Sips on a Sunday afternoon

I’ve sipped iced tea, herbal tea, fruit tea and green tea. But until Sunday, I’d never encountered tea that smelled like my grandmother’s closet. It was the third selection of six teas that were part of a guided tasting at 3 Cups in Chapel Hill. Kit Conway of Chapel Hill, a certified tea specialist from the Specialty Tea Institute, a tea industry group, took the group on a tour of Chinese teas from white and green to oolong and black. Conway conducts tea tastings, Chinese Gong Fu tea ceremonies and other events through her business, Tea Chi.

Like wine, fine teas have an amazing variety of flavors and colors, and are influenced by terroir, that mystical mixture of soil, air and climate. White and green teas are lowest in oxidation, Conway said, so what you taste is closer to the pure leaf. As you progress through oolong to black, the tea is more heavily oxidized, usually through the work of the tea maker. What you taste becomes more influenced by how the tea was produced. For example, the leaves of the Super Fancy Formosa Oolong I sampled are both twisted in rolling machines and fired in an oven rather than in the traditional wok over a charcoal fire.

Some varieties are picked only at certain times of day, or times of year. Conway said that the best Dragonwell teas are picked only during the first two weeks of the season. The Chinese Dragonwell Green (also sometimes called Long Jing) that I tasted was strongly astringent-tasting, and smelled like walking through a grassy meadow. Conway said that it takes three years for a new processor to master the traditional techniques used to produce the tea.

Some teas use only the “first flush,” which means the first shoots of the growing season. Only the leaf bud and first three leaves are plucked from each stem of the tea plant for these finer teas – both for flavor and to make sure the plant can recover and grow.

I found myself using wine-tasting words to describe the brews. The Chinese Royal Golden Yunnan, a black tea, had a smoky aroma and an earthy, mushroomy flavor. The Chinese Pai Mutan White was smooth and sweet with a refreshing scent, like a fine white wine.

Then I put my nose into the Green Dragon Oolong. I smelled cedar and mothballs so strongly that my head jerked back. If the tea had included a hint of White Shoulders, it would have smelled exactly like my grandmother during the winter. I can’t tell you what the tea tasted like because I just could not get past that aroma. And the thought that my grandmother, if she had been there, would have said that tea needed some sugar and ice.


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