With a trend towards high-end, loose-leaf varieties, tea is now graded and sometimes aged to perfection
Photography by Curtis Comeau
Small packages of locust husks hang next to wasp nests at Chan Fat Herb Store. “How do you prepare these?” I question the lady at the cash register. “You boil them and then drink the water,” she says.
“So, would that be a type of tea?” I ask. “Well, yes … but not really,” she says. “Now, those are definitely teas,” she says, pointing to a row of green, pu’erh and oolong teas.
Tea, in the strictest sense of the word, says Cally Slater-Dowson, owner of Cally’s Tea, comes from the plant camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub. It’s the preparation of the leaves that results in the many varieties lining shops like Cally’s. Tea leaves are oxidized – the enzymes in the leaves are bruised or crushed, which exposes them to oxygen for varying amounts of time, depending on the variety.
In the case of white and green teas, the leaves are picked in the morning and often prepared that night with little to no oxidation (resulting in less caffeine) whereas with black tea, they’re left to oxidize until very dark. Generally, green tea has a lighter, grassy and sometimes astringent flavour that can be fruitier or smokier depending on the variety. Green tea is subtler than the sweet, strong black tea. Meanwhile, white tea is generally even subtler than green tea, leaving a lingering sweetness. Black tea can hold its own alongside a meal, while the gentle mouth feel of white might be your post-dinner cup of tea.
But the differences between teas don’t end there – cultures worldwide grade the leaves based on whether they’re intact (the more intact, the better), where the plant grows (the higher the elevation, the better), what part of the leaf is used (the buds and youngest leaves are best) and the time of year the leaves are picked (spring is often considered best). “In the past four years, there’s been a demand for higher end teas, estate teas,” says Anna Somerville of Acquired Taste Tea.
She carries a number of oolong teas in her shop. They’re from the spring crop, called the first flush. Tall mountain oolong is her most popular tea and the complex nature of the preparation, along with the multi-layered flavour, makes oolong highly prized. Oolongs are only partly oxidized (oxidation is about half that of black tea), making the leaf pliable, and afterwards the leaves are rolled into balls or folded into smaller parts. The semi-oxidation results in a flavour that’s a mix between the freshness of green tea and the strength and body of a black tea.
Pu’erh is fermented, and unlike other teas, aging makes it better. Up until 1973, pu’erh tea leaves were allowed to wither, and often compressed into cakes where they aged for at least 15 years. Now, the process is often sped up – the leaves are sprayed with bacteria, which quickens the fermentation and can take between seven and 14 months. Generally, it’s known for a unique, rich, earthiness.
Sarah Proudlock, a tea sommelier who owns Steeps (soon to be rebranded The Tea Girl) in Glenora, has seen an increased interest in pu’erh tea recently. She carries a golden pu’erh that’s been aged for five years. But nearly any herbal shop in China Town, including Chan Fat Herb Store, carries patties of pu’erh, ranging from about $30 to $100.
Proudlock’s heard of a naturally aged pu’erh patty selling for up to $10,000.
On the opposite end of the price spectrum, traditional tea bags contain broken bits of leaves (called fannings or dust) that are gathered during the production of loose tea, according to Slater-Dowson. But now, some companies are using full leaves in tea bags, making for a higher-end, more flavourful cup.
The taste of your tea is also determined by the amount of time you steep it. “When I test a new oolong, I cold-water test it. I steep it overnight. I don’t want to wake it up, oxidize it again. A green tea can turn black in the cup,” says Somerville. She suggests steeping green teas in cold water overnight, and then adding a little hot water. Black tea, on the other hand, is best served in steaming hot water.
Your Cup of Tea
It’s not just temperature of the water that can change the flavour, sometimes it’s the cup.
Yixing: In China, yixing clay is often used to make tea pots and cups; it’s unglazed so the tea flavour gets into the cup. “You can have a yixing cup for each type of tea you use, and over time, the cup adds to the flavour of your tea,” says Slater-Dowson.
Porcelain: “English tea, you’ll hear, has to be served out of porcelain cups. So you don’t have to open your mouth as wide. This changes the taste of the tea because it hits your tongue at a different place. Also, porcelain keeps the tea hotter, so it’s best for black tea,” says Slater-Dowson.
Thick pottery: “It’s best for green tea because it cools off quicker,” says Slater-Dowson.