A masterclass with Ed Eisler
of JING Tea
fascinated by flavour. While I have limited experience with drinks
other than wine, I’m curious. And tea is a drink with a rich
tradition, a strong connoisseurship, and real interest. Indeed, it
shares some parallels with wine, including a reliance for quality on
an agricultural product, and then limited processing of this product
to bring out the best of the flavours.
is made from the leaves of an evergreen shrub, Camelia
sinensis. Like Vitis
vinifera, the grape vine, C.
sinensis comes in many different varieties, and its qualities
are affected by where it is grown (the notion of terroir).
Eisler is the man behind JING Tea, a dynamic company importing top
quality Chinese tea to the UK. Ed studied Chinese at SOAS in London,
but his interest in tea dates back to a visit to a tea house in
Prague at the age of 16. Then, when he was 18 he spent
three-and-a-half months in China, a period during which he really
got hold of the Chinese tea culture. This culture survived intact
through the upheavals of the Communist era, in part because Mao
liked his fine teas.
on returning to the UK, Ed was frustrated. ‘I couldn’t find any
really good tea in the UK,’ he recalls. He sensed a business
opportunity, and JING was born.
was the first place tea was made, some 4–5000 years ago. Tea as we
know it dates back to the Ming dynasty, in the 7th–8th Centuries.
This is when whole-leaf tea emerged; previously tea had been made in
cake or powdered form. China is still the centre of the tea world.
China, there are six types of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong,
black (which is really red) and puerh. They are all made from the
same leaves: what differentiates them is the processing method. In
theory, you could make all six categories from the same tea leaves
from the same bush; in practice, you wouldn’t do this.
tea is one extreme. The leaves are picked and simply air dried on
bamboo trays. If the weather is humid or wet, then a machine is used
to help with the drying. Some oxidation occurs, but this is not
intentional. The leaves are not fired or steamed.
other extreme is black tea. This is heavily, intentionally oxidised.
The leaves are picked, allowed to wither and then are rolled. This
rolling process causes oxidiation, just as a cut apple browns at the
surface, and it changes the leaf from green to rusty red. Then the
leaf is fired. Firing is a process in which the leaves are heated.
For high quality teas, this might be done by hand in a large wok, a
few hundred grams at a time. Firing a tea well is a skilled process.
tea is the most popular style, and there are more than 10 000
different types. The leaves are picked, wilted and fired. The firing
process kills the enzymes in the leaves and prevents oxidation.
tea is semi-oxidised, and is the most complex in taste. ‘As people
progress they often start with Jasmine tea and then end up with
Ooolong and Puerh,’ says Ed. Leaves for this style are picked and
turned in a bamboo drum. The level of oxidation is monitored, and
exactly how much occurs is a style decision. Some go as high as 70%
oxidised. Then the leaves are fired.
tea is almost unknown except in China. It is similar to green tea,
up to the point of firing. Yellow tea is very slowly baked over a
number of days.
is unusual. The leaves are picked, withered, dried and then aged,
and this tea comes in the form of a cake of compressed leaves. While
most tea should be vacuum packed and consumed within a year, Puerh
is designed to age. There are two types of Puerh: ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’
(which is artificially fermented by fungi in a process that has been
used since the 1970s). Once the leaves have been processed they are
either compressed into a cake immediately, or stored for some time
before being made into cakes. After compressing, the flavour and
essence of the tea is maintained.
Puerh teas can be very old, but storage conditions are important,
with good ventilation key: the tea should not taste musty, mouldy or
barnyardy. You just want the rich, warm aromas of cigar boxes. In
the best storage rooms, the old teas flavour the aroma of the room
and help the young teas. These vintage teas can be expensive: one
cake of 300 g from 1910 recently sold for £1700. Red Seal tea from
the 1950s fetch £8–9000 per 370 g cake.
Puerh is for those who can’t wait the 10–20 years that raw Puerh
cakes demand. It generally doesn’t have the refinement or
complexity of good raw Puerh.
big difference between wine and tea is that it is the winemaker who
determines the flavour extraction of wine; for tea, the job is that
of the consumer. To get the best from your tea you need to infuse it
correctly. The water you use is important in this task. Ed
recommends Highland Spring or Volvic. Use the wrong water and the
tea will taste bad. You shouldn’t boil it, and depending on the
tea it needs to be at 70–100 °C.
British bought tea from China for 200 years, but the Chinese were
quite secretive about their industry. Britain introduced tea to
India in the 1830s, growing Camelia
sinensis from seeds that spies had stolen from China.
Subsequently, they discovered a native tea bush in Assam.
has three ‘tastes’ of tea: Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgari. China
has perhaps 100 tastes in one province alone.
has around 400 different varieties of C.
sinensis. Left to its own devices, this will become a tree.
Usually, though, it is pruned to the size of a bush. Many are very
old (70 years is not uncommon). Some are wild seeded. Some teas are
picked from trees as old as 1000 years, and the farmers need to
climb them to harvest the tea. Sometimes tea bushes are grown on
terraces in rows.
first picking of the leaves in early spring is the most prized. The
bushes will have had the whole winter to grow. Later pickings take
place in warmer conditions where the leaves grow more quickly, and
you don’t get the same quality. Like the grape vine, the harvest
from stressed plants is smaller but of better quality.
a huge interest in tea in China,’ says Ed. ‘People drink tea all
day. It’s mainly green tea, and it is appreciated in the same way
as the French appreciate wine.’ In the UK, people aren’t
prepared to pay as much for their tea as the domestic market is. Ed
says that when he buys fine tea he is competing with the domestic
market, which used to be the Communist Party elite. ‘Now the new
rich buy big quantities of tea.’ In China it would typically cost
£5–10 to get a good tea in a tea house, but you would get some
food as well for this.
silver needle white tea Gentle and soft, this tastes like tea! Apparently this can have
melon and cucumber notes when it is very fresh. Oxidation gives it a
Dragon Well green tea A bit fishy with some bitterness. Fresh with a green finish.
Some interest here.
Jasmine Pearls (hand-rolled green tea scented with fresh jasmine
blossoms) Weird flavour: perfumed, quite extreme.
Mountain Yellow Buds yellow tea Delicate, soft and light: a light style of tea.
red robe supreme oolong tea Powerful, spicy and rich, with lovely earthy notes. Amazing
stuff. Quite complex.
Bohea Lapsang Supreme black tea Peaty, spicy and intense with rich bold flavours. Really
Puerh loose tea manufactured in the 1990s (cooked Puerh) Slightly earthy. A tiny bit musty with herby flavours.
Xiaguan Iron Cake raw Puerh tea Complex and intense with herby, spicy notes. Rich and a bit
phenolic. Beautifully intense flavours.