Chá (茶), or tea, produced in varying methods using different species of Camellia sinensis, is a subtle art in China, and, of course, an ancient one. There are so many varieties and sub-varieties, each with its own poetic or regional nomenclatures. It can make the experience of finding and buying good tea daunting. To that end, we offer this humble guide. This is by no means a comprehensive article, but it should hopefully give you an idea on how to get started on your tea shopping journey
Pu’er (普洱茶, or pǔ’ěr chá), typically comes in three types, ripe (shou Pu’er), young and aged raw (sheng Pu’er). Pu’er is what, in China, is referred to as black tea (黑茶, or hēichá). It is uncommon to find young raw for sale, so we’ll focus on the aged raw and the ripe.
Ripe merely mimics the typically and often multi-year aging process of aged raw, and is a common varietal to find for sale in stores because its produced for mass consumption. Aged raw is for the true connoisseurs, fetches high prices, and gets treated by those in the know no less sacredly than an oenophile swirling a ’98 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As one of the world’s most popular, more green tea is produced in China than any other. Green tea (绿茶, or lǜchá) is unfermented and not oxidized, though there are a wide variety of production and growing methods which make for a challenge when trying to decide which to buy. It may be toasted, steamed, lightly fried in a dry wok, grown in sun or shade, and picked at different times in order to effect taste, smell, and aroma.
Biluochan, produced in Jiangsu, and Longjing, the lights and grassy variety grown in the Hanzhou region, are perhaps the most well-known types of green tea and though often quite expensive, are good starting points when sampling a cup of healthful green tea.
Oolong (乌龙, or wūlóng, meaning black dragon tea), occupies a somewhat unique place in the tea world, being only semi-fermented. It is technically a ‘blue’ tea and has a complex bouquet and flavor. Tieguanyin, of Fujian is one example of a semi-fermented oolong and a popular varietal worth sampling. It has a fruity, berry-like flavor.
Unfermented, like green, white tea (白茶, or Báichá) is most famously derived from the Fujian region and is neither rolled nor oxidized, resulting in a tea lighter in flavor than green. It’s color, when brewed, is actually yellow, and the name derives from the color the buds take on when picked. White tea is typically brewed using prematurely picked buds (typically not yet green, and of an off-white color, hence the name).
As so-called infusion teas go, chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶, Júhuā chá) is one of the most widely recognized. It is made using dried Chrysanthemum, which are steeped in water producing an often clear colored though richly flavored tea. Chrysanthemum tea is often brewed in green tea, and though infused teas, are often looked down upon by tea purists, it is the most widely accepted kind, and worth a sniff and a taste.
Yellow tea (黄茶, huángchá) is produced in a similar fashion to green tea, though with one time consuming difference between them, the yellow color of the leaves comes from the steaming process which occurs after picking in order to induce partial oxidation. Yellow teas are often quite expensive, partly due to the added labor, and manifest as a kind of cross between green tea and a fermented black.
In the land where tea was invented, quality tea leaves are fairly ubiquitous, and easy to find throughout the city, at a range of prices as well as stores offering varying buying experiences. Here are a few:
Supermarkets like Carrefour, Tesco, and Shanghai No. 1 Food Store all sell different varieties of tea, though their staffs may not be as knowledgeable as some of the more tea specific stores. As a starting point, however, you can buy some different varietals at supermarket pricing and take them home to test them out and see what you have a taste for. Of course, supermarkets provide tea of a lower quality compared with some of the other options.
Specialty Tea Stores
These places, like Taiwanese chain Ten Fu’s Tea, can be found throughout Shanghai and offer the ease of a full-service experience with lots of product to choose from. At Ten Fu’s, friendly staff offer tea tastings of any type you’re interested in and will even provide sweet treats for you to munch on while you taste. Their prices are reasonable, and locals flock here which is usually a pretty good sign.
Touted as the oldest tea store in Shanghai is Cheng Yuxin Tea Store, offering a slightly smaller selection than Ten Fu’s Tea. Prices can be a little high, though it’s worth a visit for the history, especially if you’re taking a tea-tour through the city. All the employees wear lab coats and the place can feel a bit like a pharmacy sometimes.
Open-Air/Wholesale Tea Markets
Though they probably offer the widest selection, these places tend to be more chaotic. Remember to pull your haggle hat out. You can easily spend a whole day here because there’s just so much to see and choose from. The folks hawking tea from the various stalls are more than happy to give you a taste of their wares, and love to talk tea as well as boost your tea I.Q. You can also find nice tea sets at most of these places.
Tianshan Tea City has over 150 tea stalls selling thousands of varieties. There’s also Daning International Tea City as well as Jiuxing Tea Wholesale. Just be prepared to battle for the right prices, especially if you're a laowai. In Pudong there’s Hengda Tea Wholesale, where you can sometimes find a slightly better deal than at your average wholesaler, since their market tends to local resellers.
Most of the tea stores, and supermarkets mentioned above sell tea sets in a wide range of materials, and at varying cost. Whether you’re on the hunt for a ceramic souvenir, or looking to start brewing, the land of tea has what you need.
Glass tea sets are a great starting point for the new brewer. They allow you to see exactly what’s going on inside the pot, how well the leaves have steeped, and to begin to appreciate the color changes that occur during the process, as well as the differences between teas. They’re also reusable, and unlike a piece of clay zisha Yixing ware, different teas can be brewed using the same pot. All of the tea markets mentioned above are sure to sell both glass, as well as porcelain, tea sets, at reasonable prices. Check out Tianshan Tea City or Daning International Tea City. Ten Fu’s Tea is definitely a good spot to check out also.
Zisha Yixing unglazed clay teapots absorb minerals from the brewing tea and retain flavors from any teas that have been brewed within them. Considered optimal with aged Pu’er teas, they are used consistently with similar types of tea, once the first batch has been brewed, and most households and connoisseurs rely on them.
SPIN Ceramics in Jing’an is a great place to stop for a functional souvenir tea set. All the pieces are designed by locally and produced in-house. Prices are higher for original one-of-a-kind works of art, and the store can feel like a gallery, but it's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.
And of course, there's always Taobao.
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