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Beijing: A fortune in Chinese tea leaves

Beijing: A fortune in Chinese tea leaves
Since the arrival of global recession, expert investors have been quietly ploughing their wealth into tangible assets – art, gold, silver and even wine. In China, a traditional tangible investment takes the form of tea, and the most coveted variety is pu-erh.
Shannon Denny visits Beijing and finds a fortune in Chinese tea
I’m in the Chaoyang district of Beijing tasting tea with tea wholesaler Zhu Jinwu, who describes his mission as “the dissemination of tea culture”. My education begins with green tea harvested only last spring before the rains. It’s apparently got very tender leaves and can’t take very high temperatures, so Mr Zhu handles the almost blue leaves gently with bamboo tongs and a tiny rake. Once he’s boiled water and let it cool a little, he adds some leaves to a bowl. “Tea is planted and born on the mountain. They die in the wok and come to life in the cup,” he explains.
It’s an elaborate process to bring the tea to life. Mr Zhu recommends porcelain and glass vessels for green tea, since these allow you to appreciate the shape of the leaves. “Also the heat vibrates faster in these two materials,” he says. Working on a slatted wooden tray that lets excess water drain away, he pours water into a white cup containing tealeaves, strains the brew into a pitcher and distributes it to our tiny cups. We repeat this slow ritual four or five times, and the flavour becomes milder with every cup. “All the taste in green tea is from the air, the soil, the climate – so it is very similar to wine.”
Five cups of tea in and we’re nowhere near finished with my schooling.
Next Mr Zhu announces we’ll try Fujina Iron Goddess Oolong. Out comes a set of tiny blue and
Beijing: A fortune in Chinese tea leaves
white bowls with what appear to be matching shot glasses. He pours hot water over them to cleanse and heat them before producing the tea itself – gnarled, deep dusty green nuggets that smell to me like a coir carpet.
Green tea, black tea, white tea and oolong all come from the same plant but are processed differently. Oolong is semi-oxidized, so it offers the body of a black tea with the cooling effects of unoxidized green tea. Mr Zhu produces a shiny kung fu teapot made of purple sand, which retains heat better than porcelain or glass. This time the water is fully boiling, and he pours it over the leaves working inward as well as over the outside of the pot to keep the temperature high.
By now the leaves have blown up inside, unfurling to resemble something akin to spinach. The first infusion is discarded – it serves only to “awaken the tealeaves” – but the second is distributed into the shot glass shaped vessels.  We cover these with upturned cups, and then flip them over. The now empty shot glasses enable us to smell the honey aroma left by the tea. Back in the bowls, the tea is the colour of amber and completely lacking in bitterness. The serving sizes are a bit silly to my Western eyes though – two sips and you’re done, and so process starts again.
Once the oolong leaves are exhausted, we move on to Yunnan black tea. The white porcelain cups with their lids return, and Mr Zhu uses a bamboo scoop to scatter leaves into a bowl. Just boiled water goes into a tiny glass pitcher. By now we could have ordered and polished off a dozen skinny lattes from Cafe Nero, but the slow pace is all part of the ritual. “Basically tea is about being peaceful and quiet,” he says. “It’s spirit nutrition.” After the leaves have steeped under their lid for a minute, he harvests the reddish liquid by straining it into a glass. The flavour is more traditional, and there’s a satisfying sharpness that appeals to me.
However we’ve apparently saved the best – and most precious – for last. Pu-erh (or puer) is popular within China but relatively unusual outside the country. There are two basic types, sheng cha, which is raw and naturally fermented, and shu cha, which is cooked and undergoes an accelerated fermentation process. Both are claimed to aid weight loss, lower metabolism and even prevent cancer.
Hidden beneath folds of paper and cloth, Mr Zhu unveils some of this year’s sheng cha harvest; I seem to be staring at a Frisbee made of hay, and there’s a smell in that air that’s a bit like grass clippings. “The tea is compressed this way because it’s very easy to store and ship,” says Mr Zhu. “Once you need to make tea, you break it.” This kind of tea is cultivated in remote places and was traditionally transported on horseback, so the pressed format meant increased efficiency for busy producers.
For sheng cha, the oxidation process occurs after the tea is compressed, and will continue until these leaves turn black, which traditionally takes about a decade. Mr Zhu explains that it was common for a grandfather to invest in a new cake of pu-erh for his grandson. Once the grandson came of age he could sell the investment and use the proceeds to get a start in life. If you protect pu-erh from light, odour, heat and moisture, it can keep for 100 years, and in China you can find 50-year-old cakes of it in markets. There’s even some pu-erh in existence dating from the Qing dynasty.
The shu cha Mr Zhu offers me is not quite that ancient though. This time he lights a gas lamp inside a tabletop chimney and rolls a rough clay pot gently over the flame to evenly roast the dry tealeaves inside. It smells like something a horse might like, but this doesn’t diminish my faith in the alchemy occurring before me.
Hot water warms a set of wider clay bowls and is also poured into the pot. Over the little flame the liquid comes to a boil, and suddenly it’s as dark as coffee. Mr Zhu dilutes this with water from a boiled kettle then serves me a clay cupful of what looks like soy sauce and smells vaguely of a hospital. “Pu-erh is good for chi circulation,” he insists with a smile, so I take a sip. It’s smooth and silky with a sweet aftertaste. After several cups I feel decidedly high; maybe my judgement is affected, but suddenly investing in tea doesn’t sound like a bad idea after all.
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21 October 2011
By: Shannon Denny
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