Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
China is to tea what France is to wine. The tea bush Camellia sinensis (meaning Chinese varietal) is named in honor of tea’s ancient country of origin. The varieties of teas coming from China are virtually countless, and some estimates reach 8,000 to 10,000. With such a vast array of teas grown and produced in 16 different regions, China is the world’s largest tea producer. While Sri Lanka and Kenya with their giant tea estates export more leaf tonnage, China still supplies 18 percent of world tea exports.
Tea bushes in the high altitudes of many mountainous regions in China stop growing during the cold winter months and start to flush again with new growth in the early spring. The harvest season in China runs from March to late September, and the best teas are made from leaf buds and leaves gathered in the spring from high mountain areas.
The names by which different Chinese teas are sold can be confusing. Names may give information about the garden where the tea grew, the time of year the leaves were picked, the village or province of origin, the method of manufacture, added flavors, or perhaps a legend. Unlike the larger tea estates of the Indian subcontinent, Chinese tea gardens are often small, family-owned plots or tea cooperatives where leaves from many growers are collected for processing. The skills needed for tea manufacture are passed down from one generation to another, and many of China’s finest teas continue to be made by hand.
Start your collection of Chinese tea with these legendary varieties:
Silver Needle (also Yin Zhen or Yin Shen)
Produced in Fujian province, this exquisite white tea is made only from new buds that are picked before they start to open. The neatly pointed silver buds stand upright in the water to give a pale yellow liquor that is smooth, sweet, and extremely elegant. This ancient tea is quite expensive, but it can yield multiple infusions.
Lung Ching (also Longjing)
China’s best-known green tea is often called Dragon Well after the village where it originates in the Zhejiang province. President Richard Nixon drank this tea in a nearby guesthouse during his historic visit here with Mao Tse–tung. The finest-quality Lung Ching consists of hand-plucked young shoots that are withered, fired in a wok, and flattened by the skilled hands of a master tea artisan.
Ti Kuan Yin (also Ti Guan Yin or Tieguanyin)
Probably the most renowned Chinese oolong, this aromatic and deeply nuanced tea comes from central Fujian province. It is named Goddess of Mercy in honor of a legendary statue that stood in a temple near the tea’s origin. The slightly twisted leaves unfurl to release a honey-colored liquor and an orchidlike aroma. The tea yields multiple infusions.
This shiny black tea is named after the area where it is produced—Qimen in Anhui province. Keemuns come in different grades, but all have a similar jet black appearance and are often used as a base for flavored teas. Many American blenders also use this tea in their English Breakfast blends because it binds well with milk. The coppery brew has a sweet floral aroma and a satisfying, rich, winey flavor with a bit of earthiness.
Puerh (also Pu Erh or Pu-erh)
Named after the Yunnan province market town where the teas have been traded for hundreds of years, Puerh teas have an earthy, mature character and are said to be excellent for the digestion. This region produces rich and woody teas with an earthy nose. Puerh teas are both oxidized and fermented before being allowed to age in special conditions that build a moldy characteristic not unlike that of blue cheese. It is one of the few tea varieties that get better, and more valuable, with age.
Bruce Richardson is coauthor of The New Tea Companion. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.