When you walk down the streets of almost any city in China, chances are you’ll be invited to join in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at one of the thousands of tea shops. You can resist for a while, but after several invitations, I encourage you to go accept one, make a new friend and enjoy the experience. That’s what I did when I was in Beijing a couple of years ago.
The Chinese tea ceremony is the traditional cultural activity of the preparation (brewing or infusion) and presentation of the tea leaf. Since tea is one of China’s largest agricultural exports, participating in a tea ceremony is a must do China travel activity.
The development of loose tea brewing is contributed to the first Ming Dynasty Emperor, Hongwu, who actually banned the production of compressed tea. In the Chinese tea ceremony, your hostess will prepare tea for you to taste from a selection of teas including green tea, oolong tea, red tea, black tea, white tea, yellow tea, puerh tea and flower tea (or Jasmine tea).
There are several ways of brewing Chinese tea depending on the type of tea being brewed. Green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas, for example, and should be brewed in cooler water so you don’t want to use boiling water to brew your green tea leaves.
The Chinese tea ceremony reminded me a little of the wine tasting experience since I was offered several different types of tea to taste. After the ceremony and tea tasting, I purchased some fresh green tea leaves and jasmine flower tea that unfolds as a beautiful flower in hot water. Just so you know, much like wine tasting, the purpose of the invitation to a Chinese tea ceremony is to introduce you to the teas so a purchase is polite. Quite frankly, I think you’ll want to purchase some tea after the experience.
After you make your tea selection, don’t forget to purchase an authentic Chinese tea pot. You’ll find that tea shops have a wonderful selection of Chinese tea pots and the one we visited had many unique handmade clay tea pots.
If you only get one souvenir while you’re visiting China, I recommend purchasing a traditional tea pot with tea cups along with some fresh tea leaves. It’s a wonderful treat to bring home and share with friends when you arrive home.
For anyone who lives in a large city like New York or San Francisco and if you don’t want to use up valuable suitcase space, you can get a nice selection of authentic tea pots in almost any U.S. "Chinatown" when you return to the states – or if you don’t think a trip to China is in your travel plans, then visit your closest Chinatown to purchase tea pots and teas – it’s the next best thing to a trip to China.
I found this video (below) that helped jog my memory of what my tea shop hostess taught me about how to correctly brew my precious Chinese tea.
[Video: How to Correctly Brew Chinese Tea]
How to Correctly Brew Chinese Tea
1. Use very hot water – but not boiled water.
2. Place tea leaves in the teapot. The leaves should fill about one third of the height of the teapot.
3. Fill the pot with hot water up to half full and drain the water immediately leaving only tea leaves behind to rinse the tea leaves.
4. Pour more hot water into the teapot over the tea leaves but the infusion should not be steeped for more than 30-50 seconds depending on the type of tea.
5. Pour the first infusion of the tea into small tea cups within 60 seconds by moving the teapot around over the cups continuously.
6. Pour excess tea from the first infusion into another teapot after you steep it. You can typically draw five or six good infusions from a single pot of tea, but subsequent infusions must be extended somewhat in duration to extract maximize the flavor from the tea leaves. It is recommended that each subsequent infusion be extended by approximately ten seconds to 40 seconds as the infusions progress.
A Chinese tea ceremony can be enjoyed in an informal and formal setting. Traditionally, if you are a visitor to a Chinese home, you will be expected to sit down and drink tea while talking with your hostess. Such was the case when my friend, Sara, and I visited a tiny Yao village in southern China and we were invited inside a traditional country home.
I must confess, that even though I participated in more than one Chinese tea ceremony, I did not know the fascinating history of China’s tea growing and the art of tea making until I recently watched All in This Tea, a 2007 documentary by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht.
[Video: All in This Tea, 2007 (Trailer)]
The documentary follows world-renowned American tea importer, David Lee Hoffman, to some of the most remote regions of China to find the richest handmade teas on earth. I was fascinated to learn of Hoffman's mission to bring the exquisite teas produced by struggling small farmers to the rest of the world and if you have Netflix, this documentary is available to “Watch Instantly.”
To be honest, China was not at the top of my travel bucket list, but when my friend Sara moved to Beijing with her husband several years ago, the trip became a "crime of opportunity." I am so glad that I made the trip as it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. If you’re planning a trip to China, find out how I flew first class to Beijing for $99.