I still remember the first time we tried great quality tea from China. A few years back, around 2009, Dawn and I were travelling back to her home town of Sanshui in southern China on a trip to visit her family. Before we flew back to Australia, I wanted to buy some tea to bring back as Dawn was always lamenting that it's so difficult to find decent Chinese red/black tea in Australia.
So we asked Dawn's grandpa on where he likes to buy his tea from. He drinks it by the bucket load every day so we figure he appreciates a decent drop. He pointed us in the direction of this little vendor down an old street.
Here's grandpa. The hat suits him don't you think?
Old school tea vendors
Here's the thing about these old-school tea vendors in China – it's not like the tea shops you find over here. There, they sell tea by weight. People buy it by the kg on a regular basis. You go for the one you want and the vendor will literally scoop it up, weigh it then pack them up into large bags or tins. Tea is ingrained in the culture and a huge part of daily life in China. But I digress...back to the tea vendor.
Image courtesy of http://www.wikiwand.com/fi/Yunnan
As we approached the shop, the first thing we see is a group of elderly men, gathered around a Chinese chess board, playing a game and having a good ol' chin wag over lots and lots of tea, brewed in the traditional gongfu style. This is a common sight outside these old tea shops.
We walked in and were faced with massive baskets full of different types of teas. There were numerous varieties of red (black) and pu'er teas – these being the most popular types of teas in that part of China. With too many to choose from, we asked the vendor what his recommendation for a decent red tea was. He pointed to a basket, and we had a look. Seemed ok. But ever the discerning and wary buyer, Dawn said something along the lines of (in Cantonese of course ) – "Isn't it the more golden buds that are in the tea, the better the quality? This one doesn't have many golden buds in it."
Of course our knowledge of tea was fairly limited back then (mine was pretty much zilch) but there was some truth in that statement. It's true when you're talking about Dian Hong Red teas – otherwise known as Yunnan Gold. In general, the more golden the Yunnan Gold, the better the quality.
Dian Hong (or Yunnan Gold) leaves. Obviously not the one we bought in
2009 as that stuff's long been drunk.
The tea vendor looked at us and replied – "you seem to know what you're talking about." He then proceeded to take a bag of tea out from a hidden draw and showed it to us. He told us it was the same "type" of tea but this one, had a lot more golden buds running through it. It looked a lot better than the previous one he had showed us and, after a little haggling, we ended up buying 500g of it.* At the time, we didn't know exactly what tea it was except that it was "red tea". We took it home, brewed it and...it was unlike any tea I had tried before.
Up until then, my experience with tea was either Lipton tea bags or the free stuff they serve you at yum cha and other Asian restaurants. This one we bought though, from a little tea shop in a little town in southern China was on a completely different level. It was truly amazing. The flavour and taste sensation was much more complex than any other red/black tea I had ever tried before. But what impressed me the most was the depth. The flavour lingered on your palate, in your throat and throughout your entire body long after you drank the tea. That's something that only good quality, specialty tea can offer and the first time I experienced that sensation was something quite special.
This is what real, proper tea is all about. It's the synergy between aroma and taste and it leaves you feeling a sense of calm and focus after you've drunk it. Most of the flavoured teas on the market have a great aroma but tastes like water once drunk. That's because they've been flavoured with essential oils (like perfume) that give off a great aroma but doesn't translate to taste or flavour.
Real tea is about the synergy between aroma and taste. The problem with most
flavoured teas out there is that they smell nice but taste like water.
The journey begins
So began our journey to discover the most remarkable teas around. Our tastes and experience has matured greatly since then and we're pretty picky about the teas that we choose to offer. However, aside from a range of semi-technical tests that we go through when evaluating teas, our main guiding criteria is that same sensation and emotional experience we had when we first brewed that Yunnan Gold all those years ago. If the tea brings back those same emotions for us, then we know we have found something remarkable. And we hope that all you tea lovers out there find it remarkable too.
Check out our Tea Collection
*We didn't try the tea before we decided to buy a heap. Rookie mistake. Luckily it turned out pretty well but if you ever buy from a tea vendor in China, you should always try out the tea first. They're normally brewing something anyway and they'll be happy to let you try before you buy. Also, ask them what they're drinking. Because a lot of the times, they reserve the best stuff for themselves :)