Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

What’s In A Name, Or, How Can I Find That Tea? (Part 2)

This is a follow-up on an earlier post about names of Chinese teas.

I remember drinking a Green tea at a friend’s house recently.  Knowing of my interest, my friend brought out a tea that had been a gift, and the sealed foil pouch inside had not been opened yet.  The outside of the box had an artful, simple design of tea leaves against a green background.  The only information given on the box was Gao Shan Lu, which means High Mountain Green.  In very fine print one could just make out the name of the company, which was based in Zhejiang province. (See a post on Decoding Tea Labels.)

So if we happened to have really liked this tea and wanted to find it at a local tea shop or online purveyor, how would we go about this?  Or if you have a favorite and your local tea supplier has run out or discontinued it, how would you find a similar product?

“High Mountain Green” is exactly the sort of generic name bestowed on many Green teas.  The “high” refers not only to altitude, but aspires to convince the consumer the tea is worth the price.  There is no place name referring to a particular tea growing region.  This class of tea typically has finely rolled leaves (rather than flat or spear-shaped or curled leaves) that are a dark green or grey-green in color in dry form.  After brewing, the leaves are the color of green olives, showing a mix of budsets and open leaves.  “Emerald Tips” is another popular name.

Many teas, of course, do carry established names: Pi Lo Chun, Jin Zhu Mao Jian, Tai Ping Hou Kui, Pan Long Yin Hao, and so on.  And now one can see why a company marketing these teas outside China might not want to keep these unwieldy names.  Shui Hsien does not exactly roll off the tongue of a non-Chinese speaker.  “Longevity Eyebrow” may be an accurate rendering of Shou Mei (White), but it is hardly euphonious or an alluring allusion for a tea.

It is hard to fault marketers and packers for selecting their own proprietary names, even though their creativity and branding priorities make it challenging to search for a tea known only by its original name.  So here are some thoughts:

Keep a bit of a tea you like so you always have a sample for matching.

Having said that, a caveat: two teas may look alike but give quite different flavors. There is a lovely tea from Anhui (Yong Xi Huo Qing) that resembles a Gunpowder Green if you looked only at the dry leaves — tightly rolled, deep grey-green color. But the former is four or five times the price of even the top grade of Gunpowder and tastes very different.

Back to Green teas: many are labeled either Maojian or Maofeng, terms that refer to the quality of the leaf, and you usually can’t go wrong with either of these.  (Maofeng is the better of the two.)  So worry less about tracking down one specific tea by its name; instead, explore the myriad leaf shapes to be found just in the Green teas category.

Two general leaf types of Green tea are the fine-leafed and the large-leafed.  The latter are mostly from southwestern China (Yunnan) or Fujian and tend to be a bit smokier in flavor.  You can spot these just by noting the longer strands and more robust leaves, often with silvery-grey tips in the higher grades.  This will give you a clue as to what to expect; these are more assertive tasting Greens.

Then if you consider the open, flat leaves of some Greens and compare those with the tightly rolled or twisted, grey-green leaves of a Chunmee, you will find the differences quite consistent.  Teas showing small, finely curled or twisted leaves may bear many names, but they all share features in aroma and taste that separate them from teas with large, open, flat-tish leaves.

Digressing a bit here, I recall a tea that throws what I’ve just said into confusion.  At a Tea Research Institute in Yunnan, as we sat down for the obligatory introductions and were treated to the customary mugs of tea.  In the midst of preliminary remarks and polite exchanges, most in our group were distracted and perplexed by the leaves swirling in our mugs — a confounding mix of different sized leaves, confounding to us because it was not likely that our hosts would be serving guests a tea of uneven sized leaves, and yet the tea tasted very good.  What we had before us, we were soon to learn, was a new hybrid the institute’s team had introduced in their tea garden, one that combined the small-leafed and large-leafed strains.  With the mystery explained, it proved to be an excellent lesson.  The large-leafed strain gave the tea body and full flavor; the small-leafed strain imparted sweet notes in the tea.

The large number of tea varietals that go towards making Oolong make this a wonderful category of tea to explore.  As I suggested earlier, it might be less important to pursue one particular name and more rewarding to consider the leaves.  Here are a few major sub-groups: (a) SeChung from southern Fujian – think of medium firing, an orange to reddish brew, a good value tea; (b) Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) – a worthy group not only because there are so many steps in its manufacture but for complexity and a great finish; (c) Light/Fragrant (qing xiang) varieties such as “Hairy Crab” that are like a wonderfully fragrant Green tea — light oxidation shows in the green cast of the leaves; (d) Shui Hsien (Water Spirit) from northern Fujian — long and thick dark leaves brew a deep amber cup with high fragrance; and (e) Rock Oolongs from the WuYi Mountain area of Fujian — rare, costly teas available in limited quantities each season.

Knowing just these sub-groups, whether for Greens or Oolongs or Blacks, will put you in a good position as you shop for a tea you may have come upon in your travels.

The famed Pi Lo Chun (Green Snail Spring) from Jiangsu in China and a tea from Taiwan by the same name are completely different teas in appearance; to look at them one would never imagine they bear the same name.  This is a handy bit of trivia to collect, but the exploration, through tasting, of a range of teas may prove vastly more rewarding than seeking out one esoteric “name.”

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung