Teas for all seasons
Written by Greg Sunning
Discover the epicentre of the world’s most consumed drink (second only to water) in the varied topography and diverse ancient cultures of China.
Few experiences unite so many peoples, countries, and cultures as the simple act of taking tea. Enjoyed and experienced around the world, the origins of tea lie very much in the ancient dynasties of China. With the first known records dating back to the second century bce in China’s southwest provinces, Portuguese merchants in the 16th century ce were the first to discover and export this exotic product. By the 17th century, the British were so enamoured of its invigorating qualities – not to mention popularity – that they established competitive tea plantations in the burgeoning colonies of India and Sri Lanka.
Today, some of the finest teas in the world continue to be cultivated within China. Such is demand for the very finest that a kilo of Da Hong Pao tea from the most exclusive bushes in the Wuyi Mountains can cost over US$1 million. But for those of more limited means, there is always a tea – and a tea experience – to suit a mood, a time of day, and a budget.
What really excites the tea-loving world is the first of the new-season teas. As an agricultural product with seasonal harvests, global demand can’t speed the freshest teas to our tables faster than nature will allow, so we must wait and bide our time. March, in the northern hemisphere spring, is when the budding new leaves emerge, producing outstandingly flavourful and vibrant teas, predominantly the only-lightly fermented green and white varieties.
In the summer, expect more commercially minded harvests, while from autumn to the harvest’s end in November, when the leaves are large and the bushes full, teas of real body and aroma are abundant. It is during these harvests that the steep tea terraces of the most celebrated plantations are lively hives of activity.
Get closer to experiencing tea at the crossroads of East and West in Hong Kong. One of the oldest and best-preserved buildings in this Chinese territory is in the heart of bustling Central. Flagstaff House is an iconic British colonial-era building of the 1840s, surrounded by the ponds and botanical gardens of Hong Kong Park, a green oasis overlooked by towering skyscrapers and modern architectural wizardry. Within it is housed the Tea Museum, a cultural celebration of tea ware and tea history, while the centrepiece is the recently refurbished LockCha Tea House. Exclusively vegetarian dim sum perfectly complements the extensive tea lists, knowledgeable staff, and stunning colonial-era surrounds. Rest up at the modern elevated luxury of the five-star Upper House overlooking the same park and with exceptional harbour views.
Shanghai has its own intriguing colonial history, with British, European, and American influences. Today, it is a thriving financial metropolis along with the charm of Old Town and the French Concession, the glitz and glamour of the Bund thoroughfare, and the cultural heartbeats of the Shanghai Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Arts and antiquities are complemented by temples and gardens, while Pudong financial district with its iconic skyscrapers provides photographers with the perfect backdrop. For tea-lovers, Tianshan Tea City is a three-storey market paradise in West Shanghai. With 150 individual stalls offering a vast array of loose-leaf teas, along with sample tastings and historical information, it’s hands down the best tea experience in town. Stay at the mid-range Pentahotel 1.5km away, near Zhongshan Park, with its boutique feel, design-conscious look, and high service standards.
Near Shanghai lies Hangzhou, home to China’s only museum celebrating the history of Chinese tea. Meijiawu Tea Plantation is wonderfully located in the hills around West Lake, southwest of the city. Previously an imperial capital and a holiday spot for Beijing’s emperors, it is also the home of West Lake Dragon Well tea, or Long Jing tea, probably the most famous green tea in China and produced here for over 1,000 years. The China National Tea Museum is within the tea plantations and offers a number of scenic trails into the surrounding villages. Visit in April when most of the leaf-picking and light roasting is taking place.
The surrounding West Lake area offers all the enchanting, classical scenic beauty you might expect of China – pagoda-topped hills, crescent-shaped footbridges, fountains, waterfalls, and a whole host of viewpoints and gardens to enjoy.
Think of Beijing and, for many, the vision will include a hutong-style neighbourhood – those narrow alleyways, formed by the surrounding courtyard homes, thronging with cyclists and rickshaws. While a vast number have been demolished, many are now protected heritage sites offering a glimpse of another time. Atmospheric, distinctly Beijing, and well worth the curious traveller’s time is a visit to the Guozijian hutong.
With the Imperial Academy to the west and a 600-year-old Confucian temple to the east, the whole area offers a wonderfully unstructured experience and, for the tea-lover, an authentic teahouse experience on almost every corner. Try Liuxianguan Teahouse, opposite the temple, with its stunning red painted walls, yellow-gold detail, and intricately carved cedar beams. There are over 40 teas on offer and visitors are encouraged to linger and relax – a welcome approach in this constantly active capital city.
The Sichuan region, surrounding the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing in the central-west of China, is world-famous for its fiery cuisine that has taken Western cities such as New York and London by storm, but lying at the foothills of the Tibetan plateau it also has ideal tea-growing conditions.
The region is home to Meng Shan, the mountain where reputedly the first tea was consumed in China. While around two-thirds of the teas produced here are green teas or jasmine teas, the oxidised black teas of the region are the highly prized ‘Imperial Sichuan Tea’. These are typically chocolate-noted teas, comparable with coffee profiles, with a red hue and smooth flavour.
In Chengdu, they take three things equally seriously – Sichuan food, tea, and the traditional table-top game mah-jong. To get a feel for the city, you should definitely try all three. Try the hundred-year-old Heming Teahouse near the People’s Park, with a large outdoor space overlooking the lake where you can live like a local for an afternoon.
Whether it’s getting to the heart of a tea plantation, learning more at a museum, or simply taking tea among the people in a teahouse, the rich landscape and diverse regions of China offer it all.
The French masters of the coffee cafetière are now equally well known for their Assam teapot. The glass exterior gives a perfect view of the gently infusing tea within, while the incorporated stainless steel filter instantly stops the infusion at the perfect moment and ensures no leaves pass into your waiting cup.
Clean water boiled to the perfect temperature is an often-overlooked key ingredient of tea. Lighter green teas require a gentler 85°C, while black teas benefit from the full 100°C. This cordless Cuisinart PerfecTemp kettle has six incremental temperature selections matched to tea type and a keep-warm functionality – extremely useful for consistent refills.
These coasters from the Wish collection by painter Pan Xi for Hermès-owned Shang Xia celebrate everyday objects and our relationships with them. Eclectic modern colours complement traditional Chinese designs from this up-and-coming department store that celebrates 21st-century living alongside classic Chinese traditions. Ideally collect from the stunning Shanghai boutique.
Italian designers Alessi have combined with Chinese designer Alan Chan for this witty objet d’art. It celebrates the Chinese tradition of taking pet birds to teahouses. The stainless steel piece allows water to be poured through the tea leaves constrained within, suspended above your teacup.