To me, tea is not simply adding hot water to tea leaves or dunking a tea bag in a cup of boiling water. A lot of precision is required to brew a perfect cup of tea and even so it does not ensure the results desired if technique isn’t up to standard. In my recent trips to Japan, Taiwan and China, I brought back some really good teas and I would not ruin them by brewing them the wrong way.
There are many types of Japanese tea and I still consider myself new to it. There’s Hojicha (roasted tea made from Bancha), Genmaicha (tea with brown rice) and Green tea – the most common being Sencha. Most of the Japanese green tea we drink is simply Sencha. Within the Sencha category there is Gyokuro (玉露) which is a very expensive grade of green tea which has a different harvest process – it is grown under the shade at the later part before harvested. This type of tea requires brewing temperature of just 50⁰C (in some cases, 40⁰C) as opposed to the normal 80⁰C of Sencha. I do not have any on hand but this shows that we must pay close attention to the brewing methods for all different types of tea in order to do it justice. Ippodo is a good brand to buy tea from.
The other popular Japanese tea with an entirely different way of preparation is Matcha – which is Sencha ground into powder. The process of making matcha powder is documented here.
I picked up a small can of matcha powder from Nakamura Tokichi in Uji, Kyoto (the area in Japan which produces the best matcha and tea in Japan).
I may not be 100% correct but here’s how to do it:
Equipment required – Bamboo Whisk (100% essential to use this), tea cup, 80⁰C water (measured with thermometer), bamboo scoop (optional), sieve.
1. Warm the cup and whisk with hot water.
2. Take 2 scoops of Matcha powder and sieve it into the cup.
3. Add a small amount of 80⁰C water and whisk into a paste.
4. Add more water and start whisking lightly but quickly (bottom of whisk does not touch the cup) in a M shape motion until foam appears. (DO NOT whisk in circular motion.)
5. Add more water until the amount to drink and continue whisk until as foamy as possible.
6. Serve immediately. Usually to counter the bitterness, something sweet is consumed before having matcha.
Note: Do not wash the bamboo whisk with detergent.
Taiwan is also a tea producing country, with green, black and oolong being the main types they produce. Almost every county in Taiwan produces tea. Of course the other famous tea they have in Taiwan is Bubble Tea (or Pearl Milk Tea) but that shall be irrelevant here.
In my recent trip to Taichung, I got to visit Sun Moon Lake and even though I did not really enjoy the scenery and food, the tea served at lunch was good. I got to know that this was their famous Sun Moon Lake black tea. Any black tea originating from this region is called Sun Moon Lake black tea, but within this category there are various subcategories like Assam (阿薩姆) tea and #18 (紅玉紅茶, 十八號). In any case, they are all really good and this is my new favourite unflavoured black tea! It’s better than any English Breakfast Tea I’ve tried and of course, better than Lipton. No wonder the Pearl Milk Tea in Taiwan tastes better – they use their fresh local teas in them!
I got a box of Sun Moon Lake Black Tea from Taoyuan airport and even that one tastes really good. I should have bought it onsite at Sun Moon Lake but there’s always next time. This would make a really good base for milk tea but personally I like to have it on its own without any milk or sugar. 90-95⁰C is good for black tea, steeping at least 3 minutes.
I visited Hangzhou this time and was delighted to know that they have the best Long Jing tea there. Westlake region of Hangzhou was the original site of Long Jing tea cultivation and the 18 Imperial bushes from Qing Dynasty still survives today. The tea leaves from these bushes goes on auction every year. There are many grades of Long Jing and I believe it is best if you get it from West Lake of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province where it is authentic and not from other regions which produces the tea using Long Jing’s technique (this is found in other places of China and Taiwan).
Among the West Lake Longjing (西湖龙井) category, the tea can be named according to the area it is grown like Lion’s Peak or Meijiawu, but all harvested by different plantation owners. As long as it’s grown in the area, it is all called 西湖龙井 and they usually fetch a higher price.
It may be a bit confusing but there’s also varying grades – this is determined mainly by when the tea was harvested. Generally the first picked tea of the year is most expensive. Prices (and the quality) drops once it’s picked after Qing Ming Festival every year – so to make things simpler they will state whether it’s 明前 or 明后 – plucked before or after Qing Ming Festival. 明前 tea are usually lighter while明后 has a stronger taste. The top grade of明前 tea can be very expensive. One shop I enquired at sells their top grade for 400元/斤 (S$86/~50g). The mid-range one cost 160元/斤(S$$35) while the lower one cost (S$20). The 明后 teas are much cheaper but I didn’t bother asking. I believe there are even more expensive higher quality ones out there.
Good quality ones will have a lighter colour, uniformed size, and a very tight flat shape. Lower grade ones will be darker and look more irregular. When brewed, the tea would be pale yellow and not green, even though Long Jing is a type of green tea. You know that your tea is low quality if the brew is dark, but some people can actually prefer the strong tannic taste.
To brew, water should be 70-80⁰C. Any higher will destroy the nutrients and not bring out the potential of the tea. According to the China National Tea Museum, glass ware or porcelain can be used for green tea. However, clay Yixing teapots are welcomed too, just that green tea can have the option of using glass and porcelain too while for black teas glass and porcelain are not recommended.
For longer storage, they actually recommended keeping tea leaves in the freezer.
Also from Hangzhou, I bought osmanthus (桂花), rose buds, blooming flower tea and chamomile (胎菊).
Osmanthus tea is said to be good for detoxification, digestion and promoting beauty and weight loss.
Here I have added some osmanthus flowers to my Long Jing tea and made some osmanthus jelly to go along. I love the scent of osmanthus. I could add it to everything.
胎菊 is a type of 杭白菊 which is a local produce from Zhejiang province too. 胎菊 is considered to be the buds because it is picked before the flower of杭白菊 blooms. This is slightly cooling in nature and is good for relieving heat.
Here I brewed it with some wolfberries.
On the other hand, rose is slightly warm in nature. It is good for women and can promote beauty and ease monthly cramps. It is also high in vitamins A, C, B, E, and K (that’s almost everything).
The blooming flower tea is just a beautiful slight to look at. This is created by hand with flowers and tea leaves and would bloom like a flower when brewed in hot water. I wasn’t sure which flavor I bought honestly, but jasmine tea tastes pretty good.
If you have the chance to visit China or Hangzhou in particular, do seize the chance to get those teas! Aside from the above mentioned, my other favourite Chinese teas for now includes Da Hong Pao and Silver Needle, both from Fujian. It is impossible to try every type yet so I’m sure there are still more teas I may like from China.
Singapore doesn’t produce teas, but we have a few local tea companies which bring in teas from the above countries and more, as well as creating their own tea blends of flavored tea. If you realize, the teas I mentioned from Japan, Taiwan and China are good alone – they are just green tea or black tea, and are not flavoured. However, TWG makes some really good flavoured tea too. For these teas, I don’t recommend adding water a second time and it is a must to strain after 3 – 5 minutes, or else the flavours will somehow taste weird.
Here are some of my favourites:
1837 Black Tea
This is one of my favourite flavoured black teas, flavoured with fruits and flowers. The taste is complex and there are layers to it. If you have no idea what to try at TWG, just try this one.
Silver Moon Tea
This is a green tea blend.
French Earl Grey
My first encounter with loving tea was with Earl Grey and Earl Grey is still my ultimate love. That was almost 8 years ago. It was just a random tea bag from Crabtree & Evelyn and I remember loving the aroma. In fact, it’s one of the better Earl Greys I know of. Earl grey is black tea flavoured with bergamot. TWG’s French Earl Grey is good old earl grey with the addiction of French cornflower, which is a gorgeous shade of cornflower blue. This extra touch makes it even more fragrant and I have repurchased this one.
I like to have these teas with scones, macarons or delicate cakes.