Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ten of China's Underappreciated Teas

Inspired by a recent post on the Life in Teacup blog, China's Famous Teas Top 10 - Money and Power?, I decided to create my own Top 10 Chinese teas list. There are lots of different "China Famous Teas" (中国名茶) or "Ten Great Chinese Teas" (中国十大名茶) lists floating around out there...interesting analysis on Wikipedia of which teas appear on how many of these lists, by the way.

But this is a different sort of Top 10...most of these teas would not make it onto any of these lists. This is a list of everyday teas for everyday people...including many inexpensive teas, some considered as "low-grade" teas. And yet, in my opinion, all these teas offer exceptional value and are often surprisingly high in quality relative to their price, especially if you can locate the right source / vendor. This list is rather arbitrary...I may wake up tomorrow and realize I omitted an important tea, or I may discover a new tea in a few weeks that belongs here...but I just wanted to get this post out there:
  1. Shou Mei (寿眉) - meaning "Longevity Eyebrows", this is often considered a "low" or inexpensive grade of white tea. It is dark in flavor and more oolong-like. It is my personal favorite style of white tea.

  2. Chun Mee (珍眉) - meaning "Precious Eyebrows". The highest grade of young hyson tea, this is nonetheless an inexpensive green tea. It has a tangy flavor which, while undesired by some, is much appreciated by others.

  3. Gunpowder Tea (珠茶) - A green tea rolled tightly into small pellets, with a strong smoky quality. Although it ranges widely in price, there are good gunpowder teas that are available for an incredibly low price. To give you an idea of how low, I once bought some very good gunpowder in NYC's Chinatown for $7/pound. The top grades of gunpowder are still very affordable.

  4. Se Chung (色种) Oolong - Often overshadowed by Tie Guan Yin, Se Chung is not one particular variety, but rather, a family of oolongs from Anxi county, where Tie Guan Yin also originated. The Se Chung oolongs include Huang Jin Gui, Mao Xie, Benshan, and Qilan, among others. Many of them offer outstanding value. I was almost tempted to break this category up and list more of the individual varieties of se chung oolongs, but I only did this for one.

  5. Qi lan(奇兰) Oolong - One of the Se Chung oolongs, I broke this one out into its own category because it seems most different from the others and also most distinct from other oolongs, and also because it a varietal grown both in Anxi and the Wuyi mountains. Dark, heavily oxidized forms of this oolong, from Wuyi, are very sweet and mild, fruity, floral, nutty. The greener forms, more common in Anxi, are orchid-like in fragrance, but with their own distinct twist, rather unlike Tie Guan Yin. Something about this varietal is atypical for me in that I tend to like bitter teas and dislike sweet ones, but I enjoy this one greatly. I also find that among the se chung varietals, this one tends to offer one of the most intense floral experiences for a one of the most reasonable prices.

  6. Young Sheng (Green or "raw") Pu-Erh - While aged pu-erh often fetches a high price, young sheng pu-erh tends to be very inexpensive. If you like strong teas, you might actually prefer the younger cakes of sheng pu-erh to aged ones--they have considerably more bitterness (which I like very much) and can be astonishingly complex in aroma relative to their price.

  7. Lapsang Souchong (拉普山小種) - This black tea is dried over pine fires; the pine smoke imparts a strong and unique smoky aroma, whereas the tea itself is mellow in flavor. People tend to have strong opinions on this one; a favorite of many, others avoid it like the plague.

  8. Keemun (祁门) - While Keemun can reach into the most expensive and highly regarded teas, especially Keemun Hao Ya and Keemun Mao Feng, and Keemun actually makes some of the lists of China Famous Teas, there are nevertheless many outstanding Keemuns available for reasonable prices. I added Keemun to this list because I think the Keemuns that do not bear the Hao Ya and Mao Feng labels often are dismissed as inferior quality, and to some degree, Keemuns from Hubei (rather than Anhui, the true origin of Keemuns) are also sometimes dismissed...but Keemuns are incredibly diverse and I think many of the lower-priced ones are outstanding teas, worthy of more attention and appreciation.

  9. Jasmine Tea - Not a pure tea, but with a long history, this tea is usually made from a pouchong / baozhong base tea scented with Jasmine flowers...often described as perfumey, this is another love-it-or-leave-it tea.

  10. Rose-scented Tea - I initially resisted including a second scented tea in this list, but I think China's traditionally-scented floral teas are really outstanding, and, for the most part, put western flavored and blended teas to shame. Both green and black teas are frequently scented with rose, and the result is highly floral, but can hardly be said to resemble Jasmine tea at all. Rose is a powerful, surprisingly sharp aroma, holding its own with (and often dominating) even strong black teas. It also blends well with the floral element in some of the higher-quality black teas.

I would encourage other people to make up their own "Top 10" lists. Gingko of Life in Teacup pointed out that there is a (potentially ugly) money and power side to the official top 10 lists. By taking things into our own hands and creating our own lists, especially when we do our best to draw attention to under-appreciated teas, we help combat the forces of entrenched interests, and encourage diversity in the world of tea.


  1. Great post, I do believe I am going to think on this and come up with a list of my favorite brands in each category. Woot!

  2. Thanks; that's a great idea...I look forward to reading it!

  3. Here it is!

  4. Great list Alex!
    I still need to buy myself some of that Se Chung!
    You make it sound delightful!

  5. This is a great idea, Alex. I especially like your comment on #10, probably because I agree with you. Aside from a well-done Earl Gray, most flavored/scented teas are not good. Most of your teas are very approachable by ordinary people, which can lead them into more exotic, if they choose, but you could just have these and be quite content. I am going to think about my own list, after I recover from the whole moving excitement

  6. Great post Alex. My personal favorites of those 10 are Jasmine, Gunpowder, and Keemun. What are yours?


  7. Neil, I would encourage you to make your own list too!

    It's hard for me to pick a few favorites from the list, but I'd probably say Se Chung teas, young sheng pu-erh, and rose-scented tea (esp. rose-scented green tea) for a favorite three.

  8. Keemun is in the 1959 Top 10 Famous Chinese Tea list so it's hard to say they are underappreciated!