The best tea is not revealed by plant genealogy, terroir or processing techniques. Matter of fact, it’s not even determined by taste.
After 13 years in the game, this musing became a clear conviction only recently.
Our Phoenix oolongs had just arrived and I was to taste-test them to find any discrepancies between this new inventory versus the original samples – as is the customary practice of many a tea purveyor.
But I am prone to character lapses, which can be set off by my Suspicious Merchant Syndrome (SMS). When I tasted the newly arrived teas, they were underwhelming. Yet I recalled being very taken by the original samples. It was at this moment my SMS kicked in and my mind immediately speculated there'd been foul play.
As it turned out though, after 45 minutes of testing and retesting – and stepping away for brief moments to attend to menial tasks – I realised that the flaw was not in the tea but in my character.
You see, in my rush to judgement, I was not brewing the new stock properly, not allowing the tea to rest after immersion.
This had only dawned on me when by chance, I allowed an infusion to cool after returning from an aforesaid distraction. Resting makes all the difference in some multi-layered Chinese teas, particularly Phoenix oolongs. Though I had long known about this on a theoretical level, I never truly believed it enough to earnestly apply it. Try for yourself so you’ll know that this is neither psychosomatic nor the pedanticism of a savant. Simply, while tea’s still too hot, the steam prevents you from smelling and the water scorches the tastebuds. Since Phoenix oolongs are known for their intricate combinations of fruit (rockmelon, mango), floral (orchid), spice (cinnamon) and mineral (wet stone) flavours, all that would be lost on a scalding infusion.
Literally, all I had to do was wait one minute. The tea went from zero to hero – I was able to enjoy the full bouquet and all the notes. That one minute unmasked the fallacies of my impatience, prejudice and cynicism.
The best tea is one that exposes the human condition. Indeed, sometimes these revelations result in a healthy dose of self-loathing. Other times, though, they showcase the better side of human nature; they tell tales of resilience, ingenuity and humility.
I’ve always been drawn to stories about people thriving under confinement. It’s why I love rap music so much. Tea culture and hip hop might make for an odd coupling, but there’s a certain undertone in our Tea Craft company persona. Imagine you’re told, “No, you’re too poor to have an instrument. What do you know about music?” – only to come back with: “You know what? I’m going to take your music, cut it all up and make it more popular than you ever did!”
Goddamn human beings at their finest.
Literally, all I had to do was wait one minute. The tea went from zero to hero – I was able to enjoy the full bouquet and all the notes.
Similarly in the world of tea, there’s plenty of ingenuity borne of constraints. Stemming from the Japanese feudal days, people from the peasant class couldn’t afford to drink expensive green tea every day. So as a way to stretch out their supply, they added old rice. By now, of course, genmaicha is also enjoyed by drinkers on the pointier end of the socioeconomic pylon. The tea has been elevated to a point where producers are selective about the type and roast profile of the rice, let alone the quality of the green tea base.
The Hayashi family invited us to stay on their tea farm nestled inside the lush Kirishima forests in Japan, so we could witness this level of artisanship in person. Their farm is bio-dynamic - meaning not only is it organic, but it’s largely dependent on natural relationships to sort itself out. This system isn’t limited to the local fauna – like the little ducks that peck at and pick out the weeds and insects – it also extends to include local humans, too. Yep, it’s the next-door organic rice farmer who is called upon to contribute the other crucial ingredient in their genmaicha!
Whilst the Hayashis’ genmaicha definitely offers a cleaner and sweeter brew than most versions of this tea, is it the taste that I treasure and will remember most? Or is it the family’s resourcefulness, generosity and spirit that makes me deem theirs to be the best genmaicha available?
Rural Chinese folk, of course, are also no strangers to human ingenuity and kindness. Through a complicated network involving intertwining degrees of separation I care not to untangle, I found myself drinking a bright magenta moonshine in a mud-brick hut poured by a third-generation tie guan yin (iron goddess) tea grower. Preceding this was a 10-dish home-cooked lunch spread, including own-grown organic choy sum, bitter melon, cauliflower and snow peas as well as dumplings, braised pork and tofu. All this for some strangers they'd never had any prior contact with.
The members of the Xie family are humble, generous and resourceful. After lunch, they walked us through their land in Jishan, Anxi, which sits some 1000m above sea level. Bellies cradled in hands, we sauntered through a maze of never-to-be-finished terraces and dormant tea fields. They explained that though it’s off-season, their livelihood is still thankfully intact, due to their much sought-after double-fired iron goddess oolong. Originally, re-baking tie guan yin was a way to bring new life into last season’s stale tea, but it has since been taken to a whole new art form - so much so that the craftsmanship involved in re-firing now warrants a higher price than the fresh version!
When I returned to Sydney, I sipped on the Xie’s double-roast - an unforgettable aroma of fairy floss and macadamia flooded the room. The taste - yes, delectable. By far, the best tie guan yin I'd had – but only because it is always accompanied by a side of braised tofu, a swig of moonshine and a tug on the heartstring.
This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.