Admittedly, buying gifts for a tea snob can be very hard. Beyond figuring out what they like to drink, there is all the equipment, which they may already own. So we like to turn to the experts at giving tea gifts, the Chinese, to find the right tea with the right meaning for our favorite tea snobs. Below are the 3 popular gifts for tea lovers in China and the stories behind why they are so popular.
Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy is prized for its beautiful flavor and story about its creation. It is also one of the oldest oolongs produced in China, having been created sometime during the 18th century. Giving the gift that came from the Iron Goddess of Mercy shows the gift receiver that you wish them health and prosperity well into their future.
Puerh from Yunnan Provence – Given for its health benefits, Puerh tea is thought of as the fine wine of tea. It only gets better with age. This fermented tea is over 2,000 years old and can be made with a black, green or white tea base. The bacteria that is added to allow for the fermentation creates a naturally sweet and smooth tea with lots of complex flavors. This tea is usually purchased in cakes or bricks and is broken apart to make a cup of tea.
Bai Hao Silver Needle – Exquisite first pluck of the newest growth of the tea plant.
Bai Hao Silver Needle – This prized white tea has been under production during the Song Dynasty (969-1269 C.E.) but did not enter the European literature until the 1800’s. Its soft and floral flavor as well as the silver hairs on the tea leaves are distinctive characteristics that cannot be found in other teas. This is a more expensive tea as it can really only be plucked during the first harvest of the season. This tea was often given as a gift to the reigning Emperor as it was the first tea of the season.
There are a few characteristics these teas share, each one has been manufactured for centuries, given as gifts to Chinese Emperors to bring them good health and luck, and have exquisite and complex flavors.
We’ve looked at puerh twice now and the last time we spoke of the difference between raw and cooked pu’erh. In the spirit of ‘there no such thing as too much of a good thing’ this time we want to spend a bit more time on the manufacturing of raw ‘Sheng Cha’ puerh.
From Tea Tree to ‘Mao Cha’
While many Chinese teas are produced from a variety of c. sinensis var sinensis, the most desired puerh teas are typically from c. sinensis var assamica (see Camellia Sinensis). This is a much larger leaf version of the tea plant than var sinensis. Even more desired are the spring picked leaves of old growth wild tea trees rather than younger wild trees or cultivated tea bushes.
After picking the leaves undergo a process of heating to quickly ‘kill the green’. This process of heating the leaves effectively stops most oxidation, makes the leaves more flexible and pliable, and leads to the next step of rolling. Rolling, in turn step serves to break down the cellular structure inside the leaves allowing the juices inside the leaves to move about more freely and creates small tears in the leaf structure. This critical step enables extraction of flavor when the tea is infused in water many years in the future.
Once the leaves have been rolled they are left in the sun to dry out. The amount of time, like other steps in this process vary from factory to factory but can be up to a couple days. It’s at this point that we have ‘Mao Cha’ and the process diverges for raw ‘Sheng’ puerh vs cooked ‘Shu’ puerh.
‘Mao Cha’ to Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ Puerh
Various Shapes of Pressed Puerh – By 静葉 (Pu-erh tea allstars) [CC BY-SA 3.0
The real magic happens with Sheng Cha after the initial steps leading to Mao Cha. At this point the normal process is to process the Mao Cha into finished pressed tea cakes. The rough product is often stored for some amount of time before its ready to be pressed. When the manufacturer determines it is time the rough Mao Cha is sorted into grades and steamed to prepare it for pressing. This steaming ensures the leaves are pliable again and slightly sticky so the resulting form holds together.
Steamed and ready to go the tea is pressed into a desired shape. This is often a large round disc or cake but can take many other forms like bricks, coins, balls, or even a sort of mushroom shape. Traditionally this would be pressed into the shape by a heavy stone placed over the form though mechanical presses often do this in many factories. Pressed tea is much more dense and easier to handle. During the time of the tea-horse road this was essential to facilitate trade and today it still makes the tea much easier to handle and transport.
Pressed into the desired shape, Raw ‘Sheng’ Puerh is now stored for long term ripening, or fermentation. Unlike other forms of tea which are best used within about a year, raw puerh is best when aged. It mellows over years of aging and becomes more sought after the older it gets.
If you haven’t tried puerh its best to take some time and learn about it. Sheng and Shu puerh both provide very unique experiences. However, to fully enjoy them its best to also get a Yixing tea pot and learn how to quickly infuse this tea many times, exploring how the taste changes between infusions.
We’ve written before about puerh and dark teas. This style of teas are the only ones which are truly fermented instead of being oxidized like all others. In our earlier post however we just barely scratched the surface so in this post we revisit the topic in a bit more depth. Puerh emerged via a happy accident from the transport of tea along the tea horse road from Yunnan Province to Mongolia where it fermented along the journey and was traded for war horses. Over time demand overwhelmed supply and a method of speeding along production was needed. Thus production shifted to one of two methods; raw or cooked. Both provide a distinct, mellow and earthy taste though they are certainly not the same in taste or cost.
2008 Raw Tea Cake (7 years old)
Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ Puerh
Raw puerh is also referred to as sheng or green is produced naturally, allowing the tea to ferment as it ages over many years. Some of the best raw puerh is actually decades old, like a fine wine, getting better with age. Good quality raw puerh, stored well, will steadily increase in value with some fetching tens of thousands of dollars. For some, though very risky, it’s even seen as an investment.
It is produced in slightly different ways depending on the factory producing it and their own closely guarded method. However, the general process is to air dry fresh leaves, process and knead the leaves and sun dry the leaves. Finally, the loose puerh leaf is steamed and placed in a mold for final shaping before going into storage, ideally for 15 to 20 years of aging and fermentation.
Raw puerh cakes generally look a bit more green and the liquor color tends to be quite a bit lighter than that of cooked puerh. As it ages the flavor will develop and mellow.
Cooked ‘Shu Cha’ Puerh
The far more modern development is cooked puerh. Also called shu or ripe, this version is artificially aged in order to produce products in a short period of time and satisfy some of the demand for puerh. Like its raw cousin the factories which produce it each have their own variations, though the process originated in 1973 at Kunming Tea Factory.
Production of cooked puerh is substantially different than for raw. In this case leaves are piled on the factory floor and watered down in a process akin to composting. The specific steps here vary as does the length of time depending on the desired speed of this artificial aging. As a last step, like raw puerh, it is finally steamed and compressed.
Cooked puerh cakes are much darker, with leaf tips having darkened considerably to a golden or brown color. Similarly, the liquor of cooked puerh is a deep red or brown color.
Puerh in All Shapes & Sizes
Mini Puerh Bricks – Easy Single Serving
Puerh is available in loose leaf form, though more often it is found compressed into various forms. Puerh cakes can be quite large, almost the size of a dinner plate or even a discus. While this is a very typical form, it can be compressed into any number of shapes and sizes. For example some puerh is compressed into small squares, enough for one serving and sold in boxes of many squares. Other options include rectangles similar in size to a large candy bar, balls, small birds nest shapes, large balls, coins, and more.
A great place to start is with a small package of cooked puerh. This allows you to dip a toe in the water without waiting years to enjoy your tea and experimenting at a reasonable starting price.
Most Americans won’t think of Malawi as a tea growing country, however, this former British colony is home to tea estates that are still producing high quality loose leaf tea. So here is some background on this country and their tea industry.
Profile of Malawi
The country of Malawi is located in Africa, south of the equator near Madagascar and is about on the same latitude as Brazil and the northern part of Australia. Given that it isn’t too far south of the equator it should come as no surprise that agriculture is a large part of the economy of Malawi. According to the CIA World Fact Book, this country which is about the size of Pennsylvania, exports tobacco, tea, raw sugar, beans, soybean products, clothing and apparel in decreasing order. Indeed tobacco is the largest by far making up more than 50% of exports from the country.
As countries go, Malawi is relatively young. It was created as a British protectorate in 1891 and only became an independent nation in 1964. The majority of Malawi’s citizens are descendants of the Maravi, who settled into the region during the 1400s. While it is a democracy now, the people of the country experienced many strict laws under the one-time “President for Life” Hastings Banda until his reign ended in 1993.
Today Malawi continues to experience some challenges as it grows and develops including a decreasing demand for tobacco world wide, extreme weather events caused by climate change, and high rates of HIV/AIDS. Over the past 3-4 years, Malawi has incurred large damages from tropical storms and other severe weather that has wiped out infrastructure and large amounts of farm land. Being one of the poorest nations, the World Bank, IMF, United States and Belgium have been assisting in funding the rebuilding and repairs of the country.
Malawi Tea from Satemwa Estate
Map of Malawi with insert of Southern Malawi and Thyolo.
Located in the southern tip of Malawi, Satemwa Estate has been producing tea and coffee since 1923, long before Malawi became an independent country. It produces a wide variety of tea products including specialty orthodox tea. The tea estate is located in the southern highlands of the country well south of Lake Malawi and a mere 35 minutes from the countries highest peak, Mt. Mulanje. The Satemwa Estate actually has tea fields spread around the city of Thyolo extending up to Bvumbwe including a field at higher elevations along the slopes of the Michiru Mountain Conservation Area.
The Satemwa Estate tea plantation employs a large number of people in the region. While Malawi struggles in many areas, the plantation features numerous programs to support the well being of its staff. Programs include a health clinic which provides medical care to all employees and their families along with students from the Satemwa Primary School. Its health efforts even include work with the United Nations International Labour Office (UN ILO) to increase awareness and protection around HIV/AIDS. It is supporting national efforts for community policing and even has sporting activities for its employees. Finally, the estate maintains a primary school to combat education challenges in the country, providing schooling for about 900 students.
Satemwa Estate is also committed to reducing its impact on climate change, protecting the environment, and sustainable farming demonstrated through training programs for workers and community members. It is Fair Trade Certified as well as holding certification by both UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance.
Dominion Tea’s Selection of Specialty Tea from Satemwa Estate
Dominion Tea offers three teas from Satemwa Estate:
Thyolo Moto Satemwa – This handmade black tea from Satemwa Estate in southern Malawi is dried over guava wood. The beautiful large leaf unfurls when steeped to release a bright orange liquor with a sweet woody, floral and nutmeg flavor.
Puerh Leaf Satemwa Estate – Produced in the modern style (cooked vs aged), this leaf puerh produces a mild, earthy, and woody experience. Although China is known for its puerh, this leaf puerh from Malawi shows that it can be done in other parts of the world.
Zomba Green Tea– This beautiful long leaf green tea is from the Satemwa Estate in Malawi. Hand plucked and twisted, this fragrant green tea has excellent dry sweet grass and vegetal notes. This tea mellows and is fabulous as an iced tea.
CIA World Fact Book, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/malawi/#introduction
The lunar new year is fast approaching and with it a chance to look into the Chinese culture and find new ways to use tea. The Spring Festival, which used to be the Chinese New Year, was renamed in 1913 when the Communist Party took over China and put the country on the Gregorian calendar (this is our modern calendar which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII). The Spring Festival corresponds with the lunar new year, which starts this year on February 19th. In Chinese culture, It is considered a time for cleaning, gathering of families and celebrating a fresh start.
Like every family gathering, no matter which country you live in, there is plenty of food. A typical dish, which uses tea in a unique way, are Chinese tea eggs. These are basically spiced hard boiled eggs. The combination and concentration of spices are unique to every family. So while I use one combination below, feel free to modify for your taste.
Spicing for Chinese Tea Eggs
Chinese Tea Eggs
6 large eggs
4 tablespoons of Soy Sauce
1 tablespoon of Black or Puerh Tea (traditionally this is made with Puerh)
1 small cinnamon stick
½ tablespoon anise seeds (3 to 4 Star Anise if you happen to have a good spice shop nearby)
1 tablespoon dried orange peel
½ tablespoon peppercorns
You will need tongs, a bowl with ice and water to cool the eggs and a spoon to crack their shells.
Place the eggs in sauce pan or large pot. You will want the pot big enough to hold the eggs in a single layer and allow you to pour in enough water to cover the eggs entirely. Place the eggs in the pot and fill it with water. Bring the water to a boil and then lower to simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the eggs from the water and put into the bowl with ice water. This will cool the eggs enough for you to handle them without burning yourself.
Completed Tea Eggs
Assuming none of the eggs broke during the initial cooking, just leave the water in the pot as you will be putting the eggs back in it. If one did, drain out the water, it will be foamy, wipe out the pot and fill with fresh water. Pull an egg out of the ice water and use a spoon to crack the egg shell. You are trying to make a lot of small cracks without removing the shell. Don’t worry if you lose part of the shell, just crack the entire shell then place the egg back in the pot. Do this to the remaining eggs.
Once all the eggs are back in the pot, add in the soy sauce, tea and spices. Add more water if necessary to get the liquids above the eggs. Turn the heat back on and bring the water up to a small simmer and allow to cook for at least 2 hours, if you want a darker web on your eggs you can simmer up to 3 hours.
This makes a salted and slightly spicy hard-boiled egg that is also colored by the tea and soy sauce.
Enjoy the lunar new year with a new way to use tea.