August 18, 2022
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Hong Kong (CNN) — A luxurious three-course afternoon tea at Glassbelly Tea Lab, a fine-dining restaurant in Hong Kong, has simply begun.

However neither the abalone nor the A4 Wagyu ribeye are the celebs of the present.

It’s the eight glasses of tea that lure patrons to this darkish, wood-paneled house within the metropolis’s busy Causeway Bay neighborhood.

On the left, three shot glasses comprise three totally different types of sizzling tea: plum-scented uncooked Puerh tea, Gold Needle Dian Hong (a comparatively new black tea from Yunnan) and a peat-scented Rougui — a kind of oolong rock tea from the Wuyi Mountains in China’s Fujian Province.

On the appropriate, we have now ice drip Full Blossom Rougui tea, served in 5 Riedel glasses.

“Please have a sniff,” says the server. “With the cognac glass, you may get more of the fruit scent. With the Burgundy glass, you choose up more floral flavors.”

At Glassbelly, a high-end tea pairing restaurant in Hong Kong, Chinese teas are served in wine and liquor glasses.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

It’s an uncommon and fashionable means of sampling tea. However I’m right here on a mission — to seek out out why just some handfuls of some varieties of Chinese tea leaves value 1000’s of {dollars}.

Glassbelly makes a speciality of oolong rock tea from Wuyi, which is likely one of the priciest tea varieties on the planet. It’s a selected type of oolong tea that grows on rocks on japanese China’s Wuyi Mountains — therefore the identify, “rock tea.”

Well-known rock tea varieties from this space embody Rougui, Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian — which interprets to Cinnamon, Large Crimson Gown and Narcissus, respectively.

Glassbelly’s most prized merchandise is the Niu Lan Keng Rougui, a uncommon number of Rougui tea from a valley brook of the identical identify within the Wuyi Mountains.

The retail value? HKD36,000 ($4,560) for 25 grams, or $184,615 for a kilogram, on the time of writing. Having fun with one brew of the tea on the restaurant costs HKD28,000 ($3,577).

To place this into context, a small 150-200 ml pot of tea is often made with about 5 grams of tea leaves.

Tea auctions

Uncommon teas have lengthy been commanding sky-high costs in China. This isn’t a brand new development.

In 2002, 20 grams of Da Hong Pao — additionally a Wuyi Mountain tea, as soon as reserved for the emperor’s lips solely — was auctioned for RMB180,000 ($28,000) in Guangzhou.

In 2009, a 100-gram Taiping Houkui (inexperienced tea from Anhui) was auctioned for RMB200,000 ($31,300) in Jinan.

More not too long ago, in December 2021, Sotheby’s Hong Kong launched its first-ever tea auction, specializing in classic Puerh tea. A 330-gram tea cake (compressed tea leaves in a cake kind) bought for HKD562,500 ($72,150).

Initially, I set out solely to seek out out why these teas proceed to return with such excessive value tags. However throughout my analysis I found simply how fantastic, secretive and sophisticated the Chinese tea world actually is — and met some new gamers on the scene who’re making daring strikes to shake issues up.

Making sense of Chinese tea

First, let’s begin with the fundamentals. There are six most important varieties of Chinese tea: inexperienced, white, yellow, oolong, black tea and darkish tea.

Every of them is categorized by how the leaves are processed and the way lengthy they’re fermented. (Inexperienced tea is unfermented whereas darkish tea is double fermented.)

Underneath every class, there are totally different types of teas named for quite a few causes. It may very well be the situation it was harvested. Puerh tea, for instance, can solely come from sure locations in Yunnan.

The leaves are vital as properly. Lapsang Souchong makes use of the whole tea leaf whereas Jin Jun Mei makes use of solely the buds of the leaves.

Glassbelly says that boiling water in a silver pot helps ionize it, making the tea silkier.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

“To grasp why some teas are costly, first, you need to perceive what a very good tea is,” explains Wing Yeung, founding father of Glassbelly.

This a surprisingly difficult query to reply regardless of the very fact tea is likely one of the hottest drinks on this planet.

“A serious downside with Chinese tea is that there isn’t any subjective reply to what good tea is. There are numerous sentimental tales and creative parts in terms of promoting tea, however so little in regards to the precise flavors of the tea,” says Yeung, who has labored within the wine trade as properly, specializing in Burgundy.

“In case you have a look at wine and occasional, each are plant-derived drinks which have been doing so a lot better than Chinese tea within the business market.”

Lack of a well known system

The shortage of a well-recognized standardization system contributes to the pricing confusion.

In comparison with wine or espresso, the market is much less clear, making it tougher for customers to know the way a lot a specific sort of tea ought to value and why.

Yeung claims that her crew has poured HKD40 million (round $5 million) price of tea in pursuit of discovering a solution to that query within the final decade, main them to open Glassbelly in 2021.

The identify Glassbelly was impressed by an historical Chinese semi-mythological character, Shennong (the Divine Farmer).

In response to legend, Shennong had a translucent stomach. To assist the world take a look at the utilization and toxicity of vegetation, Shennong would pattern each herb he got here throughout and document the way it modified in his physique, together with tea.

Glassbelly takes a scientific method to its tea pairings.

Courtesy Glassbelly

Yeung hopes that her Glassbelly restaurant will assist shine some readability available on the market, due to its fashionable and scientific method to tea.

“The tea trade might have modified however the promoting method was caught prefer it was 1,000 years in the past. There have been quite a lot of hushed enterprise talks and secret offers,” says Yeung.

Her feedback ring true. A number of years in the past, I took a taxi trip within the metropolis of Wuyi at night time. The driving force, realizing I used to be a vacationer, slowed down his automotive to round 20 kilometers per hour, giving him more time to aim to persuade me he had some secret connections who would assist me rating some Da Hong Pao tea at a very good value.

He was simply one among a number of individuals who tried to promote me tea on that journey.

“Everybody in Wuyi would attempt to promote you the ‘genuine Da Hong Pao’ however there are solely six mom Da Hong Pao bushes — and so they aren’t on the market. Genuine Da Hong Pao bred solely from the unique bushes can be very restricted. So it’s very arduous to seek out out whether or not a tea is what the vendor claims it’s,” says Yeung.

“We’ve had sums of cash spent on unique ‘high-end’ tea leaves that turned out to be horrible. We discovered alongside the way in which.”

The flavour wheel

Glassbelly’s taste wheel.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

After a decade of touring between Hong Kong and mainland China — principally to Wuyi Mountain — Yeung has gathered 1000’s of tasting notes to develop Glassbelly’s model of a taste wheel for Chinese tea.

“Wuyi tea is the Burgundy of tea, with a lot complexity. It’s what the trade calls a ‘uncooked tea’ (not absolutely fermented) so it retains altering in your glass in addition to in your mouth,” says Yeung.

Rock teas comprise over a dozen varieties of taste profiles however there are just a few your style buds ought to be on the lookout for — citrus, sandalwood and cinnamon.

One Glassbelly workshop invitations patrons to check uncooked and aged Puerh tea, which is very prized amongst tea connoisseurs.

“Uncooked Puerh tea smells like plum. Aged Puerh tea usually comes with the scent of camphor mothballs and previous newspaper, which some would say is regular. However if you happen to pattern it objectively by style, your physique will naturally repel these smells. I believe it’s a good signal that it isn’t a very good tea, like what entrepreneurs have been claiming,” says Yeung.

“It’s the scent of a Puerh tea aged in an unnatural means — by including humidity to hurry up its getting old course of. It’s an accepted apply within the trade however doesn’t imply it’s good.”

A publish on the restaurant’s Instagram web page says ingesting aged Puerh is a “slow suicide.”

This contrasts the various long-held beliefs out there that aged Puerh is delicate on one’s physique, whereas uncooked Puerh is shunned as too “chilly” and dangerous to at least one’s abdomen, in response to conventional Chinese medicinal knowledge.

The untold fact

Puerh tea is one other extremely prized Chinese tea out there.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

Glassbelly’s contrarian views have raised just a few eyebrows within the trade.

However, Yeung says, “fact is at all times controversial. Controversy makes folks replicate and assume. Cultural progress often comes after controversy.”

Desirous to dig more into Glassbelly’s claims, I approached revered Puerh tea collector, Raymond Ray.

“I completely admire their outspokenness. So gutsy,” gasps Ray. “They really stated one thing not many within the trade are keen to say.

“However I’d say, good uncooked Puerh tastes like more than simply plum. And never all aged Puerh is dangerous — solely people who aren’t aged in a pure means, which is kind of widespread.”.

The story behind Ray’s rise within the Hong Kong tea trade has made him a little bit of a legend. A couple of decade in the past, he fell sick from a backbone illness, leaving him briefly motionless.

An extended-time wine lover, Raymond remembers taking his first sip of a very good rock tea.

“It was like my tongue was coming again to life once more. I now had one thing to dwell for,” remembers Ray. With a sore again and weak legs, he traveled round Yunnan searching for one of the best Puerh tea.

“Some historians have confirmed that Yunnan is the origin of tea,” says Ray. “I’d sit in a automotive for a four-hour rugged journey to the mountains, then walked with a cane with my dangerous again.”

That’s the place he bought acquainted with the world’s many small Puerh farms.

“You recognize, actually good tea comes from previous bushes. When it could possibly develop organically with roots massive and robust sufficient that they don’t want any chemical compounds and fertilizers. Farmers should climb up the tree to handpick these leaves,” says Ray.

Raymond Ray, founding father of Yuencha Land, says that ingesting Puerh tea has restored his once-frail well being.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

At the moment, Ray stands tall and walks with none assist. He based Yuencha Land, an appointment-only tea studio in Hong Kong that serves principally organically grown uncooked Puerh sourced from mountain bushes which can be more than 400 years previous.

“I believe everybody ought to discover a tea that’s good for his or her our bodies. Puerh is what works for me,” says Ray, who credit the drink with restoring his well being.

Advertising, rarity and tastes

A lot of the issue with artificially aged Puerh dates again to the post-WWII interval.

As soon as a tea served to emperors, Puerh misplaced its luster over time. It was even dubbed “coolie tea” within the Canton space, suggesting it was a drink reserved for low-income staff.

Moderately than getting old it and letting it ferment naturally, sellers relied on the humidity within the Canton space to speed up the method, which intensified the flavors. New strategies had been developed so as to add further moisture to the leaves and creating cultures to additional pace issues up.

The ensuing musty, camphor scent turned the signature of aged Puerh.

At the moment, there are totally different colleges of thought connected to Puerh tea and its usually excessive value tags, like with different Chinese teas.

“It’s arduous to untangle the historical past behind it,” says Ray. “Advertising undoubtedly performs an vital position in lots of of those record-breaking costs.”

Rarity is one other issue, not only for Puerh tea however all varieties.

A few of the tea is so uncommon that there isn’t any price ticket — the leaves are usually not on the market. For instance, the unique Da Hong Pao bushes are state-protected. which means they aren’t harvested for business functions.

“There may be additionally a value for business tea and one other value for artisanal tea. It’s just like the distinction between home wine and collectors’ wines,” says Yeung.

What makes a tea good?

For purchasers sampling these high-end brews, Yeung has an vital reminder.

“Have a bit of meals, or you’re going to get tea drunk,” she says.

Tea has the same impact as alcohol, however with arguably fewer unwanted side effects. Consuming an excessive amount of tea could make one loosen up and really feel light-headed: tea drunk.

“Tea helps broaden your palette throughout a meal. So I’d argue it’s a more appropriate drink to pair with meals than espresso and wine. Your tongue can be more delicate as you drink tea,” says Yeung.

In response to each Ray and Yeung, the senses will play an more and more vital position in the way forward for tea as more folks disregard the basic tales and advertising strategies, purely eager to pursue the all-important query — how ought to a very good tea style?

“I’d look into these six classes: coloration, perfume, style, aftertaste, chi and nature,” says Ray.

“The latter two are more summary. Chi is the liveliness and complexity of a tea — the way it will change in your mouth, whereas nature is how the tea reacts along with your physique,” says Ray.

Yeung doesn’t give me a solution immediately. As a substitute, she goes into the kitchen and returns with a server and a pot of tea leaves.

Water boils in a classic silver pot — which is claimed to spice up the ion within the water and make the water’s texture silkier.

The tea is brewed in a violet clay pot that helps preserve the leaves heat. As soon as the temperature drops, the leaves will contract and launch fewer flavors.

The brewing is fast. The tea, a transparent crimson hue, is poured out nearly as quickly because the pot is stuffed.

Consuming an excessive amount of tea could make one really feel light-headed.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

“Drink it. That is the Niu Lan Keng Rougui,” says Yeung. She gathers the crew round to have a sip of the subsequent brews. (A batch of fine tea leaves may be brewed as much as 10 instances on common.)

“We don’t brew a Niu Lan Keng Rougui every single day so everybody is happy,” she says with a smile, pouring about HKD28,000 (or $3,577) price of tea into everybody’s mini tea cups.

The primary sip numbs the tongue. Then the flavors of the citrus and the wooden we sampled earlier are available slowly however in a a lot more condensed and delicate kind.

“It ought to be clear, aromatic, ‘gan,’ harmonious and alive — it adjustments in your tongue,” says Yeung.

Gan, usually translated as candy, is a Chinese phrase that describes a selected type of sweetness and freshness that’s accompanied by a touch of bitterness.

We develop quiet for a second, making an attempt to give attention to the lengthy aftertaste of the advanced tea.

“I believe this is how a very good tea ought to style. And right here’s what you had been on the lookout for — the reply to why tea might value a lot,” says Yeung. “However a lot nice tea continues to be cheaper than a bottle of positive Burgundy. So is it costly, actually?”

Prime picture: Priced at $4,560 per tin can (25 grams), Niu Lan Keng Rougui is likely one of the costliest Chinese teas available on the market. Credit score: Glassbelly Tea Lab

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