A masterclass with Ed Eisler of JING Tea 

I am 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.

Tea 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).

Edward 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.

But 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.

China 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.

In 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.

White 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.

The 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.

Green 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.

Oolong 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.

Yellow 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.

Puerh 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.

Some 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.

Cooked 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.

One 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.  

The 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.

India has three ‘tastes’ of tea: Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgari. China has perhaps 100 tastes in one province alone.

China 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.

The 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.

‘There’s 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.

The tasting

Organic 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 maltier flavour.

Organic 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.

Huo Mountain Yellow Buds yellow tea
Delicate, soft and light: a light style of tea.

Big red robe supreme oolong tea
Powerful, spicy and rich, with lovely earthy notes. Amazing stuff. Quite complex.

Organic Bohea Lapsang Supreme black tea
Peaty, spicy and intense with rich bold flavours. Really interesting.

Royal Puerh loose tea manufactured in the 1990s (cooked Puerh)
Slightly earthy. A tiny bit musty with herby flavours.

1980s Xiaguan Iron Cake raw Puerh tea
Complex and intense with herby, spicy notes. Rich and a bit phenolic. Beautifully intense flavours.

Here is a short film of the tasting:

See also: a seminar on coffee, with James Hoffmann

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