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On Tibetan tea: interview with a tea master and brewing tips

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

Our previous blog post introduced Tibetan Hei Cha in depth. We learned about its origin and historical importance that paved the way for the Old tea and horse road - one of the most important trade routes in ancient China and the world. Today, we invite He Jin - a local producer of Tibetan black tea, and our proud supplier - for a chat. She will teach us on the various types of this chinese fermented tea, and will share tips and tricks on storage and brewing methods in order to get the most out of this artisan tea.

  

Tibetan tea nowadays – presenting Path of Cha's Tibetan tea producer

He Jin lives in Ya'an city, where she's been engaged in Tibetan tea production for quite a few years now. She creates fine-quality Yaxi Tibetan tea in loose-leaf form and the region's signature Tibetan Jasmine tea.

 

Hi, He Jin. It's nice having you here. Please say a few words to our readers about yourself. 

Hello everyone, my name is He Jin, and I am from Ya'an, Sichuan Province. We often joke here that if tea originated in China, where is the birthplace of tea in China? I like to say it was namely in Ya'an City, Sichuan – my hometown :) Ya'an is considered the earliest region in China for which written evidence exists on tea planting and drinking. In Ya'an, you will often hear the story of the Daoist monk Wu Li Zhen. He planted tea trees on the hills of Mengding Mountain nearly two millenniums ago. We pay our respect to him by calling him "the originator of tea planting" and "the master of tea ceremony".

 

Tell us a bit about your story with tea - what was your first encounter with tea, and how did it all start for you?

I am honored to have been born here! My earliest memories are closely tied with tea. My father was a particular lover of strong tea. I remember how he prepared his tea – with the tea leaves filling about two-thirds of the cup. I remember the tea-making season when my family would tirelessly process the tea leaves at night. We would only do enough for my father to drink for one year – not more! You may say that I was familiar with tea from an early age, but I didn't know much about tea. That was until 2013, when I started working for a local tea company, which was the beginning of my real relationship with tea, my closer contact with tea culture, tea history and knowledge.

 

How about your teachers? Who accompanied you on your tea journey?

I've learned a bit from every senior member of the tea company. One of my most prominent teachers is Master Mei Jie. He is a national-level tea assessor (the highest professional degree in China) and also an inheritor of the tea-making skills, which were proclaimed as a National grade intangible cultural heritage.

 

You're a producer of Tibetan Hei Cha. It's somewhat rare and people don't know much about it, especially in the western world. Tell us more about this uncommon tea: what is its main advantage, and what makes it so special?

Ya'an Tibetan tea is probably the only tea in China's history that has been drunk without interruption for more than 1300 years now. It first entered Tibet during the Tang Dynasty when Princess Wencheng brought tea in 641 AD. Tibetan tea and the people's livelihood are so tightly related they can't be separated for over a millennium now.

Ya'an Tibetan tea has strong medicinal value: it stimulates digestion, improves intestinal flora, and regulates the stomach and intestines. People in the region drink it to eliminate grease, dispel heavy food, prevent cardiovascular disease and keep the "three highs" at bay – namely high blood pressure, high sugar, and high blood lipid level.

 

Tibetan black tea

 

You've been producing Tibetan tea for a while now. Its production process is complicated and requires both skills and practice. What is the crucial step in the processing of Tibetan Hei Cha?

Fermentation is the crucial step in Tibetan tea production. There are no machines involved or fixed values to set. It depends entirely on the tea making skills and experience of the tea makers. Fermentation is the key point that forms the quality characteristics of tea leaves. If the taste of Tibetan tea appears bitter, astringent, sour, and rancid, these are caused by inappropriate fermentation technology.

 

We live in times where machines and technology complement or entirely replace human labor in many production processes. Is there a way to combine traditional processing techniques with modern technology in the production of Tibetan tea?

I think the traditional production core process has not changed. What has changed is the use of modern advanced equipment instead of the traditional manual production process.

 

Do you strictly adhere to traditional techniques, or are you experimenting with the production and processing of your Tibetan tea?

In the process of tea making, the national intangible cultural heritage production techniques are combined with modern technology; jasmine Tibetan tea is an innovative product based on the taste preferences of modern tea drinkers. It merges both traditional techniques and modern technology.

 

Please give us a tip/ advice on how to prepare Tibetan Hei Cha tea to get the best out of it.

Tibetan and Jasmine Tibetan tea is best brewed with 100 ℃ boiling water. When pouring water over the tea leaves, do it from a fixed point, and do not pour it directly on the tea leaves. With time, you'll notice that such brewing techniques make the tea taste more mellow and soft. The tea, prepared in such a manner, is more resistant to brewing. Keep the tea-to-water ratio at 1:50.

 

How to brew Tibetan Hei Cha

You can brew Tibetan Hei Cha the same way as other dark teas. If you go for Gong Fu Cha style, you can select a bigger, thick-walled clay teapot. Some regions that produce Hei Cha – like Guangxi – have their own clay varieties that they claim complement best the teas from the same area. Put 20-30% on top of your usual amount of tea leaves. Use boiling water and allow for enough steeping time, as the brick tea usually takes longer to loosen up and infuse. Don't forget to discard the first water.

You can equally go for Grandpa style. After rinsing, allow for a sufficient soaking time for the tea leaves – Tibetan Hei Cha isn't afraid of over steeping.

 

 

And finally, boiling. There's no other more suitable tea for this than Hei Cha. You can do this as a standalone method, or go with one of the above, then gather the remaining leaves in a pot and boil them. 

 

If you boil the tea as a standalone: 

    • take 5-8g (add about 30% to your usual amount) of tea leaves;
    • put them in a pot (or water kettle), adding 1,2 – 1,5l of water
    • turn on the heat and boil for 2-3 min
    • lower the heat, put the lid (if you haven't), and simmer for 5-10 more minutes

If you boil the tea after a brewing session

    • Gather the remaining tea leaves in a pot/ kettle
    • Put about 1/2l of water and simmer over low fire for 10-15 min.

 

 

Types of Tibetan tea

Tibetan tea has a lot of varieties that have taken shape through the ages. Let's explore the most popular among them:

 

  • Maojian (毛尖)

Top-grade Tibetan tea. The production requirements are high. It uses extra, 1st, and 2nd grade fine tea as a raw material. The brick shape is flat and clean, with fine fuzz, high aroma, and intense flavor. The tea soup is red and bright, with tender and even bottom leaves.

 

  • Yaxi (Fine bud, 芽细)

Premium Tibetan tea with high production requirements. It uses grade 3 and 4 tea leaves as raw material. The brick shape is flat, with visible buds. This tea possesses a strong aroma, yellow-reddish tea soup, and tender bottom leaves. Path of Cha's Tibetan Hei Cha belongs to this variety.

 

  • Kang Zhuan (康砖)

Traditional classic Tibetan tea. It is made of 4~5 grade fine tea and some lower-grade tea. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners, with a smooth and firm surface. The aroma is pure. The soup color is reddish brown and bright. The taste is pure and strong.

 

  • Kang Jian (康尖)

Made out of lower tea grades, Kangjian Hei Cha also contains lots of stalks, so its taste might be sweeter than finer graded Tibetan tea. Its shape is square, rounded at the edges. The tea soup is red and bright, the taste is mellow and sweet, and the bottom leaves look slightly aged.

 

  • Jin Yu (Golden Jade, 金玉)

Lower-end Tibetan tea, made from fine tea and grade 1 to 3 coarse tea as raw material. The brick shape is flat, with visible red and green tea stalks. The aroma is mellow, the tea soup is red and bright, and the bottom leaves are thick and old with stalks.

 

  • Jin Jian (Golden Tip, 金尖茶) 

A traditional low-end Tibetan tea made out of fine tea, some ungraded materials (i.e., red moss), and 1st grade coarse tea as raw material. The tea brick is rectangular, rounded at the edges, compact. The soup color is yellow and bright, with a pure aroma, mellow taste, and old bottom leaves.

 

Tibetan brick tea

 

How to store Tibetan Hei Cha?

Although heavily fermented, Tibetan tea is a post-fermented tea. That means the longer the storage, the more mellow, sweet, and fragrant the tea will become. For optimal storage, mind the following factors:

 

  • Moisture: Keep the storage room humidity below 70%. If it is above that mark, ensure adequate ventilation to avoid molding. 
  • Oxidation: do not expose the tea to direct air current. Otherwise, it will quickly become old and stale.
  • Smells: never store tea in the same room/ container with strong odors like fresh food, alcohol, or chemical odor substances.
  • Light. Keep the tea leaves away from direct sunlight. The radiation causes a change in the tea leaves' inner content.