Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Gifteas for the Holidays

dscf0947Naturally, I happen to think that teas make great gifts.  It’s a way of introducing a personal favorite to someone who may not be familiar with that particular tea, or adding one special find to a tea lover’s collection.  And like shared comments about wines, reactions to certain teas inform both the giver and the recipient.

The holidays are a time to share special foods and beverages.  This year is perhaps especially suited for a home-and-hearth theme, and tea fits the bill perfectly.

Tins and boxes of tea, together with a pot or tea cozy or a couple of mugs, easily fill a basket that offer a bounty of many soothing cups.  Baskets I have put together may not have the razzle-dazzle of packaged baskets from catalogs, but I’m pretty sure that each tea or tea accessory was valued, with no fillers going to the back of the pantry.

Or a gift may be as simple as a few ounces of a top notch tea, such as Silver Jasmine Pearls or a fine estate Darjeeling.  I offer some other suggestions below.  All prices are for a pound of tea, and if you consider that one cup of tea requires 3 grams of leaves, and 5 grams would be generous, even a quarter pound of tea will yield 20-35 cups.  Good values to be found here.

At this time of year, my first thought goes to Jasmine Stars.  Silvery in appearance because tips are used, each 5-point piece is about the size of star-anise (rather looks like that too).  This is available year-round but seems especially appropriate during the holidays.  Not as well known as Jasmine Pearls, this tea is also tied by hand.  Jasmine Stars may be a little harder to find and will be between $80-100/lb, so start your search early.  When brewed, each star opens like a small carnation.  Another variant are Jasmine “Earrings” or Teardrops.

Jasmine "Earrings"

Jasmine "Earrings"

For a person fond of Breakfast teas, consider putting together a selection that goes beyond the standard generic “breakfast” blend.  Start with a Keemun; the top grades of Hao Ya A and Hao Ya B will be over $40/lb, but a first grade Keemun is very close in leaf quality and flavor.  An addition of Assam, Nilgiri, and a Ceylon BOP will round out the assortment — bold, robust, full-bodied teas that are invigorating.  Better yet, perhaps your recipient will experiment and create a signature blend of his or her own.

For the person who has been interested in trying Green teas, there are many possibilities.  If I were buying, I would select teas based on different leaf forms – open, flat leaves; leaves showing plenty of white downy hairs; leaves curled up in spirals or small pearls; and the more prosaic but worthy Maofeng or Hairpoint types — slender, wiry, twisted leaves.  Perhaps a Darjeeling Green for contrast, and by all means a Japanese Gyokuro for its deep “green” taste.  Greens require some patience as their flavors are more delicate and nuanced rather than showy and forthright.  It takes time to appreciate Green teas: their apparent simplicity in processing – withering, drying, rolling – belies the skills underlying all the steps along the way.

For more immediate gratification I would head for the Flavored teas section.  There are many visually appealing teas to be found, what with flower petals and bits of fruit strewn amidst Green or Black tea leaves.  I prefer fruit flavors – peach, berry, mango — because they seem a more “natural” pairing with tea than flavors such as chocolate or tiramisu, but this is purely personal.

At this time of year look for Cranberry Green tea or Cranberry Black tea – very seasonal colors especially in the Green version along with the theme.

A Flower Theme makes shopping easy.  Naturally scented teas abound, and for those who care about such things, these differ from the Flavored teas just mentioned which are artificially flavored.  Jasmine tea appears in many leaf types: the renowed hand rolled Pearls; silvery “earring” shapes; downy curled spirals; and the classic leaf teas.  No need to splurge on a top Silver Tip (Yin Hao); a first grade Jasmine is a lovely and good value tea — the leaves are fairly uniform and the flowers have been removed.  Dried Jasmine blossoms are sometimes for sale; I think miniature dried Rose Buds are more attractive, although neither adds substantially to the flavorwhen added to tea.  Buy the economical Rose Black tea ($10/lb) but add some rose buds (about 1cm – 1.5cm) for added color and beauty.  For more drama add rose buds to Jasmine Pearls — you’ll have a blend of silver and pink!

Osmanthus and magnolia scented teas may be trickier to find, but I especially recommend the Osmanthus Green. The yellow blossoms are tiny and not readily visible among the leaves, but they give a warm, soft sweet note to the tea.

And of course there are the hand-tied Flower or Artisan teas.  Generally there are about 75-80 pieces in a pound, and the fancier ones – with lots of flowers and intricately arranged — will cost about $1 per piece.  Simpler ones – perhaps one or two flowers tied to the tea leaves — will run about 75cents each.  Put several in a pretty mug, tie it up with a ribbon, and it’s a great hostess gift too.

I have to mention dried Chrysanthemum while still on the flower theme.  Although this is not a true tea, it goes well with food (it’s on offer at Dim Sum restaurants) and is lovely by itself.  You’ll find these blossoms in Chinese markets or herbal shops.

For someone who enjoys a cup of tea after meals, consider fine Black and Oolong teas.  Here are a couple of shopping plans.  First, consider a flight of Darjeelings, not only from various of estates, but also the first and second flush teas from the same estate.  To make this selection more special, include a tea from Nepal.  I admit to being very partial to these teas — light, floral, easy to drink, plus it brings to mind wonderful images.

Second, scout out tea places to put together a group of fine but less known China Blacks: Golden Monkey, Panyang Congou, a Yunnan Golden Sprouting that is over 50% tips.  For a bolder flavor profile, seek out a Kenyan Black, or combine some tippy Assams and tippy Ceylon leaf teas — one will show golden tips and the other will show lovely silver tips.

Speaking of which, if you want to play up silver at this time of year, White Silver Needles (a White tea) and Jasmine Silver Pearls would make a great pair (just don’t blend these).

I’ve left one of my favorite groups for last. The expanding number of Oolong teas available should make shopping easier.  Here, again, I propose putting together a flight of Oolongs, from the slightly oxidized Oolongs with their green-gold leaves to the more heavily oxidized ones, marked by dramatic, long, dark leaves.  Your recipient will enjoy each on its own merits as well as creating small tasting “events” or sessions, comparing two or three at a time.  And to accompany Oolongs, the perfect pot to give is the small gong-fu set.

A top quality Tung Ting or Pouchong might well cost over $100/lb, and some Rock Oolongs are in that sphere as well.  But a great Iron Goddess of Mercy (Ti Kuan Yin) is about $40-50/lb and similar teas at half that price will be fine too.  An everyday Oolong, but far better than the restaurant grade, can be had for between $10-12/lb, such as a SeChung Oolong.

For the person who has already tried many teas or someone who always wants to sample the unusual, consider an aged Puer tea, preferably in compressed form (cake, brick, or bowl tea).  To me Puer is an acquired taste, and even setting aside the health claims made on behalf of this tea, Puer is very much sought after these days.  For something really special, look for a Green or “raw” cake or tuo-cha (bowl tea) that has been properly aged for a few years.  A word of caution: this won’t be cheap, but your recipient should be duly impressed.

I have not mentioned the most obvious assortment when gifting teas: one from each category: one White, one Green, an Oolong, and a Black tea or two.  There is nothing wrong with such a choice — it’s a logical and balanced introduction to the range of possibilities coming from one plant.

The groupings I have listed above, however, I think demonstrate to the recipient a good bit of thought and care going into the choices.  What better way to learn and sharpen your nose and palate than to have such an array of teas before you – a handful of Green teas with different leaf shapes, or a selection of Oolongs showing different degrees of firing, or a few Black teas from different regions – and then to compare them, their dry appearance, the wet leaves, and the impressions of flavor and aroma while they are still fresh.  To expand your memory of tastes and aroma – what a gift!

You might need to start shopping early to gather some of these teas to make up an assortment since they may not be available from just one supplier.  And I hope in this shopping adventure you’ll make a discovery for yourself as well.dscf0968

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung