In China, the saying goes, “You can study tea all of your life and still not learn the names of all the different kinds.” But there’s better time to start than when you’re traveling in Shanghai or other Chinese cities.
As popular as tea is, don’t expect to be served a free pot when seated as in Chinese restaurants in the West. Most mid-level establishments and above will have a range of teas on hand to order by the pot or glass, and hole-in-the-wall establishments only serve bottled sugary varieties, “tea water” (茶水 cháshui) or incredibly diluted cheap, no-name tea.
If you are purchasing tea leaves or wares anywhere near tourist areas, be prepared to bargain heavily and don’t expect the best quality. And NEVER EVER follow anyone from the street who engages you in conversation and tries to lead you to a tea shop; this is the well-known tea scam.
WHITE TEA (白茶 BÁICHÁ)
White tea is made of the youngest buds plucked from the bush for only a two-day period in early spring, hence the sky-high price. The leaves are actually green, but have silver hairs in them, earning the “white” moniker.
Processing: White tea is lightly steamed to stop the oxidization process, making it the least processed of any tea.
Serving: The delicate young leaves should be served with boiled water that has been allowed to cool for a few minutes. Glass or ceramic tea cups and pots are best.
Health Benefits: Since it undergoes very little processing, it retains the most antioxidants, including cancer- fighting flavonoids and cholesterol-lowering polyphenols. It’s been shown to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and also has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
GREEN TEA (绿茶 LÙCHÁ)
While white tea leaves only have a two day season, green tea’s picking period stretches over a month, half before Tomb-Sweeping Festival in early April and the remaining half after. The first pickings are the most valued, often used to grease the palms of government officials with prices reaching into the thousands of yuan per jin (500 grams). The most famous of the Chinese green teas is the “Dragon Well” (龙 井 lóngjing) variety, grown in a village of the same name outside of Hangzhou.
Processing: Green tea leaves are steamed, then “ red”, meaning either pan- fried in a wok or dried with hot air.
Serving: Boiled water should be allowed to cool to 70 degrees Celsius before being added to the leaves, which can be steeped for several minutes. Glass or ceramic teaware is best.
Health Benefits: Studies have shown green tea drinkers are at a lower risk of viral infections, bacterial infections, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, stroke, periodontal disease and osteoporosis. In addition, green tea lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, promotes fat loss, prevents cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and improves insulin stability in Type II diabetics.
OOLONG TEA (乌龙茶 WŪLÓNGCHÁ)
In Chinese, oolong translates to “ebony dragon”, but the tea is considered “blue” because its processing falls somewhere in between green and red teas. One of the most impressive teas in China, oolong is considered kung fu (which in reality means something dif cult to master, rather than simply a martial art) and has the most variety in avors. The most famous oolong teas are iron Buddha (铁观音 tiěguānyīn) and red robe (大红袍 dàhóngpáo), both from Fujian province and Taiwan.
Processing: Partially dried through a variety of processes (including withering in the sun and heating in a tumbler), the oxidization level of the remaining leaves ranges from 15 to 75 percent, depending on which variety you are trying.
Serving: The processing makes oolong teas heartier than green and white varieties, so near boiling water can be used for steeping. Porcelain and glass tea wares pair with oolong.
Health benefits: The antioxidants in oolong tea are at their most effective when paired with digestive enzymes, so it’s best to drink after a meal. This corresponds with Traditional Chinese Medicine thinking that it aids digestion and helps cleanse the body. It’s also been shown to sharpen critical thinking skills and improve overall mental alertness, due to its caffeine properties.
BLACK TEA (红茶 HÓNGCHÁ)
This fully oxidized tea is considered “red” in Chinese, although Westerners would consider it “black”. Pu’er tea (普洱) from Yunnan province is the most famous varietal.
Processing: Initially treated like green tea, “raw” pu’er tea undergoes pan-frying then sun-drying before being compressed into cakes. The cakes are then allowed to “ferment” for months, and sometimes years, where microbes become a part of the process, making it a “living tea”. Aged pu’er is like a ne wine in China – the older it is, the more valuable. The process for making “cooked” pu’er is sped up, achieving similar results in 40 days.
Serving: Black tea can withstand near boiling temperatures and should be served in a clay pot made of purple clay that absorbs and rereleases flavors over the years of use.
Health benefits: Because it has living bacteria in it, pu’er has similar health bene ts to other “fermented” foods like yogurt and kefir. It’s widely marketed as a weight loss aid and is often consumed after heavy meals or a night of excessive drinking to help break down waste and eliminate toxins. It has also been shown to improve cardiovascular health and decrease the risk of stroke by reducing cholesterol.
Tea drinkers should be mindful of the san kou, or ‘three mouths’ of tea. The first “mouth” is the eyes, which serve to evaluate the leaves before infusing with water and appreciating the color of the water once the tea is brewed. After brewing the tea, the drinker should then inhale the aroma of the tea to activate the second “mouth”: the nose. The third (more literal) “mouth” comes into play when the drinker sips the warm beverage. With the world of tea presenting as much variety (or more) than wine, a tea tour guide who can walk you through varieties, aging, oxidation and processing techniques is an enlightening experience.
Shanghai Tea Houses
De He ($$, FFC)
De He Tea House offers modern convenience to its customers; wi capabilities make it the Chinese equivalent of a coffeehouse. It might not look like much from its strip mall-like exterior, but inside there’s wooden Chinese furniture and bridges over koi ponds. The all-you-can-eat buffet featuring fruit, soups, mains, cold dishes and a wide selection of tea are de nitely worth a trip.
Address: 135 Jianguo Rd (West), near Shaanxi Rd (South). 建国西路135号近陕西南 路. Subway: Line 9 – Dapuqiao. Tel: +86 21 5468 1117. Hours: 10am-7pm.
Wanling Tea House ($$$, FFC)
Want to learn more about the art of brewing tea without worrying about being ripped off? Wanling Tea House offers educational private classes in a zen-like atmosphere, not to mention meticulously-sourced quality tea leaves from across China’s vast growing regions. You must call to book in advance. More info.
You can also now book via Airbnb Experiences.
Address: 1F, # 1, 156 Yuqing Rd, near Guangyuan Rd. 余庆路156弄1号1楼近广元路. Tel: +86 135 6424 8308. Subway: Line 1/9/11 – Xujiahui. Web: wanlingteahouse.com. Hours: 10:30am-7:30pm.
If you can, make a day trip out to Hangzhou to see the only museum dedicated to the drink in the country and sample the famous Dragon Well tea at the source. If you don’t have the time, just head to one of these wholesale markets and drink your ll while shopping.
While there are tea shops on practically every street corner in Shanghai, it’s best to head to one of the wholesale tea markets where friendly vendors are happy to pour you cup after cup so you can try before you buy. They also sell the widest variety of tea wares and feature the most knowledgeable salespeople.
The lighting could use an upgrade at the gritty Tianshan Tea Market, but you can’t complain when they offer four floors of tea leaves and wares, as well as a dedicated TCM oor, that caters to every taste. The vendors have also opened a second better-lit market near Old Town. Laoximen Tea City has most of the same products, but we love it for their Tibetan tea shop on the second oor.
Laoximen Tea City. 1121 Fuxing Rd, near Xizang Rd. 复兴中路1121号近西藏路. Subway: Line 8/10 – Laoximen.
Tianshan Tea Market. 520 Zhongshan Rd (West), near Yuping Rd. 中山西路520号近玉屏路. Subway: Line 2 – Loushanguan Rd.
Chunlei Tea Shop (春雷茶叶店). 814 Changle Rd. 长乐路814号. Subway: Line 1/7 – Changshu Rd.
TenFu Tea (天福茗茶).
RJ03- B2 SML Center, 618 Xujiahui Rd. 徐家汇路618号日月光中心 瑞金区B2层RJ03. Subway: Line 9 – Dapuqiao.
166-4 Xikang Rd. 西康路166号-4. Subway: Line 2/7 – Jing’an Temple.
Xuyou Tea House (叙友茶庄). 605 Huaihai Rd, near Si’nan Rd. Subway: Line 13 – Middle Huaihai Rd.
The tea scam usually takes place in known tourist areas. When visiting these areas, take caution and look out for young, friendly people (or person) wanting to engage in a conversation with you. Then they may ask if you want to join them for a cup of tea or coffee. After sampling some tea or coffee, the scammer will hit you with a bill that is much more expensive than it should be and that you were expecting (sometimes into the thousands of RMB). They will not let you leave until you pay and things can get unsafe very quickly.
What To Do If You Fall Victim of A Scam
If you do fall into a scam, there are some things you can do to try to get your money back.
- Insist on using a credit card and sign the slip “Under Duress”. Then, immediately call your credit card company and keep your receipt.
- Try to take a picture of the spot you were scammed in, exterior with an address would be better, and try to memorize the address or how you got there. Even better, try to take a picture with or of the perpetrator.
- Find a police officer and explain what happened (usually there are police officers who speak some English or they will find another police officer). The officer should return with you and get your money back.