Tea and Wine

Blog tea wine
The tea on the left appears to be Japanese sencha green tea judging by the size of the cups and the dark green colour of the tea.

To introduce people to the world of fine teas, I have found it useful to show that there are parallels with fine wines.

For example, to describe tea, terms are borrowed from wine production such as terroir.

Terroir

Terroir is the idea that the place in which something is grown will affect the flavour, alongside factors such as rainfall, sunshine, humidity, altitude, soil, drainage, fog or mist etc.

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The farm where our black tea is grown. A lot of mist and dew at over 2000m above sea level.

 

Different tea growing regions specialise in particular kinds of tea, and the terroir has a strong effect on producing distinctive teas. The Wuyi mountains in China’s eastern Fujian province produce oolongs that have a “rock taste”, and are called rock teas, yan cha, because the tea farms in Wuyi are close to many large natural rock formations that result in a mineral-tasting tea. In Taiwan, mountains over 1000m that range to around 2700m above sea level are home to the world-famous high mountain oolong, gao shan cha. The distinctively fresh, and fragrant taste comes partly from the terroir: fog, a high elevation, rich soil, and plentiful sunshine and rain in Taiwan’s tea farms.

Like wine, tea is often aged. This is to improve or mellow flavours, and fine aged teas can achieve a high price by virtue of their ageing.

During tasting, tea is slurped over the tongue to open all flavours, rather as is done in wine tasting. With years of experience, people develop their palates to discern more and more flavours and complexity in tea. This is usually accompanied by a desire for a more concentrated and intense brew.

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A cup of pu’erh, which is Chinese fermented tea. The flavour was very earthy.

As with wine, tasting tea is very often done with great care. Each stage of a sip is important and tea drinkers pay attention to aroma (sometimes using a separate cup to smell from), and the viscosity and taste: whether the tea is more vegetal or earthy, more mineral or sweet, and this can become more detailed for some people who describe which vegetables, and which nuts a tea may be similar to. Traditionally the aftertaste is sometimes more important, to notice for example whether a tea will return a sweet flavour to the mouth after it is swallowed. Unlike wine drinkers, some tea drinkers are also interested in the experience of qi, which when referring to tea is basically a pleasant sensation of energy in the body after drinking tea. Qi is a concept that comes Taoism and Chinese traditional medicine, and refers to the belief in an essential energy in all things in the universe, but that can be experienced and used.

If you are looking for a non-alcoholic alternative, that is delicious and is very interesting, I encourage you to explore premium teas.

Tea Tasting and Talks at SOAS

Chessers Tea had the opportunity yesterday to give some talks at SOAS university in London about tea, Taiwan, and Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal population. The evening was a chance for university students to experience a wide variety of performances and speeches from different cultures and countries, as well as an opportunity to try food from Nigeria, Japan and sample our Taiwanese tea for free. Some memorable examples included a performance of Indian classical dance, an Aikido demonstration and music from West Africa. As well as presenting a talk, we also had a table with all of our teas, that allowed people to see and taste tea served in the gong fu style.

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A tale for October 

In a far away land in a bygone age, before any forms of modern comfort were available (no matches, nor gas fires and prior to the creation of electricity), the common form of daily transport was your own pair of good legs (the speed of your vehicle entirely depended on how strongly and fast your legs could carry you on). Mules and donkeys were used mostly for transporting goods, when the occasion arose they also carried the sick or the invalids from place A to B. These animals were considered as part of the workforce not luxury goods, but of course not every household possessed one.
There was a small farming village near a run-down town, where almost everybody was equally poor and some still poorer than the others. They worked by hand in their plots of land, from sunrise to sunset. Toiled as they were to make ends meet they often persevered with great difficulties. These villagers lived in mud huts as was frequently the case at the time. Their home (mud hut) was just as one would expect, made out of mud and straw. It was one open-plan room for all affairs: sitting, cooking, sleeping…all general indoor activities were catered for within the simple hut. Most of the villagers possessed very few valuable belongings or none, aside from a few clothes and several odd necessities, for instance, tools for farming, pots for cooking and minimal items used for eating. These were usually left on the earth floor.
One day, under the boiling hot sun, a farmer was digging and working hard in his land, for the sake of ease of addressing him in English, we will temporarily refer to him as Smith. Farmer Smith suddenly struck something hard in the soft soil he was working on, and carefully retrieved a half broken and chipped ceramic pot. To his mighty amazement there were silver coins in the pot. With a quick glance around himself to check if anyone was looking, he saw to his utter relief that no one was watching or working nearby. Quick as a flash, he hid the pot under his old worn out shirt and rushed back to his hut, which luckily for him, was just right in front of his tiny plot. After meticulously counting the number of silver coins, he found that there were 300 silver coins altogether in the pot. It was the equivalent of one hitting a 2015 Loterry jackpot. His heart ecstatically expanded with excitement but than a sudden violent wave of anxiety took hold of him: where can he hide his newly found fortune? Anxiously he looked around his hut for a place to hide them. Hard as he stared around, there were nowhere in his hut where could he store his silver. The only thing he could see were bare walls surrounding him. Then a stroke of genius came to him~ why not bury the silver coins in the wall? He swiftly dug a hole in the wall and emptied the entire contents of the pot into the wall, and followed this by replacing the mud firmly back on to the wall. Just as he was about to take a breath in relief, another nerve breaking thought occurred to him. His neighbours are bond to come to him in his hut; they may notice the wall, in fact they will see the mark that the wall had been re-filled and wonder if he had hidden something inside. He then had a new inspiration. Picking up his brush that was soaked in a tin of black ink, he wrote “There are no 300 silver coins buried in this wall.” Finally, he was at peace with himself.
Before long, one of his neighbours came to see him while he was not at home, again for the convenience of addressing this neighbour of his in English, we will perhaps call him neighbour Fred for the present, who on coming to visit, within a simple split second glance, could immediately see that farmer Smith was not in. On a second split second, he could hardly have missed the large strokes of brush writing left on the wall, even if he had tried. He thought to himself, of course there are not 300 silver coins buried in the wall. As he was about to turn his back to leave, he murmured again to himself, ‘But then, why should Smith have written so – unless there are?’ He took a few quick steps forward and quickly started digging. Instantly, he came across the silver coins that were buried in the wall. He hid them under his shirt that riddled with holes in a great haste, and hurried back to his own hut. His instinct told him to hide them urgently, but where? Pacing nervously around his bare hut quite a few times in quick succession, there was nothing that he could see that could hold the coins he now possessed from prying eyes. Than a stroke of genius came to him as it did to farmer Smith. Why, of course they can be buried in the wall. He congratulated himself on such good fortune as soon as the silver was covered in the wall and out of sight. But an horrid idea doomed on him simultaneously to his elation: his neighbouring farmers including farmer Smith may come to see him in his hut. In all likelihood they will see the mark on the wall that the wall had been newly filled in, and may – in fact will – question him if he had hidden something underneath. A thought came to rescue him in his misery, he picked up his brush which was soaking in a mini ceramic pot and walked out of his hut, and wrote over the entrance “I, Fred, an honourable man, did not take the 300 silver coins that were inside farmer Smith’s wall and hide them in the wall of my hut” on top of the entranceway to his hut in large stroke. That should settle the matter, he thought, and was pleased with himself.
Legend has it that this is the origin of the Chinese phrase ‘There are no 300 silver coins in this place’. The phase is still in use to this day, where Chinese is spoken, in nations such as Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia as well as China, where this legendary event happened, in all probability. Chinese speakers often use it when referring to or addressing someone who is trying to deny a minor crime that he had committed, declaring ‘there are no 300 silver coins in this place’, implying the person is in denial.

Dora Prosser (Chessers Tea)

Farmers’ Hands

The hands of a tea farmer, from hours spent in a strong sun doing manual work have large fingers, browned skin and many callouses.

Tea farmers are genuinely fascinating people, and most unexpectedly one feature of tea farmers that always caught my attention are their hands and mannerisms, as they present an interesting contrast. That tea farmers’ hands should be commonly browned from the sun and battered from their work is unsurprising. What is surprising is the delicacy and gentleness with which they pick up and consider any object under their attention. While their work is physical and difficult it also requires a discerning touch and care to select two leaves and a bud from a tea bush without damaging any leaves, which would make the sap come out and dry and oxidise the tea prematurely. Later, they observe individual leaves at different stages of processing as tea is made essentially according to a seasoned judgement and tried and tested experience, as opposed to timers or overly mechanised production. This contrast in rough but gentle pairs of hands is one that I found interesting and inspired my admiration.

The hands of the farmer of a tea farm although prematurely aged and feel like sandpaper are to be admired and respected. Beauty is not always obvious to the human eye.

Smalltalk Over Tea

Tea in Taiwan is often referred to as drinking “old man’s tea” (老人茶) because a few retired friends or family gathered together after a relaxing lunch will spend the entire afternoon drinking tea, chatting and snacking in the old days. Hence “old man’s tea”. The reason that we use Taiwan as an example is that the best quality oolong tea is grown there, and prepared under the skilful hands of well-experienced hosts.

In the modern day, “old man’s tea” is more often than not an affair of a few men sitting on a low table surrounding a pot of tea for hours of conversation but “old man’s tea” is no longer the privilege of the older man. You may see all ages of men and women drinking tea together inside their lounges or in special tea salons although children are given a very mild and diluted spring green tea but mainly snack on the goodies that go with tea.

If you ever have the chance to go to Taiwan, do please take up and enjoy the invitation to sit back with some cups of tea whenever you are invited (which is more likely than not), and you will be surprised by how many selections of tea snacks will be produced seemingly from nowhere, in packages or prepared by ever friendly hosts. It is also surprising how many (small) cups of tea can be poured over the course of an afternoon and we hope that with new or old friends, you will take part in keeping an old tradition, and enjoy lengthy conversation and good companionship.

Yixing teapot with two cups
Traditionally, a cup of tea is very tiny as seen in the picture, which is why people are able to keep drinking indefinitely, more or less.

Cultural Differences

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The way that people drink tea is interesting as on the one hand, it is part of daily life, but also savoured as a delicacy. Chessers Tea is a British company sourcing tea from Taiwan, and while travelling to different farms spending time with our Taiwanese farmers and friends, we saw a lot of differences in each culture’s approach to tea. What both have in common is that it’s an expected beverage for entertaining, and we both pay careful attention to its preparation.

In a British household, you will be asked,Would you like tea or coffee?”, in Taiwan “Would you like some tea?”, and while the Taiwanese leave everything to the host, British people are particular about how we like to be served tea. In Britain, when you say yes please you would like tea, you are then asked whether you would like milk, and how much sugar you want. You may even receive biscuits. (I’ve heard that Russians always serve tea with lots of things to eat, and serving tea alone is unheard of) In British cafés and restaurants, you receive the pot with milk and sugar separately so you can make your own tea to your taste. The experience is more interesting when scones with jam and cream come as the accompaniment. All the questions about origin and processing are irrelevant to us, as we think at most in terms of brands that we prefer.breakfast-463532_640 In Taiwan, the tea that is served in households is grown on the same island, and as the island is small, within just several hours driving distance from any other place in Taiwan. Taiwanese people sometimes even know the farmers personally, of whose tea they drink. The people we met on our trip were knowledgeable about how tea is grown, processed, and traditionally prepared, and enthusiastic to share their knowledge and experience.

However, no-one in Taiwan will ask you how you like your tea. Making tea is an art and it’s a matter of bringing out the flavours of the tea. At the same time, when preparing tea, you should aim to make it as you like it, and as I was told, if you like the tea, most people will also like it. From tasting other people’s teas, I would agree with this almost all the time.

teapot-680552_1280Drinking tea is a social activity in Taiwan, and different people drink tea at different times of the day. We were most commonly served tea in the evening after dinner. The Taiwanese have long tea drinking sessions, and the method of preparation lends itself to taking your time, and this allows for long conversations. Everyone gathers around the person making tea and drinks from small cups, which are constantly refilled.

Unlike the tea bag, or even loose leaf tea of poorer quality which make one or possibly two large mugs, the leaves in a teapot or gaiwan can be re-steeped sometimes over ten times, so that you actually always end up drinking tea more than drinking in western style. Taiwanese usually serve tea on its own so that its flavours and aromas can be fully appreciated.

It takes practice to make tea well, but that’s another post, how to make tea in the Taiwanese way.

Georgina

Welcome to Chessers Tea’s Blog

Welcome to Chessers Tea’s new blog. Here we will give updates about our tea, and in the future, our teaware selections; things that we noticed about the tea drinking culture in Taiwan and all sorts of other things about tea. We want you to share our passion for this wonderful beverage.

What is tea?

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One of the things which really struck me when I was first getting into tea was that tea itself is all made from the same plant, camellia sinensis (such as the rows of bushes in the tea farm above). All of the different kinds of tea therefore (green tea, black tea, oolong, pu’erh, etc.) are processed differently but are all essentially the same thing. I therefore found it really interesting that they can taste so different from each other. At the same time, a lot of things are called « tea » which are not therefore tea itself, such as fruit teas, herbal teas, rooibos and yerba mate. These are really « tisanes » or « infusions ». So, when we refer to tea, we will always mean the camellia sinensis plant.