I first travelled to China on a backpacking holiday in 2004. It was the dead of winter, and I’d come from sunny Adelaide. My husband (boyfriend at the time), Zac, and I soon discovered that tea tasting was a great way to warm up. The welcoming nature of Chinese people means that they are quite happy for you to come and sit in their tea shop for hours, sipping hot tea and thawing out. And you don’t have to buy anything (though I usually did because I felt sorry that we’d taken so much of their time)! My first chinese character that I learnt to recognise was chá, 茶, a welcoming sign when your toes are numb and your legs are tired. So, we traversed the country, sampling teas from many a province, without really knowing what we were doing. I bought a delicate tea set to perform tea ceremonies at home and for my birthday Zac organised a tea tray to be brought back from China for me.Hence, I returned to Australia and moved on from my Twinings Lady Grey. I would spend ages perusing the concoctions devised by The Tea Bar and T2 in Australia. I’m pretty sure tea and tea shopping kept me sane through my many hours of thesis writing!
Upon returning to China to settle, Zac and I both had a mis-match of English teaching jobs. Zac used to go to one students’ house weekly for a private English class and he was always served amazing tea. When complimented on their tea collection, his student offered to take Zac and I down to Maliandao (马连道), Beijing’s ‘Tea Street’.
It was sensory overload. As you drive along this street, tea shop after tea shop drifts past the window. Each window is stacked high with tea canisters, paper-wrapped tea bricks and beautiful tea cups. We got out of the car at a four-storey “Tea City” and went inside. The first thing to do when walking inside a tea market is breathe…. and breathe…. and breathe again. The scent is amazing. It’s very earthy with subtle floral hints. You have to experience it for yourself.
We were led to a small shop on the ground floor and sat down around a table in front of a cute girl with gorgeous skin. As my Chinese was minimal at the time, the chinese conversation washed over me. Bits and pieces were translated and we tasted tea after tea for a couple of hours. I was overwhelmed. The tea was unlike anything I’d tried before. We left Maliandao with a few samples of tea and a sense of widening horizons.
We went back. And back. And back. Each time learning more and more about tea and tea ceremonies. We became good friends with Sailor Moon, which is what we named our gorgeous tea lady after her once wearing a sailor’s outfit. And, in 2008, we were invited to her family’s tea farm for the harvest in Anxi county, Fujian Province. We spent a few days in the seaside capital, Xiamen, then took a bus and a long drive to her family’s property.
The rolling hills are lined with rows and rows of tea plants. In front of each plantation is a family home. Now, the tea business is lucrative in China. If you can grow good tea and market it well, you can make a lot of money. At first, it was quite strange to see three-storey homes dominating the landscape, full of antique chinese furniture and the latest in bathroom fittings, but in retrospect, it makes sense. Sailor Moon’s family home is multi-storey. The ground floor was mostly tea production and then a kitchen to one side. The second floor had bedrooms for the six family members and the third floor was yet to be finished. Next door, in a dilapidated state, stood the old family home. The only sign of life was the old tea roaster, still used by the family for cooking the leaves.
We stayed on the farm for a few days, learning all about how to produce tieguanyin (铁观音), the only tea that the family produces. Conversation was difficult at times. Sailor Moon’s family only speak ‘minnanhua’ – the dialect of the local area. So, to communicate with the family, we had to use standard mandarin to talk to Sailor Moon and she would translate for her family into the dialect. We were the village novelty for those few days. The first day we arrived, we had to do a welcoming cheers with everyone who had dropped by, for any possibly reason anyone could think of. And we weren’t sipping. Each ‘ganbei’ involved a BOWL of beer. I chickened out after a while, but poor manly Zac had to continue.
We accompanied Sailor Moon on her tasting trips into the main town. As her family only produced a limited amount of tea each year, she had to source more supplies for her tea shop back in Beijing. When she’d settled on a main tea supplier who she was happy with, she agreed to work for him for a few hours in order to get a great price on his tea. This is when we realised how special this girl was – a man with a huge reputation in the area was willing to trust her to taste and make decisions about the tea to buy for his company. The next few hours saw farmer after farmer wander past the door with a hopeful look in their eyes and a sack of tea. Sailor Moon would first stick her head in the bag and take a big whiff. If she was happy, she’d make the tea. If not, they were sent away without a tasting. Many a sniff later, she would take a sip. If she was satisfied, maybe one or two more. If not, she would quietly leave the shop and daintily spit the contents of her mouth onto the street. We learnt a lot on this evening. We were allowed to try most of the teas coming through, however, this was business and she couldn’t let her thoughts be known until she’d made a decision. So, we taught her two english words so we knew whether she thought it was a good tea or not. ‘Awesome’ and ‘D.B.’ (Dog’s Breakfast). In this way, we were privy to the flavours that are sought after in a good tieguanyin.
This was an eye-opening holiday and has been the catalyst for our tea obsession. The tea journey continues, and I plan to document it here.