Exploring The Art of Fine Tea Tasting in Hong Kong

It’s a drizzly afternoon as I enter Hong Kong’s Ki Chan Tea Co., shaking out my umbrella before stepping through the door. As I cross the threshold, I feel like I’m entering a differ- ent world. The entrance is flanked by backlit, glass-fronted cubic shelving, each square holding a different decorative teapot, while further inside, dark wood and dim lighting make me feel instantly relaxed. Behind a room divider sits a wooden tasting table where I’m greeted by staff member Tiffany Yuen, here to lead me through a tasting of her favourite teas.

It’s a process that can’t be rushed, so I settle in to watch and learn. She starts with a tiny clay teapot, pouring hot (but not boiling) water over it first to warm it, then packing it with leaves and adding water again. The first rinse is just to open the leaves, Yuen says, pouring that infusion away quickly, while subsequent pours of water are for brewing and drinking. Unlike how I typically drink tea at home, the leaves are rebrewed multiple times, each steeping for slightly longer. Our tiny clay cups are warmed with hot water, then picked up with tongs to drain. Finally, it’s time to taste, and she pours us our first green tea. I lift the cup to my mouth and take a sip—the flavour is vegetal, almost spinach-like, with a herbaceous edge that makes it instantly refreshing. Yuen pours more water in the pot, and I set down my cup for another pour.

Photo by Adrian Armstrong
Photo by Adrian Armstrong

It’s not the first tea I’ve tasted here, nor will it be the last. Hong Kong is a city of tea drinkers, and you’ll find the beverage everywhere, without even trying. But what makes the tea scene special is its diversity. Thanks to the city’s mixed Chinese and British heritage overlaid with a global outlook that prompts the importation of food fads with alacrity, Hong Kong is as passionate about new trends as it is devoted to keeping old ones alive. And I’m here to take as much in as I can, hopefully without over-caffeinating myself in the process. One ritual Hong Kong has made its own is the tradition of afternoon tea. Posh hotels around the city serve this classic pick-me-up, where fancy sweets and savouries, like scones and finger sandwiches, are served—often on tiered trays— alongside a pot of one’s favourite brew. But many restaurants here, like the Lobby Lounge at the Kowloon Shangri-La, have both modernized and localized the menus. Guests can enjoy dainty spring rolls and chewy sesame paste-filled sweets while sipping their brew of choice.

 

At Lung King Heen in the city’s Four Seasons Hotel, I experience my first-ever tea-pairing menu, to discover how the beverage can complement the chef’s creations. The first thing I learn: Tea pairing isn’t like wine pairing. “You enjoy the teas between courses instead of with them,” says restaurant manager Simpson Yeung. A Camellia sinensis aficionado, though too modest to call himself an expert, Yeung has chosen a selection of teas to go with our six-course tasting menu at the trendy three-Michelin-star establishment—so trendy, in fact, that weekend dim sum lunch seatings are known to sell out months in advance.

At Lung King Heen, the focus is on traditional Chinese teas, each of which Yeung explains as we sip. The Yunnan black tea, for instance, which he describes as similar to English breakfast—though we drink it without milk— has a caramel flavour and is strong enough to stand up to the oiliness of crispy spring rolls and taro dumplings, while the light, grassy Fuding jasmine pearl is refreshing after eating lightly cooked pea shoots with garlic. But my favourite is the smoky, tannic aged pu-erh, whose rich, earthy flavour I enjoy following a creamy braised tofu. Yeung describes it as a forest as opposed to the jasmine, which was like a park—he’s referring to the green scent of fresh- cut grass—and I’m impressed with the diversity of flavours that can be coaxed out of the leaves of a single species of shrub.

Back at Ki Chan, Yuen follows our first tasting with a sweet, nutty high mountain tea from Taiwan, and then a cooked tea from Fujian that reminds me of mint. But again, it’s the pu-erh that fascinates me. This fermented, dark tea is popular not only with the Chinese but also among Russians. So popular, in fact, that they limit customers to one eight-inch-round cake per person, and I’m shocked by the price tag: almost a thousand dollars per tael, or 38 grams. Admittedly, this is for a vintage tea that’s been aging for 70 years.

Yuen herself drinks a 55-year-old pu-erh, re-steeping it some 30 times throughout the day. Sniffing the leaves, she compares their scent to mushrooms, or the forest floor after rainfall. It’s an evocative picture that demonstrates the romance of this millennia-old beverage, and while my budget’s not up for the premium varieties, I do take a packet of tea to savour when I get home. My kitchen might not have the style of a Hong Kong teashop, but if I close my eyes and breathe in, I’m sure the scent will take me back.


YOUR TEA-TASTING BUCKET LIST

Neil Swanson, a teacher and tea-connoisseur living in Taipei, has spent the last 13 years working with tea masters learning about the complex processes involved in growing, aging, and fermenting tea—and, of course, tasting them along the way. Here, Swanson divulges three of his favourites.

Red Seal Aged Pu’er Tea

“A legendary Chinese pu’er tea, harvested in the 1950s and aged for 60 years and counting, is valued more dearly than gold—a medium-sized eight-gram pot can set you back as much as $1,850 in a teahouse—and it is certainly not found on every menu. The flavour is sumptuous and strong, with hints of medicinal herbs, but its most memorable quality is the intense energy it imparts. After several small cups, the cold that had been scratching at the back of my throat vanished without a trace.”

Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea

“The history of this Taiwanese tea abounds with tall-tales, including one claiming it got its name from the Queen of England herself. Originally dubbed ‘Bug Saliva Tea’ by locals, this tea gets its unique flavour from the bites of tiny green leafhoppers called jassids, who dine on the leaves and stems for a few weeks each summer. A heavy oxidizing process brings out summery stone-fruit flavours and floral overtones. Its special sweetness develops as a direct result of an abundance of—you guessed it—bug saliva.”

Traditional Iron Goddess Oolong Tea

“This tea traditionally undergoes one of the most time-consuming and painstaking processing methods of all teas—one that has been preserved for many years in Taiwan. After oxidation, the leaves are repeatedly rolled and roasted (which squeezes out their oils), and formed into small, tightly-rolled balls, deep brown in colour. This process, which can last anywhere from several days to over a month, gives rise to a rich aroma of roasted nuts, with a lingering flowery aftertaste with hints of orchids.”

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