Chinese Tea Master

In recent years, Chinese tea has crossed oceans with more regularity as orders from foreigners come flying in, fuelled by scientific studies linking tea consumption with a host of health benefits. But for the lucky residents of Shanghai, we’re just a train ride away from some of the best tea fields (and tea masters) in the world.

Ian Hanks, a Texas native who lived in Shanghai for years before relocating to Hangzhou, is something of a Chinese tea connoisseur. Working as a consultant in Shanghai, Hanks was introduced to the drink by a friend, but it wasn’t until he headed to Hangzhou’s greener pastures that he really began to delve into the complex world of tea.

“I moved out to the Lingyin Temple neighbourhood because I was looking for a quiet place to live,” says Hanks. “I didn’t realise I was actually moving into a community of tea farmers.” The tucked away village is where he met Mr Hu, the neighbourhood tea master, (pictured above) who introduced him to the art of tea drinking.

Hanks and his friends often hang out in Mr Hu’s meditation room, which sits above the store where the devout Buddhist sells tea to the monks and tourists from the temple. The walls of the room are lined with aged pu’er tea, Mr Hu’s personal favourite variety of Chinese tea, and an impressive tea table surrounded by simple pillow cushions takes up most of the floor space. Young monks and tea enthusiasts will gather here to study at the master’s feet, and Mr Hu is at his best sitting comfortably zen-like behind the tea table, pouring out cups of tea while waxing lyrical about the culture behind the drink and how it has penetrated every aspect of his life, including his marriage.

On the day of his wedding, Mr Hu and his wife purchased a cake of pu’er tea and enjoyed a cup together. Now every year on their anniversary, they sit down together and infuse another cup of tea from their wedding “cake”. Mr Hu explains that pu’er, like good wine, develops more complex flavours as it ages, so he and his wife discuss how the pu’er has changed and improved – a metaphor for their marriage that has also passed another year in the same house.

Mr Hu’s romanticisation of tea spills into his technical knowledge of the drink, turning even the simplest drinking procedures into a beautifully complex art form. In between sips of oolong tea, Mr Hu explains the “san kou” or “three mouths” of tea drinking in Fujian province. Oolong is a feast for the eyes, which serve as the first mouth, and one should evaluate the leaves and appreciate their beauty before infusing with water, he says. After brewing the tea, the drinker should then inhale the aroma of the tea to activate the second mouth: the nose. Finally the tea should reach the third mouth, literally this time when the drinker sips the warm beverage. Mr Hu then patiently instructs the best way to drink the tea, a multifaceted approach to ensure the drinker fully appreciates the flavour by hitting all of the tongue receptors in sequential order.

A quiet philosopher, Mr Hu preaches the gospel of tea to all his visitors. Hanks and his younger brother, Roger, have become his disciples, creating, an ecommerce site that sells the tea master’s wares around the world, along with helpful brewing tips that highlight the intricacies of each individual tea.

Hanks, who is practically fluent in Mandarin, has undertaken the demanding task of writing the website’s blog, which, with the help of Mr Hu’s encyclopaedic knowledge of tea, could easily trump the best of the internet’s English-language tea content. Together, the tea master and his disciple are building a virtual Silk Road that will demystify authentic Chinese tea for the English-speaking masses.

This was originally written by Jamie for the January 2011 edition of Shanghai TALK. If you’re interested in learning more about the ancient art of tea, join UnTour for our special Tea Service. You’ll learn the complex process of brewing tea at one of Shanghai’s most authentic teahouses and tour the best-stocked tea wholesale warehouses for great deals.

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