The fine tea world is a treasure trove of discovery. As beguiling and complex as any wine or spirit, this enchanting liquid steeped in history can be incredibly confusing to master. Holly Motion talks to a handful of fine tea aficionados about why it's well worth investing the time
After speaking with some of the foremost fine tea experts in the western world, a few things are immediately apparent. Fine tea is complex. There are undoubtedly parallels with the world of fine wine. And, almost without exception, the best examples are incredibly hard to source this side of Asia. It is also an incredibly tricky subject to learn more about if you, like me, don’t speak Chinese or Japanese.
A quick stroke of the key will yield information on fine tea and where to find it. But your best bet is either boarding a plane to Asia (which is currently not without its difficulties) or finding somebody who has spent years immersing themselves in the fine tea world – they’ll likely speak the local dialect.
“People are very literate when it comes to fine wine and whisky,” Jameel Lalani is quick to tell me, “not so literate when it comes to tea, although it is completely applicable.”
When he set up his specialist single-batch tea business, Lalani & Co, 11 years ago, Lalani was very deliberate in borrowing the language of fine wine.
“Tea is much like wine,” he explains, “it’s a drink of the terroir. Everything you do from when you choose the land and the seeds and the people you are going to work with is going to affect the flavour.” The choice of varietal, distance above sea level and picking season are also of the utmost importance.
Lalani says tea is his drink, and has been since the age of four. He hasn’t looked back since tasting green tea for the first time while holidaying in North Africa as a child.
One of the magical things about fine tea, I’m learning, is the paths people have taken into it.
Burgundy expert and Master of Wine Jasper Morris, for example, was introduced to the world of fine tea in New Zealand, of all places, by a blind Taiwanese winemaker. From that day onwards, Morris attended Chinese tea ceremonies and swotted up on all things fine tea whenever the opportunity arose on wine trips to China and Japan.
“I absolutely love it and drink it all day – from first getting up through to after dinner,” he enthuses. Fine tea is now a real passion of his, frequently hosting tasting and writing on the subject.
Timothy d’Offay’s induction began while studying Japanese in Kyoto in the early 1990s. He’s been a disciple ever since – writing numerous fine tea books (in English and Japanese) and establishing one of the most highly regarded fine tea shops, Postcard Teas, in the process. Many years later, d’Offay says he is still learning, and it’s one of the things he loves most about the fine tea world.
“It’s so disconnected,” d’Offay says. “Whereas specialty coffee is a world industry now and you can drink a similar product with a similar style in Sydney, Seoul, London or San Francisco, tea isn’t like that. Tea is very, very regional and very local. The predominant sales of the fine teas are local, in China in particular.
“And the Chinese tea world is so different from even other countries like Japan that get their tea culture originally from China. It’s so vast.”
Yasuo Takada, tea grower and maker, Kawane, Shizuoka, Japan. ©Michael Freeman
Morris says things we have learned from wine – soil, subsoil, drainage etc – matter a great deal in fine tea. “In the Wuyi Mountains, for example, each individual mountain has its own character,” he explains, “so the underlying rock is crucial. Then also, instead of the grape variety, the cultivar of tea can make a difference as well. How and when you pick it – again a parallel – and how and when you process it.”
D’Offay says wine and tea are both at the pinnacles – wine in the west, tea in the east – and despite the groundswell of appreciation for fine tea, many still struggle to shake misconceptions and get their heads around the complexities. “You’re always learning,” he says.
“Probably the biggest barrier people have is a concept of what tea is,” Morris adds. “If somebody says black tea to you, they probably mean they don’t want milk in it, but there is a style of tea which we loosely call black. In fact, in China it’s more likely to be called red tea than black tea – that sort of dark tea – but there are white teas, yellow teas (which are pretty rare), red teas, green teas, and a lot depends on the season things are picked.
“So, if, for example, we switch from China to India to Darjeeling. Darjeeling is in fact a type of tea which is much much more similar to Chinese tea than it is to the rest of Indian tea. If you get a first flush Darjeeling, it’s almost almost not quite a green tea, and that’s a tea that I adore and buy in big quantities.”
Another hangover from old is the misconception surrounding price and what one should pay for quality.
“One of the challenges in the tea world is that the mass market has demanded tea at a very low price,” Lalani says. “Some of these terroirs are phenomenal but the market says we want our tea cheap and quick. And that’s kind of like if you went to Bordeaux and you said I’d like your wine for €3.60 a bottle. What are you going to do? It doesn’t give you enough room. So what happens is the quality just goes down because you have to produce in quantity.”
When purchasing fine tea, there are good resources online but d’Offay cautions: “Buyer beware.” Some enthusiasts, he explains, have a vested interest and commercial gains tied to your purchase.
“The more you pay doesn’t mean that you’ll like the tea more. It’s very important to find out what you like first, before spending a lot of money online.”
He says there is no right thing, just like with wine. “It’s a wide field and often your taste will not coincide with somebody else’s, so it’s really important to taste a lot of tea and find out what you like.”
On this, Morris says it’s the same as when buying wine. “You just need to be buying it from somebody you trust – both for their taste and their integrity. Then let them guide you down the learning curve. And as with wine, there are some brilliant teas which may just not suit your palate.”
Teapickers walking back to Houkeng village, producing Kou Hui (Monkey' King) green tea, nr Huangshan, Anhui, China. ©Michael Freeman
If you are interested in getting into tea, d’Offay advises spending more money on tea and less money on the tea-making equipment.
“You really need very basic tea equipment,” he explains. For Chinese teas, d’Offay says a Gaiwan – lidded cup – or a simple brewer is a good starting point. Porcelain, he says, is quite robust and glass is ok. You don’t, for example, need Yixing (the exquisite teapot pronounced yee-shing) to start with. He says he did a tasting with some “pretty good teas” with two mugs and a strainer recently. But is quick to add: “I’m not recommending that everyone brews in one mug and strains in another mug, but it is better than wasting a lot of money on really fancy stuff.”
It’s always a good idea to ask questions and look for certain things when purchasing fine tea, Lalani says.
“Most of the tea that gets produced gets blended – it will be picked, it will be sold to a brand, they will blend it up and it will sit on a shelf somewhere with their brand on it and that’s it. You may know where it’s from, for example, you might know what you’re buying is a Darjeeling, you may know the season – they might tell you it’s a first flush or a second flush. But it could be a blend of any number of different batches. It could be a blend of any number of different producers. It could be a blend of any number of different vintages. So the less information they give you, the less you know what’s in it.”
Taking the time to make an educated purchase is a vital step, so too is the time spent learning how to prepare tea correctly. For this, Lalani has the shorthand: leaf, dose, temperature, time, decant.
“Like with any of your passions, it’s going to take a bit longer,” he explains. “If you want to get a suit made, you can’t walk out with it the same day – you’ve got to wait six to eight weeks but it’s worth it. If you want to get into fine wine, you’re going to need some better glassware, you’re going to need temperature-controlled storage and you’re going to need to invest your time in a bit of knowledge.”
He continues: “When you get into chocolate, you can’t buy it for 50 pence a bar, you’ve got to pay £5 to £10 a bar for a craft-made chocolate – another one of my passions – and it’s worth it.
"So, with tea, you can’t brew the bag – excuse my language – in hot water for 10 seconds, but it only takes three to five minutes to do it well – less time than it takes to make a cocktail. But it’s worth it and the rewards are enormous.”
We second that.
Tea maker Fang Shou Long, Taimushan, Fujian. ©Michael Freeman
Everything you need to know about purchasing and preparing fine tea
Location, location, location: When it comes to buying tea, you need to know where it was grown – particular regions have particular styles. It’s also important to know the producer and the name of the garden.
Seasons matter: Tea is grown pretty much all year round. A leaf picked in the premium spring season is going to be better than a leaf picked in the rainy season. As a quick rule of thumb, look for things like first flush, second flush or spring season. It’s usually the early part of the year when you get the better quality. This is true of Japan, Taiwan and India.
Vintage picks: Look for the vintage. This will give you some indication if you should be drinking it young and fresh or aged. Some teas, like the first flush season Darjeeling, are best when young and fresh –drink them as quickly as you can. Some teas, like certain white teas or oolongs from Taiwan, are great if aged. If you buy them young, you’d expect to buy them at a young price, but then if they’ve been intentionally aged, then their value – and price – will increase. So you might buy something from 2015 or 2000 or 1998, for example, where you’ll be paying a premium, but it has been aged and likely improved in flavour.
Brewing to perfection: A useful shorthand for how to prepare your tea is leaf, dose, temperature, time, decant. It’s important you follow the instructions regarding the volume of leaves and temperature of water the particular tea you have purchased requires (on many modern kettles you can set the temperature, making this element very simple). There should be ample information about this on the packaging. Lalani wholeheartedly recommends purchasing precision scales to ensure you have the precise quantity of leaves every time. Balance scales cost circa £10.
Essential kit: While d’Offay says a temperature-controlled kettle isn’t a must to start with, Lalani suggests it’s a worthwhile purchase at approximately £40. Both say you should be mindful with lower-temperature teas and ensure it’s the desired strength and taste. Lalani also thinks a single-pour tea pot is a wise investment. The Alethea, sold at Lalani & Co, is a beautiful and practical single-serving vessel.
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