Previous in series: Teas of China – Introduction
Green or unfermented tea was the earliest version of modern leaf tea, apparently originating in the late twelfth century under the late Song. Green tea makes up more than half of China’s crop, even without counting the vast amount of green tea made into jasmine. It is made in every tea-producing province and often sold simply as Guangdong (or Fujian or Guanxi, etc.) Green. These are the national ordinaire and belong in the eyebrow tea or mee-cha category. The curve of the processed tea leaf resembled that of an eyebrow, it was thought, and this Chunmee (Precious Eyebrow) refers to a lady’s plucked and finely formed brow, and Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow) refers to the bristly-type brows of older men, etc.
Some Special Chunmee may have a distinct plumlike flavor and egg yolk color, but I think the best reason for drinking it is to tell its story. The eighteenth century tea trade flourished despite constant misunderstandings between the Chinese and their English customers. The first tea plucked each spring is always the finest, which the Chinese designated yu-tsien or “before the rains” tea. To English ears the Chinese words sounded like the name of a wealthy East India Company director and tea merchant in London, Phillip Hyson, Esq., and Chunmee is still called Hyson or Young Hyson, after this otherwise entirely forgettable businessman.
Green tea within months of manufacture begins to fade and grow stale; as the trade terms it, it “has no keeping quality.” This is not to say it quickly becomes flat, just that it loses freshness and flavor as time goes by – becomes flat slowly. The solution to this problem was to roll the leaf into little pellet-shaped balls from which it takes its Chinese name of zhucha or “pearl tea.” Why its called gunpowder throughout the rest of the globe nobody seems sure. Did the granular shape or greyish-green color remind some forgotten Englishman of gunpowder? (Just to show what a Frenchman’s opinion is worth in tea matters, let me also cite the worthy Alain Peyrefitte: “Gunpowder tea owes its name to the crackling sound made by its furled leaves when hot water is added to them.” Like the W in cucumber, this sound is entirely silent, we surmise.) Gunpowder is not made from leaf plucked in early spring – leaf plucked any old time will do. It is not a tea of distinction and, if steeped too long or in water too hot, is downright undrinkably bitter. Nonetheless, it is the favorite green tea of Morocco and the Middle East, where it is commonly prepared with mint and enjoyed with an abundance of sugar and abandon. Now that air freight makes fresh green tea universally available, there is no real excuse for drinking gunpowder anywhere else. Since it is heavier than other tea, one needs about half the usual amount of dry leaf. It is mostly made in Zhejiang.
Next week we learn about Dragon Well (Longjing or Lung Ching)