12 secrets from a kung fu tea master .

A Shanghai tea master explains how get the best brew for your buck

People wax lyrical about wine; and don’t ever think of telling a coffee lover that all brews taste the same. But, rarely do we put the same taste buds or brain cells toward tea.

Recently, I visited Sun Yuping, the kung fu tea master of Fenghe Teahouse, who has been practicing the art of tea — preparing and serving it — for more than 11 years.

We sat down — over a cup of cha, of course — to chat about tea: when to drink it, how to prepare it, and why you should love it.

Shanghai tea - green tea leaves 

Spring is high season for green tea lovers.

1. Spring is the best season to drink green tea

Season matters when it comes to the quality and taste of the tea you’re drinking. Normally, green tea is collected before Qingming Festival (known as xincha) and tastes fresher and more fragrant when enjoyed during that season.

“Xincha is so fresh that it smells just like you’re drinking grass,” says Sun Yuping, “but in a good way.”

Shanghia tea - tea houses - tieguanyin 

Expectant tieguanyin fans will have to wait until the fall.

2. The best time to drink tieguanyin is the fall

Looking for good tieguanyin? You’ll probably have to wait a few months for this premium variety of oolong tea.

“Generally, the best time for tieguanyin is the fall,” Sun says.

“After the spring and summer picking season is over,” she continues, “the plants have lost some their nutrition, leaving the rest relatively infertile, resulting in lighter fragrance, which appeals to a lot of people.”

Shanghia tea - tea houses - tea cup 

Shanghai tea pouring lends a new angle to the question: “Is the glass half full?”

3. Never pour a full cup of tea

Have you ever noticed that you never quite get a full glass of cha? Although you might chalk it up to an overly cautious server, it’s more likely that the person pouring is following the 70-30 rule: many believe that tea should only fill 70 percent of a cup while the other 30 percent is “space for your emotions,” says Sun.

“Like wines in Western culture, tea in China is more of a sense and concept than taste,” she explains. “You should never completely fill your tea cup, it’s considered impolite.”

Shanghia tea - tea houses - boiling water 

Leave tea water boiling too long at your own risk.

4. Water temperature affects the taste

Not just any boiled water will do for tea. Water temperatures between 80 and 90 C are fine for longjing tea, 75 C is best for Biluochun tea, and aim for 100 C for tieguanyin, notes Sun.

Next time you drink tea in a restaurant, suggests Sun, feel free to refuse the order if it’s not offered at the right temperature — too low and the taste won’t have developed, too high and the flavor is destroyed.

Shanghia tea - tea houses - leaves 

There’s a new kind of kungfu master in town — and these leaves are quaking in their cups.

5. Kung fu tea is for real tea lovers

“Tea lovers ought to have a try of kung fu tea,” says Sun. “That’s real art.”

Kung fu tea isn’t a type of tea or a martial art, but an exact brewing process.

Its art lies in that it’s a combination of the right amount of tea leaves, high water temperature, particular brewing time and special tea utensils made with purple, sandy clay, which requires time to appreciate.

“Although most local tea houses can prepare tea like this,” says Sun, “you usually need to ask for it, and you should. The process and taste are worth the effort.”

Shanghia tea - tea houses - bingcha 

This chabing could hide impurities. Photo by Flickr user teajournaling

6. Don’t judge pu’er by its appearance

Usually, you can make pretty good snap judgements about tea just by looking at the buds — all but pu’er that is.

“It’s unwise to judge pu’er by appearance, especially chabing, as merchants put in lots of impurities,” Sun says. “The safest way to tell good pu’er is to taste it.”

“Excellent pu’er tastes smooth and a bit bitter with a sweet aftertaste,” she adds.

Shanghia tea - tea houses - pangdahai 

According to TCM, pangdahai tea is good for more than warm hands in the winter.

7. Try luohanguo (罗汉果) or pangdahai (胖大海) instead of lozenges for a sore throat

“Luohanguo and pangdahai are both cool natured, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and are therefore good for a sore throat,” says Sun. “If your profession relies much on your voice, it’s good to have these two at hand.”

“Specifically, luohanguo has noticeable effect on curing a cough,” she continues, “while pangdahai helps to relieve a hoarse voice. Just be careful with the dosage — drink in moderation.”

Black tea  - shanghai tea  

China tummy? Grab a glass — or two — of black tea.

8. Black tea protects your stomach — and spirit

Black tea is a good friend to poor stomachs.

During the fermentation process, a large amount of the antioxidant polyphenol is oxidized, and the “oxidation generated in black tea protects the stomach better than just about any tea, including green tea,” says Sun.

TCM practitioners also believe that black tea promotes blood circulation, thus helping the spirit.

green tea - shanghai tea 

Hydration is key for green tea.

9. Keep your green tea watered

Although it’s tempting to let your tea run dry, exposing the tea leaves to air after you’ve already started using them actually limits their usage.

“Oxidization takes place faster when green tea runs dry, forcing tea leaves become yellow and less fresh,” explains Sun.

To keep your tea fresh, and be able to use them a few times more times, make sure to continually pour water over the leaves.

Lycium chrysanthemum tea 

Forget coffee, offices around Shanghai should be stocking Wolfberry chrysanthemum tea.

10. Wolfberry chrysanthemum tea is best for office workers

Shanghai has no shortage of office workers, and Sun says the best tea for the city’s rising white collar class is Wolfberry chrysanthemum tea.

“Wolfberry is beneficial to eyes, while chrysanthemum clears away internal heat, the combination of which helps to reduce office pressure,” says Sun.

oolong tea - shanghai tea 

Keep your oolong tea leaves around a while — they’re late bloomers.

11. Reduce, reuse, retain

Although it’s easy to use tea leaves once and the move on, if you’re drinking oolong tea, patience — and possibly a strong bladder — is king.

Generally speaking, oolong tea has a heavier flavor which develops over time, and can survive eight to nine rounds (green tea loses its fragrance within four rounds) of tea drinking, so retaining the leaves it crucial to enjoying the full flavor range.

“The more time you use oolong leave, the better they will taste,” says Sun.

Shanghai tea - tea leave - tea houses 

Need more leaves? Don’t be afraid to ask a change up.

12. Change your tea leaves for free

If you’ve run through your tea leaves and want new ones of the same type, a standard industry practice in Shanghai tea houses as to offer you a free change-up, although they don’t advertise the practice, explains Sun.

“Tea houses won’t tell you this rule because this increases their cost, though consumers do have rights to know this,” Sun says as she smiles. “Just ask for it.”

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