|2005 Spring - Intro - Aojiru - Chinese Black Tea - Korean Tea - Therapeutic Tea
Black tea: Leaves wrapped in mystery
photography by Kazuhiko Suzuki
The popularity of Chinese black tea is soaring these days. To fathom why, we consulted local experts and learned its history; how it is grown, aged, and brewed; and why it is believed to harbor profound and promising health benefits. In Beijing's burgeoning tea salons, Chinese of all ages have new reasons to sip of this ancient tradition.
||Black tea leaves are pressed into forms and steamed to make bricks of various shapes and sizes.
Black tea basics
Since originating in China an unfathomable 4,000 years ago, tea has evolved into some 15,000 known varieties. Depending on how it is processed, tea falls loosely into six categories: white, yellow, green, oolong, red (known as black tea in the West), and black tea.
As the name implies, brewed black tea ranges from reddish brown to black in color. One of its unique characteristics is that it mellows with age and grows richer and deeper in flavor. Vintage teas are superlative, boasting flavors and aromas that conjure up the same adjectives used to describe fine wine or whiskey. One key difference, however, is that storing tea is simple: kept in a well-ventilated place, tea requires no temperature regulation. Unlike other teas, black tea comes in compressed cakes of various shapes and sizes (round, square, and even bamboo-like tubes). With the beginning of the tea and horse trade in the Tang dynasty (618-907), caking tea made it easier to weigh and transport to remote tribal villages.
||Like wine, these teas differ subtly in flavor and aroma depending on where they were grown and how long they have aged. Brewed black teas range from reddish brown to black in color.
Vintage tea trends
"Although tea-drinking has long been a global trend, interest in black tea has soared in the past two to three years," explains Shaojun Luo, chairman of the China National Center of Quality Supervision and Inspection of Tea. "China's well-to-do are passionate about buying black tea. Still, with such limited quantities produced, vintage black tea is very hard to come by."
Luo has been researching tea for 40 years now, and finds that no other tea has such profound and mysterious effects on human health. Last year she published the book All About Pu-erh Tea together with her daughter, tea critic Lu Yi.
Black tea is produced by steaming green tea and leaving it to ferment naturally. The process involves the workings of molds, such as aspergillus and penicillium, and in that respect is much like making cheese. But exactly what kind of chemical reactions occur in that microbial fermentation process? How do the chemical components change over time? And what long-term effects do they have on human health? There are still many unanswered questions.
Tea and Tibet
One of the main reasons black tea remains shrouded in mystery is that its history is different from that of other teas and, until recently, there has been little opportunity for research. The production of black tea is mentioned in Chinese local and court history, but no document covers it in deptheven the classic treatise on tea, Cha Jing (The Book of Tea) written by Lu Yu in 780, makes no mention of the term "black tea."
Although Sichuan is credited as the first main production district, the history of black tea is integrally linked to Tibet, Mongolia, and the Uyghur people of northwestern China. Here drinking black tea is synonymous with health and to go one day without it is to invite illness. The people of these regions drink a dozen or more cups throughout the day, and even have a saying that maintains "man can do without food for three days, but without tea, not for one."
"Black tea, which has long been vital to the health of China's ethnic minorities, can play a similar role in contemporary lifestyles," says Luo. "Meat and dairy form the core of the nomadic diet, with almost no fresh vegetables. These people have an unbalanced diet high in animal fat and protein and moreover, because they live at high altitudes with low air pressure and oxygen, they are exposed to five times more ultraviolet rays than those of us living closer to sea level."
"Nevertheless," Luo continues, "they have no cancer or other degenerative diseases. Normally under such conditions people would tire easily and be prone to headaches and generally poor health. However, by drinking black tea every day, these people maintain far healthier minds and bodies than the rest of us. It's phenomenal!"
China first: Black tea salons spring up
Beijing salon style
Like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, new tea salons are popping up all over Beijing. Tea salons are popular in Taiwan as well; however, they are slightly different in style. Because Chinese tea itself is so varied, tea salon menus are a diverse lot, reflecting a surprising range of originality. The interiors of these shops are also quite varied. Most tea salons, like bars, stay open late into the night and are popular with younger generations.
The tea salon Taiyuanfang specializes in Chinese black teas, offering 60 to 70 varieties including vintage teassome of which have aged more than 20 years. Owner Yu Jiaping works directly with tea growers in Yunnan province, visiting the region each year between April and May when the tea leaves are harvested.
"When we drink green tea we drink the chi of the freshly picked tea leaves," explains Yu. "Black tea, on the other hand, mellows with age and improves in flavor. In China we say that the grandfather plants and raises the tea bushes, the father harvests the tea, and the son finally gets to drink it."
She continues, "At the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing there is Pu-erh tea more than 100 years old known as 'Golden Pumpkin.' It has been declared a national treasurethe world's only drinkable national treasure. Time is something mystical and intangible. But it exists within black tea, and when we drink the tea we can indeed sense the passage of time."
Depending on where and how it was grown, and how long it has aged, brewed black tea differs in color and flavor. The art of enjoying these subtle differences involves surrendering your senses to the time within the tea. To Yu, this is the ultimate joy.
Tea salons in China stay open late into the night, functioning as places for people to gather. Taiyuanfang features several small private rooms, as seen in the photograph below at left. Each is furnished with different styles of tea tables and chairs. Here, customers can spend a relaxed evening playing weiqi (go) and other board games, or reading books while, of course, sipping tea.
In addition to traditionally steeping in hot water, black tea can also be enjoyed as milk tea by warming it together with milk, or by adding rose or chrysanthemum petals (as shown on page 99) to lace it with floral scents and flavors. The Tibetans traditionally drink black tea mixed with butter and salt.
The Beijing tea salon Taiyuanfang opened in April 2000. Owner Yu Jiaping is a great black-tea aficionado and drinks as many as seven or eight varieties of black tea a day. The salon features small private rooms with comfortable cushions and an area displaying the shop's collection of black teas.
1/F, Sino-Chem Mansion
A2 Fuxingmenwai Dajie, Beijing
Open daily 10 AM to 12 PM
Articles from the 2005 SPRING issue:
Kateigaho International Edition Issues:
2005 SUMMER - 2005 SPRING - 2005 WINTER
2004 AUTUMN - 2004 SUMMER - 2004 SPRING - 2004 WINTER
2003 AUTUMN - INAUGURAL ISSUE