One of the greatest differences between American tea culture and Chinese tea culture is that, by and large, American tea enthusiasts will have knowledge of a broad variety of teas while in China, there is a focus on the local teas of the region. For most people in China, tea is simply part of life, and what they drink is dictated by what tea is grown nearby.
In most of tea-producing China this means fresh, green tea, a product of spring. In my adopted home province of Sichuan, green tea is king. The smell and taste of the local green tea, drifting lazily in a tall clear glass, scored by the sound of the river and the wind, shifting afternoon shadows, a bamboo chair creaking beneath you as the clear water gradually turns a delicate green . . . that is spring and summer in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, a city that boasts more teahouses than Shanghai, despite being a fraction of its size.
For me, to think or write about green tea is to write about Chengdu. And the” local tea” that distills the essence of that experience is Su Mao Feng from Mt. E’mei. It is the “standard” green tea, a more economical alternative to its delicate, flat-leafed cousin Zhu Ye Qing = Bamboo Leaf Green, which is the most famous of Sichuanese teas and heads the menu at most Chengdu teahouses. Zhu Ye Qing is known for its beauty in a glass cup, and indeed its perfect, blade-shaped green leaves do float and fall pointing straight up and down, like seahorses, as they steep. The effect is charming but I’ve always found the tea itself to be too faint and subtle for my own tastes. At the risk of sounding plebeian, my preferences run toward the coarser, more rustic green teas of the Chinese countryside – obscure varieties that may never be sold beyond the nearest village. My deep love for green tea didn’t blossom until I was able to interact, not with a carefully curated selection of the world’s most famous green teas (as one normally finds in an American teahouse), but with an abundance of a particular type of very fresh green tea close to its source. If you’ve ever noted the difference between an apple from a tree and an apple from the store, or between fresh-squeezed versus pasteurized orange juice, then you may draw a fairly effective analogy.
Rather than acquainting myself with the flavors of a variety of styles and provenances of tea, I became intimately familiar with the single style and attuned to the differences found from one individual mountain to another within the growing region. I’ve had the same tiny, tightly-coiled, high-altitude Su Mao Feng type from Mt. E’mei, Mt. Qingcheng, Mt. Mengding, E’bian, Hong Ya, and a half dozen other tiny towns and peaks throughout central Sichuan. Each one has a distinct taste and aroma: E’bian’s is savory like seaweed, E’mei’s is sweet and floral, while the hand-roasted tea from Hong Ya has a dry, smoky, popcorn-like flavor. Green tea is fresh tea, and the taste of green tea is the essential taste of tea. Proper curing of green tea adds little to the flavor, but rather preserves its freshness and allows its natural quality to be expressed. When you go from town to town in a given region and taste the local tea, you are tasting the terroir of the region as well as idiosyncrasies in processing. These give the teas a depth of character that only comes from consuming an agricultural product close to its source.
The nature of importation and scale make sourcing these rustic micro-varieties of green tea a particular dilemma: the most efficient and cost-effective way to ship things is in large quantities (i.e. a shipping container), but colloquial, single-farm teas are generally produced in small amounts and consumed locally. Any surplus is generally sold at a market in a nearby city or to a large regional tea factory that blends it with their own tea and other teas from around the region to produce a consistent, homogenized product. These blends can be purchased cheaply and easily, and while they lack the distinct character of an individual mountain or village, there is no particular market for these micro-varieties. Customers unfamiliar with the concept of different kinds of green tea to begin with are overwhelmed by the multiplicity of near-identical choices, and even seasoned tea connoisseurs have never heard of most of these mountains or have any reason to prefer one over the other.
Here in America, at the fulcrum of the global economy, there is no shortage of gyokuro, dragon well, taiping houkui, bi luo chun®, the celebrated and famous green teas of the world. It is easy for one to feel spoilt for choice, and indeed it is a privilege to have access to these once-rare varieties. Many Chinese people have never had the chance to try some of the famous Chinese greens that are found in America’s teahouses. But the breadth of available choices masks the depth and fine-tuned regionality enjoyed by Chinese tea lovers. As both a tea lover and an importer, I’m in the unique position of being able to modify what is and isn’t available on the American tea market (by importing tea). I currently sell only one green tea, my beloved E’Mei Su Mao Feng. Initiated tea lovers often think I am remiss or that my tea menu is lacking in this department, as most tea shops sell half a dozen or more varieties of green tea from around China and the world, along with scented blends thereof. Su Mao Feng from Mt.E’Mei is not a famous tea, and as far as I know nobody else is importing it into North America.
Now that spring has arrived, I can start to bring over similarly obscure but wonderful farm-direct varietals, such as Seven Immortals green tea from Guangxi. As American tea consumers become more savvy and transcend our fixation with the well-known mingcha, or “famous teas,” I intend to gradually expand not only to rustic green teas from different regions, but to share the various micro-varieties of Sichuanese green that I have grown to know and love. I find myself becoming increasingly sentimental as I write this. A friend just sent me a fresh mao feng from Mabian, near Chengdu, and I have a small stash of Ebian mao feng left as well. When I am finished writing I will sit on my porch, and drink my Ebian and my E’mei green teas one after the other. I will close my eyes as I drink and in my mind I will be wandering the misty peaks and valleys of central Sichuan; drifting like a cloud, floating like a leaf in the warm water of nostalgia.
Images courtesy of the contributor.