BY MARK ERIC LARSON
Danna Cao, an instructor and Chinese tea expert at the Confucius Institute at UC Davis, is quick to note that tea drinking is on a big upswing in the United States. And loose-leaf Chinese tea is a big part of the trend.
"I cover all different categories of tea," she says. And while it's getting more popular in this country, she adds, tea drinking is already big everywhere else. "It is the second-most-consumed beverage worldwide, after water."
Cao is one of four instructors at the Confucius Institute at UC Davis. They are lecturers and assistant professors supplied to the local program by partnering Jiangnan University in Wuxi, China. The Davis outpost is one of six Confucius Institutes at California universities, including San Francisco State, Stanford and UCLA.
Funded by China's ministry of education, the various institutes partner with more than 400 universities globally to provide free workshops and classes sharing various aspects of Chinese culture. The UC Davis institute opened in September 2012 and is the only one of the 400 that focuses on Chinese food and beverages. And when it comes to teaching about Chinese tea, Cao, whose English is impeccable, is the designated teacher.
Attendees at the free workshops include local students, professors, retirees, housewives, visiting scholars and anybody else who's interested. She explains Chinese tea, calligraphy and other aspects of Chinese culture at her regularly scheduled workshops titled "Tea and Conversation."
Tea as a drink was discovered in 2737 BC by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung. According to legend, the discovery happened when some tea leaves accidentally blew into the emperor's pot of boiling water. For centuries since, the Chinese have consumed their native loose-leaf teas to remedy upset stomachs, clogged arteries, stress and other physical maladies.
Modern science has confirmed the Chinese belief that drinking tea is a health enhancer. Studies have found tea contains flavonoids, compounds believed to have antioxidant properties that can neutralize free radicals linked to chronic diseases. Drinking tea has been found to improve heart health, reduce some cancer risks, and improve brain function for possible protection from Alzheimer's disease. As a calorie-free drink, it has also been linked to weight loss and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
The main types of tea leaves hand-picked by harvesters in China are green, oolong, red and black, says Cao. She further explains:
• Green tea is unfermented and is the most popular in China. Green tea leaves are used to make white and yellow tea.
• Oolong leaves are used to make a lightly fermented bluish-green tea and black tea.
• Increasing gradations of fermentation/ aging are in oolong, red (fermented in one day) and black leaf teas.
Chinese restaurants typically serve black tea. Heavily fermented, it is produced in China, Cao says, where "they dry it, store it, compress it and sometimes leave it loose leaf in the air for oxidation." The most expensive black tea from China is called "eyebrow." It comes from the bud of the leaf, she says, and has a honey/ chestnut flavor. British black tea, says Cao, is primarily grown in India, is harvested with motorized scissors, and is fermented with water.
When Cao wants to introduce students of her Chinese tea workshops to the real deal, she takes them to a tea and herb shop— Wah Tsun Chinese Herbs Co.—just inside Ranch 99, the massive Asian food market at 4220 Florin Rd. in South Sacramento.
"If you want to buy really good Chinese tea, go to an Asian tea shop," she says. "Chinese people sell loose-leaf tea from a container, and put it into a plastic bag. All tea is quality-controlled before it is shipped to America."
As Cao, her daughter Hanna and I sit at a shiny mahogany tea table on short, stout wooden stools, shop owner Michael Lee pours out some samples of his huge array of loose-leaf Chinese tea. He has plenty to choose from—more than 200 varieties on display in tall glass jars—and sets out small ceramic cups as he pours hot water into a small ceramic teapot loaded up with a handful of loose tea leaves.
Lee has another tea shop in Sacramento at 6930 65th St. Between his two stores, he's been selling Chinese tea locally for 20 years, with customers getting their loose tea leaves in plastic bags or in foil bags. The only competitors he's aware of are online tea vendors and Teavana, a tea shop part of the Starbucks chain, in Arden Fair Mall. Teavana doesn't offer Chinese tea leaves of the quality that Lee does, says Cao, adding it lacks the traditionally peaceful ambience of an authentic Chinese tea shop. Starbucks' effort to cash in on the growing U.S. demand for tea "is like fast food," she says.
Tea tasting at a Chinese tea shop is a distinctly deliberate ritual. The ingredients are simply quality tea leaves mixed with hot water and brewed for a few minutes. The resulting hot tea is poured into cups, unpolluted by cream, lemon, sugar or anything else.
The first pour into our cups is quickly dumped out; kind of a palate cleanser for the cup meant to clean the cup and minimize the caffeine concentration in the tea.
We sip a few samples. While I'm pretty much a coffee drinker, I have gone through a few phases of tea drinking. And I'm here to tell you, Chinese loose-leaf tea, all new to me, is very, very good, with subtle, soothing flavors. We sampled Yunnan red and oolong, both with medium levels of fermentation. They feature slightly acidic, structured notes of flavor. We also sipped Tianshan Snow Chrysanthemum tea grown at high altitude near Tibet. This is rare and expensive tea, and it is excellent.
We tried Lake of Dragon Well Tea, a green tea that is popular in China, says Cao. The most popular tea among local shoppers, says Lee, is Six Flower tea. We also tried yum man, a pseudo-ginseng flower tea known for easing high cholesterol.
"In China we do not brand tea," says Cao. "We usually sell one kind of tea from one place. It's very seldom blended unless for a flavored tea."
Each type of tea is brewed in its own designated teapot, says Cao. Lee displays Chinese black tea compressed into discs decoratively embossed and aged for 20 years or more to promote oxidation/ fermentation. To extract some leaves from the disc to brew this tea, a knife is used to cut some for the teapot.
Retired Dixon residents Caryn and Bob Parmelee have taken tea workshops led by Cao, and are glad they did. Bob learned of the healing effects of Chinese tea from his Chinese acupuncturist in Fairfield, and has continued drinking a favorite Chinese black tea, Lapsang Souchong. He likes its smoky flavor, "I drink [Chinese teas] almost every day," he says. He buys his tea from a Chinatown, San Francisco-based online supplier.
Caryn says they went to Cao's workshop on a friend's recommendation. "We know a lot about teas," she says, "It was still very worthwhile to us. It was very nicely done with two or three samples of different teas. They really take care of you. It's very relaxed and educational."
"The difference between English and Chinese tea for us is the strength of the flavor," adds Caryn. "You can brew tea strong, but you won't necessarily get a better flavor. I really like the flavor of Chinese teas, it's more intense."
Caryn thinks about it, then gives a little more insight on what Chinese tea drinking means to her. "There are so many different kinds of tea, everyone can find something they like. It's economical and it last a long time. It's not just a beverage. I can sit down, relax and plan the day. It's a very Zen sort of thing... It's very positive."
WE LIKE TO DRINK TEA – A LOT
An increasing American demand for tea, says the U.S. Tea Association, comes from known health benefits of drinking tea and the development of "unique, high-end specialty tea." Four in five consumers drink tea, says the association, while 87% of millenials are tea drinkers. It predicts domestic tea sales will double over the next five years. Other tea facts it gathered in 2014:
• U.S. tea imports totaled approximately 285 million pounds, worth $10.8 million, and total hot tea sales increased more than 17% over the previous five years.
• In the U.S., instant tea demand is declining and loose-leaf tea is "gaining in popularity, especially in specialty tea and coffee outlets."
• Green tea, already the most popular tea in China, has had a 60% increase in volume in the U.S. over the past 10 years.
The U.S. is second only to Russia in tea import volume. An estimated 84% of all tea consumed in the U.S. last year was black tea, 15% green tea and the remaining consumption split out between oolong white and dark tea. Still, 85% of all tea consumed in the U.S. last year was iced. That's very different from the way the Chinese take their tea: hot, brewed from loose leaves, in a ceramic cup and free of sugar or cream add-ins.