legend states, came from a tea farmer who was so in love with his tea that he didn’t want to sell it and so gave it the not-so-savory name of Duck Shit. Needless to say, the tea is now quite popular and, evidenced during today’s brewing, quite delicious.

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(IMAGE: A view of the “mystery tea” revealed! Note the length of the leaves, the low oxidation (absence of red on the leaves), and the serrated edges of the leaves (typical of semi-wild teas).)

Continue the exploration

One of the joys of drinking tea is not always knowing what you will experience. Have you ever had a “mystery tea”? If so, I am curious to know more. What did it look like and, more importantly, what did it taste like? The good, the bad, the ugly… Share it all. It’s all part of the journey!

 

 

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Education, Oolong, Tea Tasting

One response to “Deciphering a mystery tea: a beginner’s guide to reading tea leaves

  1. Pingback: Friday Round Up: August 28th - September 3rd | Subscription Cafe

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