My Favourite Chinese Teas
In celebration of Chinese New Year, I’ve chosen five of my favourite Chinese teas of all time. All these teas have something in common – they have incredible depth and each have two fundamental qualities that work so well together. They can all be made perfectly in a Tea-iere, or drunk in a lidded mug and some from a glass. I hope you feel inspired to try them.
1. Ali Shan – from Chenjia Garden, Chiayi
This is one of the teas I drink most often. One of the things that characterise a great tea is the presence of two fundamental qualities that complement or offset each other. With Ali Shan, this is the combination of the refreshing and uplifting high notes, which are grounded in a satisfying creaminess. Our partner farmer, Chen Shengteng, does a fantastic job of encouraging a rich and bio-diverse garden, processing the tea with light oxidation and firing to ensure the high notes and rich body.
The tea is easy to make and I enjoy it two ways – either with 90°C water, which accentuates the lush greenness and creaminess, or with boiling water which brings out the high notes and buttery-ness. It works very well in a one cup tea-iere, or I put enough tea to sparsely cover the bottom of a lidded mug and pour over water, leaving it to infuse until all the leaves open and settle. This method gives a wonderful graduation of flavour from light at the top of the cup to much deeper and richer towards the bottom.
2. Traditional Iron Buddha – from Zhenming Garden, Fujian
This is one of my all-time favourite Chinese teas. It brings together so many wonderful qualities – fruitiness through the 30% oxidisation, complemented and underpinned by the richness of the medium bake. It’s soft, yet has the clarity and firmer qualities of minerality. It’s both soothing and enervating.
It’s difficult to find a great tea made in this style: the majority of Iron Buddha / Tieguanyin is made in the greener style which is very lightly oxidised and fired, emphasising floral aromas. I like this style, but I find it far less satisfying and interesting than the traditional style. We’ve worked really hard to find a producer who will oxidise the tea sufficiently and fire and bake it without over-doing it – many go too far or do it too quickly resulting in a harsh and one-dimensional result.
3. Dragon Well – from Wangfu Garden, Zhejiang
It’s so well known but it never ceases to delight and satisfy me because it combines sappy spring-freshness with satisfying toastiness. Some enjoy Dragon Well that is fired to a high degree, but I prefer it when the tea maker emphasises the greenness and spring freshness and gently offsets it with a light firing that imparts richness and warmth. I find too much fire kills the life of the tea.
This is a tea that I love to smell as I open the bag and see how beautifully flat the spearhead shaped leaves look. I take a pinch and hold the leaves between my fingers, appreciating how beautifully they lie on top of one another. I love to make it in our Tea Master, but I also drink it directly out of a glass in the local Chinese style of Hangzhou. If you warm the glass with hot water (which you discard) and then drop the tea in, the stream that remains teases out the sumptuous aroma of the leaves and whets your appetite. Try pouring over a little water at around 80°C, allowing the leaves to start to sink before pouring over more water to fill the glass. Be warned though, this method is not for you if you don’t like getting the odd leaf in your mouth as you drink!
4. Shimen Green Mountain – from Ziliang Garden, Hunan
This is a tea that we have only stocked for a few years and one that I’ve come to love and rank as one of my favourite Chinese teas. Compared to Dragon Well, it’s lighter and fresher and doesn’t have any toastiness, but it has an incredibly voluptuous mouthfeel and intense spring-freshness. I love to look at the fur on the very young buds and appreciate how they stick to my fingers.
Similar to Dragon Well, I like to drink this tea directly out of a glass, but I do it slightly differently. I pour water in at quite a cool temperature (around 70°C-75°C), then I drop the leaves into the water and watch them sink beautifully to the bottom, slowly spiraling down. Unlike Dragon Well, the leaves all sink very quickly. Watching the leaves open is part of the enjoyment and I leave it quite a long time for the infusion to become rich before sipping the tea.
5. Jade Sword – from Baotian Garden, Hunan
For the times that require the convenience of a tea bag but without compromise, my choice is always Jade Sword. It is grown high in the mountains of Hunan and is lightly fired to ensure the intense spring-fresh flavours are enhanced and retained in the tea. I enjoy its thick mouthfeel, which supports the intense freshness and crisp finish.