Steeped in tradition
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Vancouverites love their coffee. Where else could you open a coffee shop that charges up to $15 per cup?
In Richmond, where half the population is Asian, it's Chinese tea that commands the big bucks for a rare brew.
If you think $135 for a half a pound of rare Panamanian coffee at Caffe Artigiano is a lot, consider the pricetag on a 30-year-old, 400-gram cake of pu-erh tea at The Best Tea House in Richmond: $1,500.
And that's nothing compared to what some connoisseurs in China will pay for tea that is 80 to 100 years old.
As reporter Nelson Bennett and photographer Brett Beadle recently discovered, tea isn't just a hot drink, as far as connoisseurs like Michael Fung of Best Tea House are concerned. It is a social event and an art form.
And when the tea is 20 years old, it's an acquired taste.
Michael Fung sits before an elegant Chinese tea set, like some serene Oriental alchemist, making an "infusion" of white tea.
I didn't even know there was such a thing.
Dressed in a traditional Chinese tunic with Mandarin collar, he moves slowly, deliberately, concentrating, as he pours boiling water from a pot filled with mineral stones into an elegant, miniature Zi Sha clay teapot that looks like it belongs in a child's tea set.
Zi Sha clay is considered the best for brewing tea, Fung says. A modestly priced Zi Sha teapot will set you back roughly $200 to $300.
Fung allows the tea to steep for only five seconds before he pours an ounce of pale, golden tea into a ceramic cup no bigger than a shot glass.
There's a reason the teapot and cups are so small, he says.
"In a small cup, it's hot all the time," says Fung, a tea connoisseur and managing director of Best Tea House at Empire Centre.
He pours a cup for himself, then gestures with his hand: "Please."
I smell it first, as instructed, then take three sips. He then invites me to smell the empty cup, to savour the tea's after-fragrance. It has a sweet grainy aroma.
Fung will make up to four infusions of this white tea, which is very smooth and subtle in taste. Each successive infusion lasts about five seconds longer than the one prior.
Unlike the black tea favoured by Westerners, Chinese tea is generally steeped more than once, but only for a few seconds at a time. Steep it too long, and it releases too much caffeine and too many catechins, the compound that gives tea its bitter taste.
I ask if Chinese tea drinkers ever put cream or sugar in their tea, and Fung smiles and shakes his head.
That is a distinctly Western practice, and he suggests it's because the black tea that became popular in England is more "coarse."
"In China, the tea broth is very silky smooth. We don't have to add cream," Fung says.
After I sample the white tea, Fung prepares some oolong, which is fragrant and has a stronger, more bitter taste than the white tea.
White and green tea are processed without fermentation, Fung says, whereas oolong (something between green and black tea) is partially fermented. Red (black) tea is fully fermented (or oxidized).
Tea originated in China and according to some sources has been drunk there for about five thousand years. It was originally drunk for medicinal purposes, and some medical studies have shown it to have a number of health benefits, including anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. The American Food and Drug Administration disputes claims that green tea reduces the risks of cancer, however.
Generally, there are four types of tea: white, green, red (black) and oolong. However, Fung says there are also sub-varieties, like yellow tea and brown tea.
Within the green-black category is "pu-erh" tea. This tea is a category all its own, and it is classified much like wine (according to year and area it is grown) because aging is said to improve its quality.
High quality tea that is 20 to 30 years ld fetches prices as high as $1,500 in Fung's shop. Pu-erh tea in the 80 to 100 year range sells for $30,000 or more, Fung says
"I don't have any here. We have some in Hong Kong that age," he says.
He refers to The Best Tea House franchise in Hong Kong. Fung's brother-in-law, Vesper Chan, opened his first tea shop there in 1988. There are now four shops in Hong Kong.
Three years ago, Fung and his wife, Patricia Chan, opened a Best Tea Store in Richmond at Empire Centre.
Here you can buy Chinese teas ranging in price from $22 for 100 grams of White Peony tea, to $1,500 for a 400-gram cake of pu-erh tea. You can also buy elegant little tea sets -- a basic set starting at about $300.
And if you are interested in learning more about Chinese tea, Fung offers classes.
Unlike making a pot of tea English style, making a good cup of Chinese tea is a bit of an art form. It is less ritualized than the Japanese tea ceremony, more of a social occasion. For connoisseurs like Fung, nothing beats drinking tea that has aged for a few decades.
I ask if Fung has ever drunk 100-year-old tea. He has.
"It's really hard to explain," he says. "It's pure. You can feel the age."
To show me the difference in taste, Fung first brews me a pot of one-year old pu-erh tea, then some 20-year-old tea.
The brewing process is different than brewing white or green tea. After flaking about six ounces of dried, pressed leaves from a cake of tea, he puts the tea in a ceramic brewing bowl instead of a tea pot. Fung rinses the tea twice by pouring in boiling water and immediately pouring it out. This not only cleans the tea, but "wakes" it up.
"It's been sitting there for 20 years -- sleeping," he says. "So we want to open it up.
Fung says pu-erh tea balances cholesterol and lowers blood pressure.
"On the spiritual side, pu-erh makes you very relaxed, especially when it's getting aged," he says.
I must admit, I do feel relaxed later when I leave Fung's tea shop, which is surprising given how much tea I drank while I was there.
After it is rinsed, the pu-erh tea can have up to 10 infusions (steepings).
Brett and I sample the one-year old tea first. I like it. It is fragrant and less bitter than the oolong that Fung brewed for me earlier, and it has a very strong perfume that lingers after it is drunk.
Later, Fung brews us some 20-year-old tea. I must confess, I didn't like it. It has a musty smell and an earthy, woody taste. I certainly wouldn't shell out $550 charged for a 400-gram cake of this 20-year-old tea.
Then again, I wouldn't pay $15 for a cup of coffee, either.
TYPES OF TEA
Although there are just four basic types of Chinese tea, there are a number of sub varieties. The varieties largely depend on the level of oxidization or fermentation.
White - This non-fermented tea is made from the new leaves and buds of the tea plant. White Peony and Silver Needle are popular white teas.
Green - Also non-fermented, green tea is purported to have the greatest health benefits.
Oolong - Semi-fermented, oolong is something of a hybrid between green and black tea.
Black - Fully fermented, this type of tea is stronger than green tea and contains more caffeine. It is more typical of the tea grown in India and Sri Lanka. Chinese tea drinkers know it as "red" tea.
Pu-erh - Fully fermented and aged. Colour ranges from green to black.
Scented - Non-fermented tea, popular types include Jasmine, Osmanthus and Dried Rose.
? Richmond News 2007
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