Seven Cups https://sevencups.com Fine Chinese Tea Tue, 01 Sep 2015 23:51:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Quality Tea-Achieving Assam’s Full Potential in Tea https://sevencups.com/2015/08/quality-tea-achieving-assams-full-potential-in-tea/ https://sevencups.com/2015/08/quality-tea-achieving-assams-full-potential-in-tea/#comments Thu, 20 Aug 2015 22:05:58 +0000 https://sevencups.com/?p=18675 Assam is the tea-growing region that can best benefit from establishing quality standards. Known as the world’s largest tea producing region for its commodity tea, it may be hard to imagine that Assam is capable of making some of the best tea in the world.

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*This article was published in the Assam Tea Planters Magazine for their annual meeting in August 2015

Standards defining tea quality

Tasting Chinese Tea At TRA
Tasting Chinese Tea At TRA

The International Specialty Tea Association was founded this year with the initial goal of publishing standards that define specialty tea. Standards establish a threshold of tea quality for the most skillfully made teas that give meaning to the label “specialty tea.” Once defined, the association will establish a process to objectively evaluate tea quality using these standards. The process can be learned and shared by producers and customers. The intent is to negate “false value” and chaos due to marketing solely to benefit tea merchants.

Assam is the tea-growing region that can best benefit from establishing quality standards. Known as the world’s largest tea producing region for its commodity tea, it may be hard to imagine that Assam is capable of making some of the best tea in the world. Instead of CTC prices that hover slightly above the cost of production, Assam growers are capable of fetching some of the highest prices per kilo in the world. I know this is possible. I have seen in done in the recent past.

China as a case study

China is a useful model for comparison because Chinese tea production in the 1980s was similar to that of

Handmade Assam Organic Black Tea
Handmade Assam Organic Black Tea

Assam today.

Marketing claims aside, China has not always been a maker of quality tea. The Chinese tea industry went through many destructive cycles, beginning with the first Opium War in the 1840s and continuing until the industry’s complete destruction during World War II. When WWII ended a Civil War followed. The tea industry was reimagined not with an emphasis on quality, but a focus on producing a large quantity of tea for the masses. Land was cleared and tea was planted according to a commodity model. This newly instituted style produced inferior tea. As result, Chinese tea (at least that which has reached the international market) is still stigmatized as inferior by many international merchants.

Things changed in the 1990s because of two significant changes to the Chinese system. The first was a policy that allowed private for-profit companies. The second (and most significant in establishing quality) was the adoption of standards for the tea industry. These changes encouraged producers to work toward a measurable goal – and a means to judge whether or not that goal was reached. Money rewarded quality — a reward that came hand-in-hand with the emergence of stronger middle class purchasing power in China.

Organic Asssam Green Tea
Organic Asssam Green Tea

Today the average price for tea in China is 20 times greater than the average price in India. Perhaps even more important is that the average wage for a tea worker in China is 10 times greater than for Indian tea workers. It should be noted too that China is supporting five times as many workers. Growing and making tea is a labor-intensive process requiring considerably more workers to achieve quality results.

It doesn’t take a great deal of statistical imagination to recognize the potential benefit to the world market. Currently that market is estimated anywhere from $50-$90 billion per year and is composed primarily of commodity tea. It is not difficult to imagine quality tea taking only one percent of the market with an average price of $100 per kilo (currently the average price in China.) What if that 1% could be expanded to 10%? This is achievable. Imagine earnings from quality tea that one day eclipse that from commodity tea.

India can lead a revolution in the international market… beginning in Assam. Indian tea holds a special allure for tea drinkers. The price to quality ratio is unfairly skewed in favor of export teas but within India Darjeeling is only one of many delightful teas.

There have been few opportunities to compare India’s best with Chinese tea (which rarely exits China) but the most exquisite selections have only been available to the broader Chinese domestic market for only the last five or six years.

China’s is on the verge of dramatic change during the next five years because, for the first time in Chinese

Assam Tea Bush
Assam Tea Bush

history, the Chinese government will start to actively promoting the export of quality Chinese tea internationally. Xi Jinping, China’s president has ordered Chinese economy to a return to the spirit of the Ancient Silk Road. In other words, China is intent on exporting its best products and moving towards quality product production. There will be a conference in October of this year in China to discuss how tea will fit in to this picture.

The Chinese are currently working hard to review and upgrade their standards. They are coordinating with the ISO in this regard for formal recognition. The head of the Chinese government department that sets standards for Chinese tea gave the International Specialty Tea Association its complete support in February of this year. I have also been asked to write a paper offering my opinions in my capacity as an advisor to the Chinese International Tea Culture Institute for the October conference. The conference will be held in Wenzhou — a symbolic city, the richest city in China’s richest province.

 The promise of Assam

So let me bring this discussion back to Assam. I don’t need to restate the problems that Assam currently faces, as they are all very familiar to the reader. Let me talk instead about what I think makes Assam an untapped tea chest of treasure.

Assam Garden
Assam Garden

The first asset is the incredible skill applied to tea garden management, evident within the first five minutes of stepping onto Raj Barooah’s tea estate. What I saw were acres and acres of perfectly pruned bushes, many of them ancient. In my many years in the best gardens of China, I’ve never seen a garden cared for as well and with such effort applied to the growing of tea.

Secondly, Assamese cultivars are the richest cultivars in the world with a bounty of tea polyphenols, the ingredients in tea that are most potent in promoting health. This is a powerful advantage in penetrating the multi-trillion dollar wellness market.

Third, because of the richness of tea polyphenols, Assam tea has the most robust taste of any tea in the world. It is more than fantasy to imagine that a very rich black tea can be produced with out bitterness using different tea making techniques. Currently tea is being produced a several hundred miles directly to the east in Yunnan from similar bushes. I believe Assam would produce an even richer tea.

Fourth, the Assam has already established efficient logistics, an advantage over the Chinese.

And fifth, Assam is already a respected brand internationally. This is another advantage that the Chinese do not have. Chinese tea is still viewed with suspicion.

Of course, a change in the Assam industry would not be easy. Every aspect of the tea making process would be need to be revamped, from the care and harvesting of the bushes, to plucking the tea making process, and even the packaging and branding. The cost of production will be high and the risk in the beginning will be substantial. Skilled labor will also be difficult to recruit and train, but the promise of higher earning might have an effect. Planters like Raj Barooah and Rajen Baruah have already started to experiment with the production of specialty quality tea and have found customers. There are also small growers using makeshift equipment that have also found international buyers. I even ran across some very promising tea while visiting companies in Kolkata.

A strategy needs to be established as a guide to transitioning to universally accepted standards for quality that are currently being developed. The TRA can play an important role by investigating tea-making techniques based on Chinese tea-making. Dr. Devajit Borthakur did graduate work in China and Dr. Pradip Baruah has expressed to me a desire to study in China. There needs to be more educational exchanges with China. This will be one of the suggestions that I will incorporate into my paper for the conference there in October.

I think that a key element to opening the door to possibilities for Assam must be tied to reform of the existing auction system that is increasingly choking the resources of the Assam producers. Only in a colonial economy is this type of business model sustainable. The continued growth of the Indian economy, and the world economy for that matter, is inevitable. The places to find cheap labor are becoming fewer and fewer. The days when a handful of buyers can force the artificial price of tea down and reap colonizer profits as a result is going to come to an end.

This reform would certainly make the Assam economy more stable and free up some resources to make transition to more high-end production less of a risk. I believe some of the futures best teas have yet to me imagined and will come from Assam, and the rest of India as well.

You can be a part of, and follow the progress of the International Specialty Tea Association by signing up here. http://specialtyteaassociation.org

Austin Hodge

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Standards For Specialty Tea https://sevencups.com/2015/05/standards-for-specialty-tea/ https://sevencups.com/2015/05/standards-for-specialty-tea/#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 15:32:20 +0000 https://sevencups.com/?p=18007 Standards for excellence would give tea makers a goal to shoot for while giving buyers and consumers the tools to determine whether or not makers had reached that goal.

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Yellow Tea Field Notes For Specialty TeaA brief outline of standards for Specialty Tea

Since last November, I have been talking to a broad spectrum of people about standards for quality. Through these discussions, I have interacted with a wide and varied demographic: from consumers to producers and every group in between. What has been most surprising to me is just how many people had only a vague idea about what standards for tea would actually look like.

Moreover, many people I spoke with thought that what I was proposing was some kind of regulatory agency with enforcing powers. This is far from being the case; my real point of interest is in regards to education. Standards for excellence would give tea makers a goal to shoot for while giving buyers and consumers the tools to determine whether or not makers had reached that goal. Someday there may even be international competitions where tea producers bring their tea, not companies with purchased tea. As with both wine and coffee, the tea makers would be judged by their skill in tea making.

What would standards for quality in a tea look like?

Picking Standard Yellow Tea
Picking Standard Yellow Tea

To begin, it is important to understand that there are common elements in any quality tea, no matter what category they fall into. In other words, white, green, yellow, wulong, black, and puer teas all share common elements. These can be judged objectively before even getting to the subjective aspects such as taste.

Here is a partial list, not ordered on importance. It should be noted that some of these elements can be further broken down:

  • What is the condition of the finished leaf? There is no better indicator of quality than the finished leaf; it takes great skill to have a pristine leaf at the end of processing.
  • Was the plucking standard adhered to? There are, of course, different plucking standards for different teas.
  • What is the level of uniformity among the leaves?
  • When was it harvested?
  • Where was it grown? The importance of origin of course is critical and could include soil composition, elevation, and even the orientation to the sun.
  • How much moisture remains in the finished leaf? Having the correct amount of moisture left in the tea determines its stability.
  • What were the growing practices?
  • How was it processed?
  • What was the cultivar used? It is common practice to make the same tea from different cultivars.
  • Who made it?
  • How was it packaged? How the tea is cared for after production is, of course, very important.

 

Yellow tea makers hands
Yellow tea makers hands

Now we get into the more subjective areas of evaluation. Below are some tools that have been developed and will be developed to inform the standards evaluation. Assigning a weighted values to all of these elements is essential to creating a scoring system that can be readily agreed upon by different individuals.

  • Is the color “right”? This can be a very complicated question because there can be many colors involved with some teas.
  • Does it have a distinguishing aroma? There are an array of aromas to be evaluated, the dry leaf, the dry leaf in a heated vessel, the aroma of the brew tea, the smell of the cold vessel, etc…
  • What does it taste like? For many this has wrongly been the heaviest weighted element; it should not be. Taste almost always says more about the taster than the tea. Although it is an important element, it should be weighted accordingly.

This list is meant to serve as an introduction to the standards discussion. A competent and experienced buyer would look at these elements and questions as well as quite a few more. From those elements an evaluation matrix could be established so that,

Mogan Huang Ya Yellow Tea
Mogan Huang Ya Yellow Tea

weighted by importance, a scoring system could exist. Any score exceeding 80 could be called “specialty tea” as is the case with Specialty Coffee. A score of 90 or above would be considered excellent. How much each element would weigh in is for a later discussion. But for the sake of example, let’s say that condition of the leaf could have a possible score of 10. If we judged on this simplified scale, and a tea’s leaves were 90% unbroken, then section would get a score of 9.

Definitions for individual teas are the second part of this system of evaluation. A tea definition would address each element in the list above with specifics details that would help in assessing particular teas. For example, Shifeng Longjing is a exactly defined tea whose definition includes mention to all of the above elements. Many teas and their producers have benefited from having these elements defined; you

Fresh picked leaves
Fresh picked leaves

cannot find a famous Chinese tea where this is not the case. Because of this, China already has determined definitions for a vast array of teas. Their standards system exists on four different levels: national, provincial, local, and those set up by individual tea makers. It makes the system difficult to navigate and creates it’s own ambiguities. Nevertheless, establishing these definitions more than a decade ago elevated the Chinese tea industry into what it is now.

After having been dismantled time and time again, the Chinese tea industry’s most recent revival dates back to the late 90’s when private tea companies that followed the standards set by the national government agencies in Hangzhou were formed. They brought in tea makers from across China to teach and solidify these definitions for teas. This process was extended to universities, which in turn created local tea councils that promoted quality local teas.

I have been involved in the Chinese tea industry for many years and have watched this renaissance unfold. However, such

Withering Yellow Tea
Withering Yellow Tea

prosperity should not be limited to China. Rather, this can act as a blueprint for the rest of the international tea producing countries. Standards aren’t just about making better tea, but perhaps more importantly, are about changing the international tea economies.

India certainly has the most to gain from the adoption of quality standards. They have an extraordinary base of very well taken

care of gardens. Assam teas are the richest in the world for tea polyphenols, and Darjeeling is, well Darjeeling. There is a very wide range when it comes to quality there, and the Darjeeling brand is suffering as a result. I haven’t personally visited the south of India, but I imagine it’s more of the same there. Sri Lanka and Africa would also benefit highly. Even in a highly mechanized Japan, there are still plenty of small, traditional tea makers that could enliven the population’s taste for finer teas.

Skilled Yellow Tea Pickers
Skilled Yellow Tea Pickers

Certainly it will take a long time for quality standards to do for tea what it did for specialty coffee. But it is important to remember that those standards were established back in 1974, and it took a long time for the infrastructure to develop to support independent roasters and an equally long time for the market to be built.

At least we are starting the conversation that is the first step towards moving things forward. That has been, is, and will continue to be my goal. People interested in being a part of that discussion can sign up at www.specialtyteaassociation.org. Please get involved.

Austin Hodge

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Specialty Tea Manifesto https://sevencups.com/2015/04/specialty-tea/ https://sevencups.com/2015/04/specialty-tea/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 22:56:48 +0000 https://sevencups.com/?p=17747 'Specialty Tea.' must be defined to establish value and give meaning to the term.

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The tea industry is a fifty billion dollar a year business whose fastest growing sector is called ‘Specialty Tea.’ ‘Specialty Tea.’ must be defined to establish value and give meaning to the term.

There are no set standards for excellence in the global tea industry. Merchants, both in the past and now, have been able to get away with defining quality through marketing. This interpretive and loose value system has not benefitted producers, consumers, or small tea businesses.

The International Specialty Tea Association will strive to establish quality standards in tea making. The Specialty Tea Association will create an unbiased process for judging tea quality. This will result in the best teas setting the bar for standards of excellence, which will thereby define ‘Specialty Tea.’ The evaluating system will be easily understandable and learnable industry-wide and will be made available to the public.

Standards must be established to preserve the art of making tea and will guarantee a stabilized market whose focus and intent is on providing quality products to the consumer. The value of tea will then be determined by its production rather than how it is marketed. This will increase profits to producers and the people they employ. Standards will provide the platform on which small businesses can compete with the corporate tea companies that dominate the global market, and consumers will be able to recognize product value independent of marketing claims. Standards will cause greater transparency in the supply chain, and a better educated industry.

AnjiBaiCha Pickers
AnjiBaiCha Pickers

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Wulong Tea Harvest Times and Picking Standards https://sevencups.com/2015/03/wulong-tea-harvest-times-and-picking-standards/ https://sevencups.com/2015/03/wulong-tea-harvest-times-and-picking-standards/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 19:59:03 +0000 https://sevencups.com/?p=17407   If there was ever a sign of how sophisticated the western tea-drinker has become, it’s the large number of technical questions we now receive from our customers. Wulong tea is frequently the subject of these questions, and so to help our customers, we’ve written a short guide to its harvesting seasons and picking standards.… // MORE

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If there was ever a sign of how sophisticated the western tea-drinker has become, it’s the large number of technical questions we now receive from our customers. Wulong tea is frequently the subject of these questions, and so to help our customers, we’ve written a short guide to its harvesting seasons and picking standards. Note that the terminology used in this guide is that of the Fujian wulong tea makers we’ve learned from. You may find some terms are different among tea makers elsewhere. 

 

HARVEST SEASONS

For Chinese wulong tea, there are four picking seasons which take place between late April and November of each year. Further dividing these season are the solar terms of the old Chinese calendar; There are 24 solar terms each year, with about 15 days in each. For example, the “Qing Ming” term usually begins on or around April 5th, and the following “Gu Yu” term usually begins on April 20th (about 15 days in between).

Picking for wulong tea is thus traditionally organized into the following timeframes:

  • “Chun Cha” 春茶 (Spring Tea) picked in the Gu Yu solar period (around April 20th)
  • “Xia Cha” 夏茶 (Summer Tea) picked in the Xia Zhi solar period (around June 20th)
  • “Shu Cha” 暑茶 (Late Summer / Autumn Tea) picked in the Li Qiu solar period (around August 7th)
  • “Dong Pian” 冬片 (Winter Tea) picked in the Shuang Jiang period (around October 24th)

Although wulong tea can be picked during these four seasons, most Chinese wulong tea producers skip the Shu Cha harvest and choose only to pick in the three other seasons (Chun Cha, Xia Cha and Dong Pian). All of Seven Cups’ wulong teas are purchased from Chun Cha picking season.

Each picking season lasts between 40-50 days in total, but any single variety of tea will only be picked for 3-5 days within this period, depending on when the variety reaches maturity. Some tea bushes can be picked at the end of April, while others grow slower and must not be picked until the first week of May. Producers must wait for the young tea leaves to open into the perfect size before picking. To read more about what goes in to picking specific varieties of rock wulong tea, please check out Zhuping’s field notes from last year’s harvest: Part 1 and Part 2 .

PICKING TIMES

For all seasons, the best time to pick is on sunny days when wind is blowing from the north. The best time of day is around noon to 2 PM. Lower grades of teas are those picked on cloudy days from 9 AM – noon. Even lower grades of tea are picked on rainy days before 9 AM and after 5 PM. When you go to the factory, you will always see pieces of paper in the baskets of fresh leaves with the time and date of picking. Before even processing a tea, tea masters must first distinguish the quality of the tea by its picking time and the weather on the day it was picked. The leaves of our rock wulong teas are never picked on rainy days.

PLUCKING STANDARDS

Tea masters will train their tea pickers to use very specific hand motions to pluck leaves. The movements are different for each type of tea. For picking wulong tea, you must open your thumb and index finger wide (described in Chinese as “tiger’s mouth”) and grasp straight below the top 3 or 4 tender leaves. The sprig is bent and plucked off with a pulling motion.

Tea pickers must have very good eyes to see which fresh branches are the most healthy and are just the right size to pick. If a tea bush is well nourished its tea buds will completely open in to 5-6 leaves or more. If the bush not healthy, its buds will only open in to 2 leaves. These underdeveloped sprigs are called “dui jia yi” and are not be picked, even if they are fresh. Any leaves that are brown, broken or thick are not allowed to be picked either. Workers only pick 3-4 leaves at a time from healthy bushes, leaving the lowest 1-2 leaves of the new growth.¹  The leaves left on the stem will become nutrition for new buds that grow in the next season.

During spring, the tea master must visit the fields often to check for just the right time to pick the tea.  The tea master is checking for two things:

  1. Have the last leaves of a bush’s new sprigs opened? ²
  2. What is the size of this last leaf relative to the next leaf down on the stem?

Tea makers use the term, “Xiao Kai Mian” (小开面), to describe when this last leaf of the growth is half of the size of the next leaf down. Once the bushes’ leaves are at this state of maturity, the tea makers will start making arrangements for tea pickers to come out to the fields. The ideal point to pluck a sprig of leaves is when it has reached a state of maturity called “Zhong Kai Mian” (中开面). This is when the youngest leaf is ⅔ the size of the second leaf (see a picture below). If that last leaf has grown the same size as all the other leaves, this called “Da Kai Mian” (大开面), and is not ideal for wulong tea making since the leaves are too old and won’t twist properly. The time between Zhong Kai Mian and Da Kai Mian maturity is just two or three days. Since not all new growth on a single tea bush reaches maturity at the same time, tea pickers will revisit the same bushes over the course of several days, picking only when the leaves are in the preferred Zhong Kai Mian or Xiao Kai Mian states.

The picking standard of Shui Xian Wuong tea leaves. Zhong Kai Mian and Xiao Kai Mian.
Zhong Kai Mian (left) compared with Xiao Kai Mian (right). A silver tip behind the youngest leaf, indicates no more leaves would have grown on these sprigs.

 


 

¹. This picking technique is also used for large-leaf puer teas. Recently, farmers have realized a strange problem with older tea trees tended in this manner. As normal, the lower one or two pieces of leaves were left on the branches, but these leaves did not give way to new growth in the next season. Instead, these leaves stayed in place and sapped the nutrition from the branch. Farmers could only think of one explanation: Yunnan’s on-going drought.

². Tea makers know a young sprig will not yield any more leaves when a small silvery-white point is visible at the end of the sprig, just behind the youngest leaf. In Chinese this silver point is known as  zhu ya (驻芽) meaning “the stationed bud.”

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Venture Capitalist Kevin Rose Adds Seven Cups Tea to Holiday Gift Boxes https://sevencups.com/2014/12/venture-capitalist-kevin-rose-adds-seven-cups-tea-to-holiday-gift-boxes/ https://sevencups.com/2014/12/venture-capitalist-kevin-rose-adds-seven-cups-tea-to-holiday-gift-boxes/#comments Wed, 24 Dec 2014 19:06:40 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=7042 We’re honored to be included in Kevin’s quarterly box. The following press release explains it all. Tucson, Arizona (PRWEB) December 23, 2014 Kevin Rose is known as a Silicon Valley guru, venture capitalist and partner in Google Ventures. In 2009 he traveled with Seven Cups founder Austin Hodge to the rainforests of Yunnan in southwest… // MORE

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We’re honored to be included in Kevin’s quarterly box. The following press release explains it all.

Tucson, Arizona (PRWEB) December 23, 2014

Kevin Rose is known as a Silicon Valley guru, venture capitalist and partner in Google Ventures. In 2009 he traveled with Seven Cups founder Austin Hodge to the rainforests of Yunnan in southwest China to taste tea where it originated.

“The trip was difficult – but the tea was amazing,” Rose said at the time.

Now Rose wants to share that amazing tea with his followers. He has about 1.5 million followers on Twitter alone.

He picked Seven Cups tea as one item in his first holiday gift box on sale through Quarterly.co. Celebrity gift boxes are a hot item now in online retail.

Hodge hand-picked some of the best teas from the Seven Cups inventory of teas that were personally sourced throughout China. Seven Cups has been one of the leaders in the tea industry for more than a decade in Direct Trading.

Quarterly.co promised “-Awesome tech stuff-” “There’s nothing high tech about these teas. The holiday gift box has things that Kevin thinks are cool.We are happy he feels that way about our teas.” Hodge said. In pictures of box contents shared over social media, bags of the hand-made tea sit alongside wireless speakers, fitness trackers, and laptop accessories.The contents were kept secret until all the boxes were delivered, just in time for Christmas.

“These are all very expensive teas,” Hodge said. “You won’t find these teas in Teavana. The teas are rare and hard to come by even in China.”

Rose traveled in 2009 with fellow celebrity millennials Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling “Four Hour Work Week,” and cinematographer Glenn McElhose.They joined Hodge’s tour group in China. While in Yunnan province they produced a 10-minute segment of their popular “Random Episodes” series. They were eating chicken skewers grilled on a bicycle cart in the center of the city of Jinggu.

They recounted the challenges encountered while touring tea farms and factories throughout the province. Tea geek Rose has a tattoo on his left bicep – an image of the fabled Chinese emperor Shennong who is said to have started tea farming some 5,000 years ago. The name means “the Divine Farmer.”

“Every tea master in China wants his picture taken with my tattoo,” Rose said. “They even want to print the tattoo on the wrapper of the puer tea cakes.”

This was no luxury travel tour. In 2009 the government didn’t want foreign tourists roaming around the poor Chinese countryside. “It was a very raw trip,” Hodge said. “The bus broke down in the middle of the night. We ate in countryside restaurants that came with plenty of flies, and stayed in Chinese truck driver hotels. The squat toilets also came with plenty of flies and the hotels had flocks of mosquitos.” Those days are gone now in China, according to Hodge, replaced by good roads and 4 and 5 star hotels.

“It’s been difficult,” Rose said in the video, describing chicken heads in the soup and other cultural extremes. “We had a great time. The tea has been amazing – and the factories we toured, the puer tea we had – it’s been an experience.”

Rose is an internet entrepreneur who co-founded Revision3, Digg, Pownce and Milk. Rose is now a venture partner at Google Ventures.. In 2007 MIT Technology Review named Rose one of the top 35 innovators in the world under the age of 35. He’s been a guest of Jimmy Fallon three times.

Hodge said that even in 2009 he knew of Rose “through my web designer – who once told me ‘you should get in touch with him. He’s really into tea. I was surprised when he found us and signed up for a tour.”

Rose and McElhose have stayed in touch with Hodge. They visited Tucson and enjoyed Mexican food and margaritas together. Last month, Quarterly.co called Seven Cups and announced that “Kevin Rose has selected you” for his holiday gift box.

Hodge and his wife Zhuping Hodge founded Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea in 2002 and opened the teahouse in 2004. Zhuping is one of the first women to be certified to teach tea culture to tea professionals in China. She is a native of China. They met at a teahouse in China.

Seven Cups currently sources teas from around 50 producers in 10 different regions of China, homeland of the world’s first and finest teas, Hodge said. Seven cups sells tea online to connoisseurs in more than 90 countries. Many of these teas have only been available to the Western world in the last 10 to 20 years.

In 2012 Travel + Leisure named Seven Cups Teahouse one of the best places to drink tea in America. Tea aficionado Bruce Schoenfeld first tasted da hong pao – a rare Chinese oolong tea – that was traditionally prepared by Zhuping at the teahouse in Tucson. “It altered my tea-drinking life,” he wrote.

Hodge writes a widely read blog and has been extensively published in China. In 2011 he was the only foreigner given the “Top Ten Outstanding Persons of China” award, presented by the Chinese tea community for his contributions in promoting fine Chinese teas. He serves as an Honorary Director at the Chinese International Tea Culture Research Institute in Hangzhou. He is currently working to establish standards for Specialty Tea. Seven Cups continues to provide educational tea tours to China. Seven Cups has won many awards, both locally and internationally. Seven Cups Teahouse is at 2516 E 6th St., Tucson, AZ 86748

Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., M-Sat and 11:30 a.m. 6:00 p.m., Sunday.

For more information about the teas, the teahouse, or its yearly tours, visit https://www.sevencups.com.

 

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A Call for Standards for Specialty Tea https://sevencups.com/2014/12/a-call-for-standards-for-specialty-tea/ https://sevencups.com/2014/12/a-call-for-standards-for-specialty-tea/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 21:31:28 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=7024 Speciality Tea has never been defined nor have standards for quality ever been established. Now's the time to do it.

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Qimen Caixia picking standard
Qimen Caixia picking standard

The last decade has seen a boom in what the industry calls ‘Specialty Teas’, but if you ask for a definition you will come away confused.

What is so special about ‘Specialty Teas’?

Not much. A close examination reveals that it is merely commodity tea that has been adulterated in some way, typically by blending ingredients such as pieces of fruit, exotic herbs or flower petals. Since the ingredients are dried, tea blenders spray (yes, spray) on lots of flavor.

 

I’m using the word commodity here to include any large-scale tea producing where the production goal is quantity over quality. There is plenty of the type of tea being grown in every tea producing country, including green tea, puer tea, wulong tea, white tea well as black tea There are also an endless variety of herbals that are incorrectly called tea.

Why set standards for ‘Specialty Teas’?

Without standards, the future of the market faces chaos. Where would France be if it had not established standards for wine almost 500 years ago? Italy followed suit and prospered. Stop and think, would the debate over which is better– Italian or French wine – have turned out differently if the Italians had set standards first?

Now, it’s important to understand that standards not only define products, they establish markets, and whoever defines a market, controls it. It is undebatable that the French have created admirable markets for their wine, as have, more recently, specialty coffee retailers.

The chaos in the ‘specialty’ tea market comes from the fact that no one, from buyer to seller, actually knows the value of the tea they are buying or selling, or how to clearly establish its value. Price is derived mostly from marketing — certainly not the quality of the tea. In a practical sense, words like “quality”, “value”, and “excellence” have become as watered-down into obscurity as “specialty.”

Nowadays, tea is whatever the merchant says it is, which obviously opens a lot of ground for dubious interpretation. In contrast, standards are consistent and are independently verified. The specialty coffee industry has done an excellent job of establishing standards, which has lead to levels of excellence and profitability enjoyed by the entire coffee industry.

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Coffee and tea both began as rarities for the rich, evolved into commodities for the masses and are gradually becoming artisanal offerings – the choice of connoisseurs.

Everyone my age remembers that back in the day, coffee was either the Red Can (Folger’s) or the Blue Can (Maxwell House). There were neighborhood diners and corner cafes where a cup of coffee cost a quarter. This was coffee’s “First Wave.” Americans annually drank an average of 10 lbs. of coffee per person. Per capita consumption was measured by the gallon because the efficiencies of the commodity model made it cheap.

The turning point was 1974 when independent coffee shop owners defined standards that defined “Specialty Coffee.” This movement launched the “Second Wave.” Pioneers such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Starbucks, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf would not exist without these standards. Innovations in growing, sourcing, roasting, packaging, and coffee brewing followed.

The market for specialty coffee was more sophisticated, resembling its European counterparts. Coffee of this quality could also command a higher price; it no longer had to be cheap.  Thus “quality” coffee became easily distinguishable from commodity coffee.

The term “Third Wave” was coined around 2002 when small coffee businessmen traveled to coffee farms to do their own sourcing and became experts in every aspect from growing to roasting to brewing.  This took the small retail coffee businesses to a new profitable level that could differentiate itself from the like of Starbucks and company. With control of the entire supply chain, not only did it raise retail margins, it also opened the door for a respectable wholesale business selling to other quality businesses whose business models did not include working the complete supply chain.

The “Third Wave” aspires to an even higher level of coffee experience. It begins with direct sourcing. Only direct sourcing can insure quality and answer questions about fair trade and farming methodology with confidence. Third wave coffee also places high value on production and preparation: the goal is to get the best possible cup. Third wave coffee owes its existence to Starbucks for building the market for better coffee, and for providing the competition that needed to be surpassed to take advantage of the market that Starbucks had created. Third wave roasters realized they needed to get a whole lot better to beat Starbucks, and to do so they needed to know their coffee supply chain from source to consumer on an expert level.

On a similar note, Starbucks changed the tea market dramatically for small independent tea businesses when they bought Teavana. From here on out, every small tea business is going to be defined in relationship to Teavana, like it or not. What is different between coffee and tea is that there are no standards that give tea business the tools to beat Teavana. Starbucks redefined the market for coffee on almost every level. They will do the same for tea. Small tea businesses and even major tea corporations are going to feel the heat. Without standards, Teavana, with its extraordinary marketing muscle, can define tea quality any way they want.

If standards for specialty tea mirrored the standards for specialty coffee, the only tea that could qualify as “specialty” is tea judged to be within the top 20%. Most of the tea sold as specialty tea in the West would thus be disqualified. Just as there is with coffee, few multi-million dollar companies are going to support standards for quality in the tea industry.

Why would they?

Tea’s “Third Wave”

In the spring of 2014, Jesse Jacobs of Samovar Tea, wearing a cream-colored canvas apron over a fashionable t-shirt, announced the coming of the tea industry’s Third Wave.

But can the tea industry really be on the verge of entering into a movement equivalent to that of the coffee industry? Even though both tea and coffee have the Starbucks Corporation in common, it is going to take the tea industry a very long time to catch up to the sophistication of the coffee industry. The discussion about standards for ‘Specialty Tea’ has not even begun.

Establishing standards brought extraordinary advantages to coffee growers including unimaginable financial success. A small Brazilian coffee grower this month won the Alliance for Coffee Excellence’s 100th Cup of Excellence (COE) competition to earn $50.20 per pound at auction, the highest price ever paid per pound for COE coffee. He took home $106,000 in a country where the per capita income is less than $1000 per month. What is noteworthy is that Brazil is the largest commodity coffee producer in the world. Think what standards for quality would mean for small holders in India and Africa, areas still economically strangled by the colonial commodity system. Establishing an objectively evaluated standard establishes value that can be communicated through the supply chain to the customer. Excellence is the reward.

China is realizing the benefits of standards in its domestic market for tea right now. Their tea industry was destroyed through a hundred and fifty years of war and internal strife. As it started to recover after the Second World War and the Mao era, tea was mediocre at best across the country. More than a decade ago China set standards for quality and freed tea makers to create and profit from their own business. Since then, China has been experiencing a renaissance in tea making: tea being produced for the domestic market is the best it has ever been in history; China has become the largest tea producing country in the world, gets the highest prices for it’s tea, and has the highest average price for tea; it has the best teas in the broadest categories; it has defined standards, and grows the largest percentage of tea using traditional, chemical free growing practices.

The coming of standards is inevitable. Small businesses that are dedicated to quality in real terms, not just in the marketing of their products, will benefit.  It took years for standards to impact coffee, but things will move along quicker with tea due to the benefits of the information age. The tea industry is ready for professionals to lay the groundwork for “Third Wave” tea. Let’s leave it to Teavana to push the second wave along in building the market, like their parent company did.

What is great about getting the ball rolling towards standards for quality and, eventually, excellence, is that small businesses that are struggling to establish new business models need not worry, for the best practices for quality in the tea industry go beyond the reach of corporations, economies of scale, and deep pockets of marketing departments. Standards are a necessary tool for the tea entrepreneur.

So become a pro, take some Chinese classes, and get you passport up to date, and by all means study the Specialty Coffee Industry. They have become experts in coffee on every level. You might want to remember that this year Peet’s hired a woman that is fluent in Chinese and has a masters degree in tea from Zhejiang University.

Standards, direct sourcing, transparency, expert level knowledge about tea and its culture, logistical mastery, inventory management expertise, and tea preparation skills are all requirements for ushering in tea’s third wave. Herein lies opportunity, challenge, and the promise of excellence. Let’s hope tea entrepreneurs’ passion for tea is strong enough to take them where they’ll have to go.

Austin

 

 

 

 

 

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Rou Gui Chocolate Mousse Tarts https://sevencups.com/2014/08/rou-gui-chocolate-mousse-tarts/ https://sevencups.com/2014/08/rou-gui-chocolate-mousse-tarts/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 23:36:52 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=6606 If you have never taken a sip of piping hot rock wulong tea and immediately followed it with a square of good chocolate, letting it melt luxuriously on your tongue as it mingles with the rich, complex aftertaste… Well, what on Earth are you waiting for? Oh, you want both flavors in one convenient recipe?… // MORE

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Rou Gui Tarts
Rou Gui Tarts

If you have never taken a sip of piping hot rock wulong tea and immediately followed it with a square of good chocolate, letting it melt luxuriously on your tongue as it mingles with the rich, complex aftertaste… Well, what on Earth are you waiting for?

Oh, you want both flavors in one convenient recipe? Something easy enough to whip up on a weekday afternoon yet refined enough to impress your dinner guests? A delicate balance of tea and chocolate, bitter and sweet?

Fine. But you’re lucky you’re so cute.

Ingredients Display for Rou Gui Chocolate Mousse Tarts

I chose our Premium Rou Gui for this recipe because it has a strong, distinctive flavor and a slightly sweet taste reminiscent of cinnamon. It is grown in the mineral-rich soil of the central Wu Yi mountain range and has a traditional medium roast, giving it an ever-so-slightly smokey edge.

When I use tea to infuse a recipe, I look for strength of flavor rather than delicate nuance; after all, what’s the sense in investing in a high-end tea when the finer characteristics may be lost in the variables of other ingredients? Premium Rou Gui is a good value because it delivers a lot of flavor for a fairly low cost, and you can even use previous years’ harvests to benefit from the sales price.

Despite being a rapacious dark chocolate fiend when selecting a chocolate to eat on its own, I used half milk chocolate in this recipe to avoid drowning out the tea flavor. If you prefer to use either one or the other, keep in mind that dark chocolate may mask the flavor of the tea while milk chocolate will make it significantly sweeter. I also make sure to use a good-quality chocolate which lacks the occasionally overbearing qualities of truly high-end chocolate. Valrhona, for instance, is delicious but rather distinctive; Ghirardelli chocolate chips (or Trader Joe’s “Pound Plus” Belgian chocolate) are, conversely, obligingly nondescript, and have the added benefit of being very easy to find. Play around and see which chocolate suits you best!

If you don’t have a pastry bag for piping the chocolate into serving glasses or tart shells, I often use gallon-sized zip-top freezer bags merely for convenience’s sake. Simply fill the bag, snip off one of the bottom corners, and squeeze into your preferred mousse-to-mouth conveyance vessel.

Mousse Cups

Chocolate Rou Gui Mousse

 

  • 16 oz (2 cups) heavy cream, divided
  • 20 grams Rou Gui Wulong Tea
  • 3 large eggs
  • 5 oz sugar
  • 4 oz milk chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 4 oz dark (around 70%) chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, cubed and softened
  • chocolate shavings or cocoa nibs (to garnish)
  1. Combine the cream and the tea in a saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium heat. Immediately remove from the heat and cover. Allow to cool for about 1 hour, then pour into a glass measuring cup, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator overnight or up to overnight.
  2. Strain the tea leaves out of the cream, pressing firmly with a spoon or spatula to get as much cream out as possible. Measure out 1 cup and whip to soft peaks; chill while you prepare the rest of the mousse. Reserve the rest to whip later as a garnish, if desired.
  3. In a large, heat-proof bowl, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisk briskly over simmering water using either an electric handheld mixer or a whisk until a candy thermometer reads 160 degrees; this will take between 5 and 10 minutes, and the mixture will be thick and frothy.
  4. Remove from the heat and continue to beat until somewhat cooled, about 5 minutes. Add the chocolate and butter and beat until well-combined and completely cool.
  5. Using a spatula, fold in the whipped cream until no streaks of white remain.
  6. Pour or pipe into glasses, serving bowls, or tart shells, and chill at least 1 hour before serving.

 

Chocolate Tart Shells

 

  • 1 cup (5 oz) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup (3 oz) cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened
  • 6 tablespoons (3 oz) sugar
  • 1 egg
  1. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg, and beat until light and fluffy.
  3. Mix in the flour mixture until thoroughly combined.
  4. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour, or up to 5 days.
  5. Roll out thinly, cut into circles, and press into tart molds or mini-muffin tins. Prick the bottoms with a fork and freeze for about 15 minutes.
  6. Bake at 350° F for 8-10 minutes, or until the dough appears dry and has puffed up slightly. Allow to cool in the pan, then remove and cool completely.
  7. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

 

Happy Baking!

Tiff

Wulong Tea Chocolate Mousse Tarts

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The “Raw” Appeal of Puer Tea https://sevencups.com/2014/08/the-appeal-of-puer-tea/ https://sevencups.com/2014/08/the-appeal-of-puer-tea/#comments Wed, 06 Aug 2014 19:42:22 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=6559 A few weeks back, Austin clunked a pint glass down on my desk. The glass was loaded to its rim with steeping leaves – thick, stemmy, Yunnan tea tree leaves. He told me it was young sheng puer and he demanded I have a sip. I had an empty stomach, but as an employee I… // MORE

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Puer cake and brewed leaves
Puer cake and brewed leaves

A few weeks back, Austin clunked a pint glass down on my desk. The glass was loaded to its rim with steeping leaves – thick, stemmy, Yunnan tea tree leaves. He told me it was young sheng puer and he demanded I have a sip. I had an empty stomach, but as an employee I was obliged.

Mind you, for a long time I regarded young sheng puer tea to be something like single malt whiskey. It’s a harrowing endeavor for a frail stomach, an expensive habit to keep up with, and despite these two facts (or more probably because of them) all the coolest kids on the block are already drinking it with a sense of self-importance and discernment.  For a long time I just didn’t get it, and I confess, I was rarely bold enough to brew up young puer more than a few times a month for my own enjoyment. Along the way, though, I’ve had some experiences that have illustrated what is so captivating about this type of tea for so many serious tea drinkers. Tasting the aforementioned pint glass was one such an event.

The tea was strong, to be sure, but tasted impossibly smooth. Austin asked me to guess what it was. I guessed it was some outrageously priced Meng Ku tea he brought out from his own collection. The tea turned out of be from Jing Mai and taken from a cake pressed in 2011. This was actually a tea I had drunk a fair amount of when it first arrived in our warehouse years ago. At that time, I thought it  was a chewy, bright, and astringent young tea that I felt I should be drinking to be familiar with, even if my stomach could barely take its strength. Now, there was not even a shadow of the astringency left in its leaves, while it retained the strength and complexity you might find in good wulong. Pretty impressive for a puer tea barely three years deep into some very dry aging. Why the dramatic change? The answer, I’ve been told, is that this quick reduction of astringency with age is one of the virtues of old tree puer.

If you’ve ever tried to buy a cake of puer tea, you know that this claim of leaves being from old trees or “gu shu”, is one that is frequently tossed around and isn’t always true. How do you know you are getting the real stuff? A telling detail, as Austin pointed out to me that day, is to look at the stems when they are dry and after they have gone through brewing. The picture above is a side-by-side snap shot I took of the dry cake with infused leaves. The dry stems are quite skinny, but when infused they swell considerably. This a unique characteristic of old tree puer stems. Interesting tip!

Discussions of puer tea seem to always invite this kind of minutia, but therein lies the appeal — all of the variables that contribute to the final character of a tea: plant age, micro climate differences between village areas, aging time, aging conditions, etc. are never so on display as they are in sheng puer. For what is conceived as a single category of tea, puer tea manages to be diverse — often surprisingly so. I think now I am finally seeing the light.

Andrew

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Raspberry Hibiscus Lemon Tart https://sevencups.com/2014/07/raspberry-hibiscus-lemon-tart/ https://sevencups.com/2014/07/raspberry-hibiscus-lemon-tart/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 21:44:17 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=6522 With summer well underway, it’s a good time to break out a zesty and refreshing recipe! I had never tried hibiscus tea until I began working at the tea house, and my first taste was certainly a shock — I hadn’t anticipated such a mouth-puckeringly sour flavor from a flower. My train of thought went… // MORE

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With summer well underway, it’s a good time to break out a zesty and refreshing recipe!

I had never tried hibiscus tea until I began working at the tea house, and my first taste was certainly a shock — I hadn’t anticipated such a mouth-puckeringly sour flavor from a flower. My train of thought went as follows:

1) I have been tricked by a prank beverage. This is much too sour.

2) Maybe I shouldn’t have steeped it so long. I have only myself to blame.

3) This would be awesome in a lemon curd.

Since then, I’ve come to really enjoy hibiscus tea both hot and iced (provided I don’t oversteep it by a matter of hours). It’s a bit like lemonade, and I especially like it with honey over ice and as a way to balance the sweetness of  my morning fruit smoothies.

In Chinese medicine, hibiscus flowers are considered cooling, and are a good way to soothe an upset stomach when you don’t want the caffeine of puer tea.

For this recipe, I’ve countered the tartness of the  filling by topping it with sweet, fresh raspberries. If raspberries aren’t your cup of tea, feel free to use any other fresh fruits. Kiwis, mangoes, strawberries, nectarines, pineapple, and blueberries are especially nice, and look very attractive when arranged into concentric circles.

Raspberry Hibiscus Lemon Tart

Raspberry Hibiscus Lemon Tart

Graham Cracker Crust

  • 3.5 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 oz whole wheat flour
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3 oz unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 oz brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp honey

 

  1. Combine both flours, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.
  2. Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and honey until light and fluffy.
  3. Add the flour mixture and mix just until combined. The mixture will be a bit sticky and slightly crumbly.
  4. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes. It will keep in the refrigerator for five days, or in the freezer up to a month.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  6. Roll out the dough on a piece of parchment paper, lightly dusted with flour. Gently line a standard pie tin or an 8” bottomless tart pan with the dough, pressing together any breaks and using excess dough to patch any tears. Trim the dough to size, and use a fork to prick the bottom all over. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
  7. Line the chilled crust with parchment paper and weight it down with baking beads, uncooked rice, or uncooked beans. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and weights and bake for another 5 minutes, until golden-brown and mostly firm to the touch. Let cool.

 

Hibiscus Lemon Curd

  • 15 dried hibiscus flowers
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 4 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 7 oz sugar
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • 2 oz (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

 

  1. Steep dried hibiscus flowers in 2 cups of boiling water for 45 minutes. Strain 1 ½ cups of the resulting tea into a measuring cup. Drink any remaining tea with a spot of honey – refreshing!
  2. In a large heat-proof bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Whisk in the 1 ½ cups hibiscus tea and the lemon juice.
  3. Whisk over a pot of simmering water until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and a finger dragged across the spoon will hold the trail for a few seconds before it fills up. This will take about 5 to 8 minutes, and you must whisk constantly to prevent overcooking the eggs.
  4. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream and butter cubes, stirring until the butter has melted. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a new bowl.

 

To assemble the tart:

  • Enough raspberries to cover the top of the tart (I used about 3 cartons)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. If using a bottomless tart pan, push the bottom through to ensure that the tart shell does not stick.
  3. Pour the lemon curd into the tart shell, taking care not to overflow the brim.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes, until the top is set and the middle still has a bit of a jiggle.
  5. Allow to cool at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
  6. Cover the top with fresh raspberries, thoroughly rinsed and gently blotted dry with a paper towel, just prior to serving.

Happy baking!

-Tiff

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Punk Rock Green Tea: Liu An Gua Pian https://sevencups.com/2014/07/punk-rock-green-tea-liu-an-gua-pian/ https://sevencups.com/2014/07/punk-rock-green-tea-liu-an-gua-pian/#comments Fri, 04 Jul 2014 00:04:23 +0000 https://www.sevencups.com/?p=6436 While some sources allege that Liu An Gua Pian green tea was designed for political elite, and once a favorite of PRC premiere Zhou Enlai, I can’t help but feel there is something seriously anti-establishment about this tea – both in terms of its flavor and the processes that make it. The conventional template for… // MORE

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Liu An Green Tea Garden
A tea field in Liu An County, Anhui Province.

While some sources allege that Liu An Gua Pian green tea was designed for political elite, and once a favorite of PRC premiere Zhou Enlai, I can’t help but feel there is something seriously anti-establishment about this tea – both in terms of its flavor and the processes that make it.

The conventional template for making a fine Chinese green tea is as follows: wait for the young growth of early spring; pluck these sprigs when their buds have opened two leaves, one leaf, or even before they open and then wither, fire, and dry these leaves into a stable product. If one does it right, the result is a smooth and delicate cup of green leaves. If you’re to take Liu An Gua Pian’s plucking and processing into comparison with this conventional work order for a fine Chinese tea, Gua Pian’s approach looks like pure punk rock. Instead of plucking the earliest buds of spring, Gua Pian makers wait until these first buds mature and unfold into thumb sized leaves and only then pick them individually. The source material is pure leaf — no stems, no buds. This singular approach to picking gathers fresh leaf material with two qualities:

1.)  As the first growth after Winter, the leaves have the concentrated nutrition the plant has stored up in its dormancy.

2.)  As mature leaves, their flavor has strengthened.

Both characteristics compound to make for some seriously complex green tea.

Once these unusual tea leaves are withered a bit to make them pliable, they are then fired in angled woks that are built into the wall of a furnace. An initial firing serves to de-enzyme the leaf, preventing its oxidation, while a secondary trip through the wok is used to shape the leaf. Straw hand-brooms are used to stir the tea through its secondary firing, rolling the leaves in to their distinctive shape. This part of the process is a little unusual for its use of a tool to shape the leaf, as many fine chinese teas are shaped by the maker’s bare hands, but the real strangeness of Liu An Gua Pian processing is what comes next.

Green tea firing pans with shaping broom
Firing pans for Liu An Gua Pian Green Tea. Also pictured is the handbroom used for shaping the leaf.

In the final step, the fire drying, leaves are directly roasted over a wood charcoal fire. The use of an open flame is a uniquely aggressive step, unlike anything else I’ve heard of in green tea manufacture. It is also physically demanding for the tea makers, who must take utmost care in moving the tea, now piled into a barrel-shaped basket, over a wood fire for only seconds at a time. After the tea roasts for a few seconds, it is lifted off to cool for a moment and before the process is repeated. Altogether, this on-and-off drying requires about sixty repetitions. As the process goes on, the fire is built higher and higher with more wood (peach or plum tree roots are said to be ideal, because they are thought to burn especially clean.)

A Drum-shaped basket used for making Liu An Gua Pian Green Tea held by two men
This is the drum-shaped basket used in the wood-fire drying of Gua Pian.

How this unconventional process came to be is anyone’s guess. According to Gua Pian’s entry in the encyclopedic reference on famous Chinese tea,《中国名茶志》, there are no contemporary written documents supporting any one origin story. However, local histories do agree that the tea (in its modern form, or something close to it) first emerged in 1905. At this time, in the violent waning years of the Qing Dynasty, revolution was swinging into vogue. I’ll confess here that I wish I could make the fantastic connection to say that the radical intellectual spirit of the era somehow made its way into rual Anhui province’s tea agriculture and birthed an iconoclastic take on high-end tea that we now know as Liu An Gua Pian. Far more likely though, as the same source goes on to speculate, Gua Pian is born from much older styles of local tea production that had been in development for centuries.

Still, whatever its origins, we are blessed with something that at least tastes like an aggressive outsider among the ever greener, ever sweeter, offerings in high-market green tea. Those sorts of tea are great, yes, but sometimes you want to turn off the Bach and turn up The Clash.

Andrew

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