My husband claims I bought all of the tea in China – or at least, that’s what he said when the Beijing government refused to ship it to America because it exceeded the 2 kilogram weight limit (roughly 4 ½ pounds). Eventually he forgave this transgression; five countries and two checked bags full of tea later.
After climbing the Great Wall, I couldn’t imagine leaving Beijing without some souvenir tea. After all, Beijing is the tea capital of China with some of the best tea in the world. Tea comes from the camellia evergreen bush native to China, Tibet and Asia, but hundreds of different tea bushes have been cultivated as hybrids from the original camellia sinensis and camellia assamica bushes. According to the tea master of the Shin Shin Tea house in Beijing, tea lovers have more than 3,000 types of tea to choose from.
Our tea lesson and fallout buying spree started at a large teak table filled with a myriad of different scents and tea paraphernalia. Stacked shelves lined throughout the two- floor complex, paid homage to the art of tea in China. It is as complex as the cultivars, which are a cross selection of tea bushes stemming from the original evergreen bush. Each cultivar possesses characteristics unique to the provinces or countries where the plant is grown. Factors like the bush type, climate and production process influence both the qualities and flavor of the tea. Tea production is not unlike wine production with growing variables in each industry determining the unique taste characteristics and customer appeal.
The tea ceremony was an experience I’ll never forget; a combination of fact-finding and olfactory overload. The tea samplings helped us to understand how tea is classified and the significance of the processing techniques. While there is still debate about the number of official tea categories, experts generally agree on these categories and these medicinal properties:
- Green tea – is heated to stop the tea leaf from oxidizing and has a grassy, toasted flavor with a clean finish. It has the highest caffeine levels and polyphenols (optimizing medicinal and mineral health benefits) so you feel energized yet calm;
- Yellow tea – is most expensive and rare. It is similar to green tea but undergoes an added heating process that softens the flavor, making it more like a sweet white tea. It is crammed with polyphenols to prevent cancer, treat liver and bowel disease, and aids in a host of other health benefits including diabetes, weight loss, and beauty enhancement;
- White tea – is the least processed with a light and elegant nutty flavor… a great morning cup can boost antioxidants for cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, bolster anti-cancer properties, and aid in weight loss;
- Oolong tea – is semi-oxidized tea with a wide variety of flavors to keep the freshness of green tea but additional roasting and processing techniques give it a smooth, fresh, fruity flavor or deeper toasty notes. Health benefits include teeth and bone health, enhanced memory and energy and weight reduction;
- Black tea – is almost fully oxidized tea (called red tea in China) with rich tannins and diverse, robust flavors. The sweet notes and a comforting aroma help you to feel relaxed and the health benefits improve blood circulation, asthma, and digestion.
- Post fermented tea/Pu Erh – ferments and ages over time (20-25 years) with a woody, earthy flavor that’s clean and fresh. Health properties include preventing diabetes, and lowering the bad and raising the good cholesterol.
- Scented teas – often green tea scented with flowers or flavored with fruit. Jasmine is one of the most popular types of scented teas, helping to build your immune system and promote relaxation and stress reduction.
Tea tasting is an enlightening experience in Chinese tradition and philosophy. No attention to detail is spared, and the ritual of preparation, presentation and enjoyment dates back more than 5,000 years to Emperor Shennong. While the tea industry has developed and modernized since then, Chinese people believe tea tied to our longevity and mental health, and tea should be savored to attain “joy of spirit”1.
Motivated to learn more about the health benefits of tea2, we filled our baskets and rang up a hefty bill only to discover we would have to lug this tea with us on our continued travels. But resting comfortably at home and sipping on the teas of my labor, I can see why tea (second only to water) continues to be the world’s most consumed beverage. Here’s to hoping I’ve bought enough to stay healthy for a long, long, time.
- See: http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-tea/
- See China Life website: http://www.chinalifeweb.com