Chinese Tea


Kashmiri Pink Chai

Kashmiri Pink Chai

Chai–sweet, caffeinated, and exotically spicy–is a massively popular drink, and only getting more so as time goes on. So, what actually is it? You order a chai at Starbucks and walk off with what tastes like sixteen ounces of sugar syrup, just like everything else there, and all you can be sure of is that it involves sugar, milk, and possibly tea? Some brown liquid, anyway. But that’s why you have me, because you don’t have time to spend all afternoon figuring out what you’re drinking, and that’s what I’m being paid to do. So here’s what I found out for you today:

Chai is short for masala chai, which means “spiced tea” in Hindi. The earliest masala chai wasn’t a real tea drink at all, it was a drink made of a number of spices chosen for their Ayurvedic medical benefits, as a medicine for a king. As the mythical invention of chai is said to be before the mythical discovery of tea (both supposedly at least 5000 years ago), and substantially before tea was widely drunk in India (cultivation began in the 1830s, and it was almost all exported until the beginning of the twentieth century), tea was not one of those spices. The connection between the original masala chai and the current drink is largely in the name.

Modern chai got its start in the early twentieth century, when the huge British tea producers in India finally saturated their markets in Europe and had to start looking for new ones. Tea had not been grown in India until the British started their plantations, so it wasn’t something the Indians were in the habit of drinking. The producers started encouraging the locals to drink the stuff they spent all their time making, giving the factory workers tea breaks and encouraging people to set up tea vending stands. The producers were hoping the tea vendors would sell tea in the British style, with tea lightly flavored with milk and sugar, but the tea vendors soon began cutting their tea with spices, since tea was more expensive than cardamom and the like. It may also have been to improve the flavor; as the story goes, the high quality tea was being exported, and the Indian factory workers couldn’t have afforded it anyway, so the tea being sold by the vendors was of poor quality. The spices made their tea tastier.

In the nineteen sixties, chai got another boost in popularity in India with the invention of CTC processing. This dropped the price substantially, making it affordable to more people in India. It also worked well with chai, because CTC creates particularly powerful black tea. You may have seen it, it looks almost like coffee grounds, and produces a drink that’s nearly as strong! The strong flavors of CTC tea cuts through the milk and spices, so the tea can still be tasted. The flavor balance issue causes an odd realigning of priorities in chai. High quality teas are made to have gentle, smooth flavors, nothing harsh to shock the palate. But if you tried this with chai, the tea would be impossible to taste, overwhelmed by the milk and spices. So even in affluent situations chai is often made with relatively low-quality tea. What works alone and what works in blends are remarkably different!

The basic chai recipe is strong black tea, milk, sweetener, and spices. Usually the tea is a strong Assam, the kind of thing used in English Breakfast blends, often the CTC I mentioned above. The spice blend shifts depending on where the chai is being made and what the tea maker likes, but cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon are usually present. In general Indian blends emphasize cardamom, and American ones emphasize cinnamon. Almost anything can be put in, though, including ginger, anise, fennel, pepper, saffron, salt, and even almonds! The almonds are a favorite in a northern variant, the Kashmiri chai that we sell. It’s based on green tea instead of black, something strong and Chinese like gunpowder or hyson. It’s turned pink either by saffron or by messing with the pH balance during the brewing process. It has a gentler and richer flavor than the more common black tea chai. And a more exciting color, obviously.

Whew, I had no idea chai had such an involved history. We can all order our chai with a whole new level of smugness, wait sorry confidence, I meant confidence. Go forth and get all confident at your chai, now!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

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Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Lichee Black TeaA hot cup of tea. That’s the basic, right? You take your tea leaves, you soak them in boiling water until a reasonable amount of caffeine has come out, and you inhale that sucker as soon as it cools enough not to scorch you. Then you stare at the computer screen, decide you still don’t feel awake, and repeat the process. Wait, is that just me?

OK, I don’t do that (always). Being the cultured tea snob that I am, I would of course never put boiling water on a delicate tea leaf. Near boiling, perhaps, for a hearty black, but that’s all. And for your more delicate greens, water down to 160 or even 140 degrees might be wise. And then if you want it iced, which you probably do in the summer heat, you drop ice in until it’s cold. But does the water have to be that hot? As you’ve probably guessed, I wouldn’t have asked the question if the answer was yes.

Heat speeds up and strengthens chemical reactions. So heat in your water makes your tea steep faster, and it lets the water drag some larger molecules out of the leaf, but the action will still happen, even with quite cold water. Here at the tea shop we need things to happen fairly quickly, since people are lining up at the register, so we usually make iced tea by making a normal pot of tea and then applying ice and refrigerators until it’s at proper iced tea temperature, but at home I usually make my iced tea by putting leaf in room temperature water, then putting it in the fridge to steep overnight. This is called cold-brewing. My mother has a middle approach; she puts the leaf and water in a large clear jug out in the sun all afternoon, so the water is warmed up by the sun, and making what is called ‘sun tea’, but doesn’t get up to normal steeping temperatures unless you live in a seriously toasty climate. All three approaches make very tasty and very different cups of tea.

There are two things that change when you change your brewing temperature:

First, is time needed. You exchange water heat for steeping time. So tea brewed with boiling water is done in three minutes, my mom’s sun tea is done in four or five hours, and I pour a glass of my fridge tea after eight to ten hours (although some people will cold brew for as few as four and like it that way. Experiment and see what you like). If you want to try cold-brewed tea, you must plan ahead of time!

Second, the flavor changes. Cold water can’t get the big molecules loose from the tea leaves, so the tea you end up with tastes different. The most distinct change is that cold-brewed tea is less bitter than normally brewed. Less of the caffeine is dissolved in the cold water and caffeine, a strongly bitter chemical, is the primary reason that tea has a bitter flavor. Cold-brewed tea is often comparatively sweet, and sometimes surprisingly floral. If you’re not sure you’ll like that, try the method on small batches of types of tea you haven’t tried it on before. Conversely, an already sweet tea will often make an excellent cold-brew, since it supports and emphasizes the flavor profile that the tea was designed for. This effect is also great for cheap tea, since any overwhelming bitter or sour flavors will be softened, giving you a fairly tasty and undemanding drink. My mother makes her sun tea with whatever bags are cheapest and come in the largest box at the grocery store, and it’s lovely, especially with a bit of fresh mint.

So, you can have your tea without having to turn your stove on in the middle of this summer’s ubiquitous heatwaves! At least, you can by tomorrow. Set it to steep now, and go see a movie in an air-conditioned theater, you’ll have tea when you get back.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Assam Black Tea - Cream of AssamTea does not grow in England, or anywhere near it. In fact, it grows so far away that when tea first became popular there it took a year to get the tea from it’s source, China, to the teacups of European enthusiasts. The early imports were mostly green tea, too–not well known for it’s ability to travel and resist staleness–since that was what was popular in China. The British Empire never felt compelled to do things the easy way, though.

Tea’s popularity in the west started in mainland Europe, as one of the many curiosities Dutch merchants brought back from abroad. It came to Britain when Charles II married a Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. She loved tea and continued to drink it after her marriage, and this particular royal fashion slowly spread through the country. It started showing up everywhere, mostly in coffeehouses, another recent fashion from the east, if not so far east, which had gotten a quicker start off the blocks. The tea fashion moved more slowly, but it did move. By 1686 tea was widely sold in Britain.

Various shifts in trade around the 1720s made tea a more appealing import for the shipping companies, and tea established itself in British tea and society. No, wait, I’m losing the fight against this pun. Steeped itself in British society. Ouch, ouch, only throw soft fruit! OK, while we were messing around with lowbrow humor Britain’s gone wild for tea, buying it legally, illegally, cut with sawdust, anything to get their daily cup of tea.  But after a century of this things come to an abrupt halt.

Tensions between China and Britain went seriously south, and China shut off all trade in the early 1830s. The government started up the Opium Wars, the populace flailed about, getting tea from wherever it could, and businessmen took trips to the colonies. India was firmly in British possession, and had a lovely warm climate, a population that the British felt no qualms about exploiting, and tea plants growing wild. The East India Company threw its weight behind growing tea on British land. It was a brilliant idea even without the difficulties with Chinese trade. The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

By the time the tea plantations were up and running Britain had w0n the war (or round one, at least), and imports were coming from China again. But the new plantations were designed for large scale industrial production and export,  and when Indian tea hit British markets, in the 1850s, it was cheap and plentiful and tea’s popularity went wild. Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, added its supply in the 1880s, and cheap, strong, black tea became one of Britain’s most popular drinks. This is when afternoon tea came into existence; legend says it was invented by the Duchess of Bedford, who needed a snack to tide her over between lunch and a fashionably late dinner. Tea shops also sprung up at this time, two hundred years after the coffeehouse craze hit the streets. Tea culture in Britain had finally taken on its modern form

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

The industrial revolution was in full swing, creating a middle class and filling their houses with things that had once been luxuries for the rich, fine china and crystal wine glasses and exotic foreign imports, like tea.

China Trip The sun’s coming out in cheering, treacherous bursts that drop a cloudburst on your head when you’re in the middle of enjoying the non-winter weather, and the Easter candy just got marked way down: it’s definitely spring. But there’s more to spring  than cheap jellybeans and alarming weather. There’s new tea. There are people picking fresh leaves off tea bushes as you read this, sending them on their way to become new drinks for us.

In India, especially down south, the jungle climate is so good on plants that there are tea harvests all the time, literally constantly in some places. That pace isn’t possible farther north, though. In China and Japan and even Darjeeling, still inside the Indian borders, they have temperate climates with winters and springs, and spring is when the harvest starts.

Tea, especially high quality tea, is the newest, youngest leaves on the bushes, often picked after only a few weeks of existence. In white teas, and the occasional green, you can often still sea the downy covering on buds that never grew into full leaves. These downy teas, like Silver Needle and Snow Bud and Bi Lo Chun, are the first ones picked, often even before the Qing Ming festival in early April which is the official Chinese start of spring, which was just this week.

After Qing Ming harvesting goes into full swing. High grade and delicate teas are both often considered best when made with very young, tender leaves. In China people spend shocking amounts of money on the earliest Dragonwells. Japanese tea enthusiasts wait all year for shincha–literally “new tea”–season, when the fresh new senchas are sent out, powerful, aggressively flavored teas that I highly, highly recommend you don’t steep for more than a minute and a half. Darjeeling, still maintaining some of the year-round Indian tea schedule, makes rounded and mature summer or ‘second flush’ teas, but their bright, astringent, almost green first flushes are still a favorite for a lot of people.

Spring teas are strong and fresh, waking you up like the nearly-forgotten sun first thing in spring; sweet and delicate, like the first moments that the air gets warm enough to go out without a jacket, and just as fleeting. That kind of freshness can’t last for long, and the value of it can be drowned out as all the other plants we spend all winter waiting for start to be harvested. The year’s first cup of new tea is as important as the morning’s first cup of any tea that has some freaking caffeine in it; pay attention.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Cream of AssamAssam! Tropical paradise, assuming you like 103 degree heat and 100% humidity, which tea plants do. Well, not all tea plants. Let’s go back to the beginning, by which I mean the beginning of Assam’s commercial tea production. Before the 1830s tea plants grew wild in Assam, a river valley in the northeastern part of India, and some locals would make a drink out of them, but it all seems to have been fairly low-key. But then the British noticed.

The British Tea Industry in India

At the time, Britain had a problem. They were swiftly developing a tea addiction like yours and mine, but Japan was closed off and uninterested in much trade, China was charging through the nose and not exporting much, and tea didn’t grow anywhere else, as far as they knew. Discovering that tea could grow in a newly conquered corner of India made the Brits flail and jump up and down and make high-pitched squealing noises. Well, maybe not that much, but they were very excited, and immediately started setting up for commercial tea production there.

At first they tried to grow Chinese plants, on the grounds that the domesticated and long cultivated plants would make better tea than the wild local variety. Unfortunately for them, those plants had been cultivated to thrive in a different climate, and the Chinese plants didn’t do well. After more than a decade of beating their heads against that particular brick wall the estate owners finally accepted the inevitable and started growing the local plants, called the Assamica varietal, and hybrids of the Chinese and Assamica plants. Production exploded, and by the 1850s they were making a profit and exporting massive amounts of tea.

The Tea ItselfAssam Halmari

The tea was more bitter than the Chinese teas, because the Assamica varietal has more caffeine than the Chinese plants do, and caffeine has a bitter flavor, but this worked out. Even though the prices were lower now that the British could grow their own tea and not pay the Chinese monopoly prices, it still cost a lot of money to get tea from Asia to Europe, so they lowered the cost per cup by cutting their tea with milk. The more bitter, robust Assam teas stand up much better to milk than the smooth Chinese styles, and everything worked out properly in the end. Back in India, since all the good tea was being exported, the locals put spices as well as milk in their tea, to mask the low quality flavor, and invented chai masala, the spiced tea drink that’s so popular now.

The Current State of Things

Fast forward to now, and life is pretty good for Assam tea growers. The British have gone home, people aren’t working in conditions quite as bad as they were back during the industrial revolution, and the machinery advances during and since said revolution have massively increased yields. Assam now exports more tea than any other region in the world, and is expanding beyond its traditional domain of black teas into green and white teas, although it doesn’t go for the complicated, more artisanal types of teas that come out of China. Assam’s roots as a major commercial exporter show strongly today. It’s the rare breakfast blend that doesn’t include Assam black tea, as well as your standard black blends, although Kenya is the new Assam, in that it exports massive amounts of black tea to feed the Western world’s caffeine habit. Assam is still making a third of the world’s tea, though, so it isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

Lu An Gua Pian

Lu An Gua Pian

Classy teas are all made of the delicate, downy, newly budded tips of the tea branches, right? Apparently not, because Lu An Gua Pian has a giant reputation, and part of the processing, um, process is that they go through and pick out all the buds. The leaves are then rolled into rough cylinders, so that they look kind of like seeds, or at least they did to someone after they’d spent enough hours lazing around a teahouse, eating sunflower seeds and having cups of this tea.

What’s going on with that name? It keeps changing.

That’s how it was supposedly named. I know, I know, shocking, the tea is named after the shapes of the leaves, and when I tell you that Lu An is the county where most of it is grown then you’ll just be picking you jaw up off the floor, no one ever named a tea that way before! This name has a cool little story behind it, though. The English name is Little Melon Seed, which is supposedly a pretty direct translation, and that’s not right, didn’t I say it was named for sunflower seeds? Yes. I’m given to understand that the word for sunflower seed in Chinese is “gua zi pian,” melon seed is “gua pian,” so that the current name is a shortening of the original. None of the people who speak Chinese are in the shop right now, though, so I can’t corroborate this. Anyone out there on the net have enough Chinese to give me an informed opinion?

How long has it been around?

Next point of contention, how old this type of tea is. And it is, of course, a point of contention. Opinions are split on whether it was mentioned in the Cha Jing, written in the eighth century, or not invented until a millenium later, during the Qing Dynasty. Now the first one is difficult, because it is named for the shape of the leaves, and tea was not drunk in whole-leaf form at the time. But the second date is also problematic, because it is supposed to be a Ming tribute tea, which it could hardly have been if it hadn’t been invented yet. Its reputation certainly seems like it should have more than three centuries behind it; Lu An Gua Pian is regularly mentioned in the ever authoritative and ever protean list of China’s Ten Famous Teas.

The more I learn, the less I think I know.

I hate to just say that I have a lot of information, but it’s all uncertain. It seems so un-blog-like. I need more information than I have, though! Help me out, Gentle Readers, do any of you have solid information supporting one of the sides? Anyone read the Cha Jing? Seen a decent English translation of it that they could direct me towards? I can’t go around putting my name to uncertain information on the internet!

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff

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