Is it possible to work for a tea company and still be surprised by tea now and then? I can answer that with an emphatic yes. You tea lovers out there know how varied tea can be. As the side of our boxes used to say, “tea is like wine.” Sure, all tea comes from the same plant — the two leaves and a bud of the camellia sinensis bush. But the taste of each tea, and the experience of drinking it, can be wildly different, given hundreds of different factors.
Don’t believe me? I got proof recently when our certification manager, Heath Hillman, decided to serve the office some tea the way it’s consumed in tea shops in China, with a Gongfu set.
The set itself we were using was a lovely collection of tiny china cups, a larger cup almost the size of a traditional teacup for steeping the tea, and a small side pitcher, all sitting atop a bamboo tray and matching bamboo grate, if you will.
As Heath says, the grate is all about not being afraid to make a mess with the water being poured during the tea service. Besides being a representation of a “we have plenty” attitude, he says it’s also a cultural contradiction between Chinese and Japanese tea culture, with the Japanese being much more neat and orderly with their tea presentations.
We get started with a small package of Tie Guan Yin tea, which is similar to Oolong and considered an everyday tea in China, Heath says. He poured all seven grams of loose leaf tea into the larger china cup — also called a gaiwan. Just so you know comparatively how much tea we’re working with, there are 2.5 grams of tea in each sachet of two leaves and a bud. Using the office’s trusty electric kettle, Heath poured water over the leaves and then covered the cup with a small lid. The tea leaves quickly expanded and Heath used the lid in a gentle circular rocking motion, lifting the lids to each of our noses so we could breathe in the tea’s aroma. It was light and sweet, like honeysuckle.
He then poured the freshly steeped tea (steeped quickly, for about 30 seconds) into our tiny cups, and we took our first slurps. The tea is deeply buttery – like no tea I’ve ever tasted before.
“We’re going to steep the tea several times, and with each washing the taste will change,” Heath said.
And boy, did it. The second washing cleared away that buttery flavor for a light astringency. “Yum,” said Christy, and Bess said her taste buds still detected a honeysuckle flavor. Quite honestly, the third washing didn't taste like much besides hot water to me, and I worried that my palate was already becoming fatigued, while Dina said she thinks the honeysuckle taste is getting stronger and Bess called the tea “balanced” at that point.
But I shouldn’t have doubted my palate, because for the fourth washing Christy and I turned to each other and say without prompting that the tea has a starchy, toast-like quality to it. On the tea’s fifth washing I said it tastes vegetal, Christy said “cut grass,” Dina said “fresh,” and Heath said the tea’s depth has been revealed.
Our tasting ended there. In Chinese tea shops, Heath said they typically steep the tea three to four times, with those last two washings being considered the best. For me, that knock-my-socks-off first buttery washing was the most memorable, but that just speaks to the subjective nature of this unique tasting.
In the coastal tea-growing regions of China, says Heath, the walls of the tea shops are covered in containers of loose tea, and you don’t go in to simply buy a tea and take it home, nor do you go to sit at your own table with a cup of tea and read a book. The tea drinking experience is a communal one, sometimes at a beautiful, sprawling table crafted out of a tree stump. Water is sometimes brought in from a nearby river in buckets to be boiled (in the more rural areas), and the tiny cups of the Gongfu set are heated in bowls of water and handled delicately with tongs. People go to relax, to be social and enjoy the tea, and buy tea to take home afterward.
Please tell us -- what's a memorable tea experience you’ve had that really wowed you?