From Cuisine to Cocktails, Chinese Tea is Rising in Popularity and Social Status Across China

Lovers of tea everywhere would probably drop their jaws if they know how much tea can cost in China these days.

Over a delectable meal of Huaiyang cuisine at Wanda Reign Chengdu's River Drunk restaurant where a meal can easily rise north of RMB10,000, it came to my attention that the most expensive brew on the tea menu, a certain Chairman Pu'er, costs around RMB2650 a pop. That figure easily perches this earthy beverage at the pinnacle of the world's most expensive libation, rising above your average Krugs and Cristals, setting yet another high exclusive to the uneven realities of today's China.

Delectable Mao Feng tea served at Sofitel Sunrich Guangzhou's Club Millesime

At the best Chinese restaurants across the world, Chinese tea is at best a supporting act to the main event, a balancing sip that usually accompanies a host of flavoursome dim sums, entrees and soups that might veer on being excessively oily or salty. It is a wealth of Chinese culture in a tiny cup, a well of historical anecdotes and parables that has survived the fall of dynasties and collective mindsets. The humble shrub was purportedly cultivated over 3000 years ago in Southwest China where the reigning polity is still more mythical than academic. The drinking of tea really became de rigueur in the later Song dynasty, where production and drinking methods were well documented in the forms of surviving tea sets, production equipments, edicts, novels and poetry from that era.

We didn't order the Pu'er at Wanda Reign Chengdu's River Drunk, but the Oolong still commanded around RMB1000 a serving

The successive epochs subsequently saw tea brought out of China and into the Indian subcontinent where together with nearby Sri Lanka, black tea was introduced to the world. Reigning monarchs from Europe may have enjoyed the prized brews along with the decadent dainties conjured to enhance the invented afternoon ritual, but even the kings and queens of these courtly realms might take exception to a EUR330 pot of tea from Fujian.

In my youth, tea was always second fiddle to coffee which most Singaporeans are obsessed with. Chinese tea then was relegated to non-entities in the restaurant scene, where most establishments prefer to serve free chrysanthemum, or a basic Tie Guan Yin (a popular Oolong variety that can also command eye-popping prices). Jasmine tea was probably the most exotic brew back in the eighties and nineties. Even today, Chinese tea hasn't found mass favour with overseas Chinese, who are more inclined to inhale bubble tea (which technically isn't tea, at least not traditionally qualifiable) than mull over a pot of Longjing or Pu'er. So how are these teas able to command up to US$8000 per 500gm in China?

Lovely Jiangnan dainties accompanied by the exquisite teas at River Drunk Wanda Reign Chengdu

Although fine teas like Ming Qian Longjing and Jin Jun Mei are difficult to produce and available only in small quantities each season, their forbidding prices are largely kept afloat by social-economics at play. In face-obsessed China, money is never an object when there are favours to seek, folks to impress and riches to spotlight. In the past, the medium of expression were rare bottles of scotch and vintage wine, but with the availability of stupendously premium teas tagged to inordinately high prices, Chinese tea has just joined the ranks as a barometer of wealth and power in China. Plus, tea is cultural, scholastic, historical and ultra refined. Add to that the host of health benefits drinking tea purportedly brings, it is naturally justifiable to expense on this miracle of nature.

Before readers believe Chinese teas to be elixirs of life and rush out for a bottle, know first that although some teas are known to contain strong antioxidants and are said to have curative effects on infections and Alzheimer's disease, research has also singled out tea as the culprit behind certain cancers and heart diseases. How then is it still such a valued commodity to the Chinese?

Longjing tea is best savoured with Ding Sheng cakes and a view of the West Lake. @Zhejiang Xizi Hotel

Tea is first and foremost to the Chinese a traditional brew of life, as it espouses many of the paramount qualities the Chinese has valued for eons. As with all refinements in the China of yore, cultivation is an arduous process. The Camellia Sinensis shrub takes 3 years to grow before it can be harvested and usually only the shoots of early spring give the best quality yields. Processing the plucked leaves also take time and skills, and in some cases, such as the hand-frying of the Longjing tea, a whole day of back-breaking, hand-searing work can only produce a minuscule amount of acceptable goods.

Monks harvesting Longjing tea at Hangzhou's Yong Fu temple

From the perspective of taste, in the near absence of sugar in ancient China, the refreshing taste of tea entrenched it to the dietary DNA of the race. In the heat of summer it is cooling and reinvigorating while in the bitter cold of winter it wards off chills and keeps the mind alert. The unchallenged popularity of tea throughout China's long and varied history attests to this - people definitely believe that drinking tea is healthy, and treasure this cultural inheritance. Align that to the quintessentially Eastern Asian belief that the higher the price, the greater the value of the product, and voila, Chinese tea has regenerated its national symbol status for this age, much like a gleaming Ferrari or a luscious jadeite plaque.

A scrumptious meal of Hangzhou classics is best accompanied with vintage Da Hong Pao at Hu Yin Tea House, Hangzhou

Mundane superficialities aside, a sip of hot Chinese tea can induce a range of emotive responses, from a stinging, bitter recoil to the sweet sigh of bliss, both to be meaningfully savoured by a true connoisseur. There are currently more types of Chinese teas on the forbidding menus than anyone can care to remember but rolling off the tips of aficionados' tongues are these inordinately expensive but rather special varieties.

1. Da Hong Pao (Oolong)

One of the most expensive variety of Oolong teas, Da Hong Pao is bestowed numerous legends on its beginnings. Hailing from the Ming dynasty, only a few of the original bushes are left on the volcanic rocks of China's Wuyi mountain and these are accorded almost national treasure status. It is almost certain that none of the expensive Da Hong Pao tea leaves in the market today were harvested from those bushes but are from later cultivars. The brew is robustly red and is distinctively rich with earthy tones quite unlike the lighter Oolongs from Anxi or Taiwan.

Savouring Chinese tea at Hu Yin Tea House, Hangzhou is an enjoyable ritual

2. Shi Feng Longjing (Green Tea)

Longjing is a Chinese green tea that was accorded 'tribute tea' status during the Qing dynasty. Both emperor Kangxi and Qianlong made several trips to Southern China and legend has it that emperor Qianlong was so impressed with the tea that he conferred imperial status on 18 bushes grown in a temple at Shi Feng near the West Lake. Since then, Longjing tea has remained immensely popular with tea lovers and 500gm of the immaculately processed 'Ming Qian' Shi Feng tea leaves can set one back by US$8000.

Hand-roasting Longjing tea leaves at Yongfu temple in Hangzhou

3. Jin Jun Mei (Lapsang Souchong)

Lapsang Souchong is a popular variety of smoked tea hailing from the famous tea-producing Wuyi mountain. The flavour is rich and mellow with an earthy, almost fruity aroma inherited from the smoking process. Over the last 10 years the variety branded 'Jin Jun Mei' has been featured in top Chinese restaurants of the country with prices that hover at the top. Lapsang Souchong is a departure from other Chinese teas as they tend to be preferred by Westerners and shunned by the Chinese who cultivated it mostly for export. With the prices it now commands, the trend is clearly on the reverse.

Zesty cocktails concocted with famous Chinese teas at Sofitel Sunrich Guangzhou's Mar-Tea-Ni Lounge

4. Pu-er (Fermented Tea)

Pu-er is a fermented tea produced in the Yunnan region that is probably the most complex tasting of all the Chinese teas. There are many grades of Pu'er ranging from areas of production to the dates and methods of production. The most expensive to date are the aged Pu'er 'bing' (biscuits) or 'bricks'. A batch from the '80s invested by Hong Kong traders known as 'Eighty-eight Green' commanded prices of RMB100,000 upward at the height of the craze. Today authentic tea bricks can still cost between RMB10,000 to RMB100,000 each.

Lovely dim sums, including a pretty durian puff hidden from view, all washed down with Mao Feng tea at Sofitel Sunrich Guangzhou's Club Millesime

Other premium Chinese teas of note are - Huang Shan Mao Feng, Dong Ting Bilouchun, Jun Shan Yinzhen and Tai Ping Houkui.