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City Weekend

Hong Kong tea appreciation society offers escape from fast-paced city life

Group of Hongkongers explores the power of tea, one cup at a time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 October, 2016, 11:02am

Like many Hongkongers, May Chan drank tea during yum cha as a child, but it was only later in life that she came to really enjoy it.

Drawing on her lifelong interest and using her knowledge of Chinese medicine, she began researching the health benefits of tea.

Today, as a tea consultant, she spends much of her time advocating and teaching others not only how to drink it, but also how to cook with it and match it with certain food. Her favourite combinations include green tea for cooking seafood and oolong tea for preparing meats such as duck.

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“There is a long tradition of trying to cook with tea here [in Hong Kong],” Chan said. “Using tea as an ingredient is part of the Chinese approach to health.”

Her passion for it prompted her to start the Tea Appreciation & Tasting Meetup group a few months ago, which now has almost 400 members. Meetup is a social networking website which helps people with similar interests connect in real life.

“I think her teaching material is different from others. She teaches you how to use the tea to preserve your health. Others seem to just focus on how much you pay for it,” Patrick Hui, manager of a manufacturing business in Tai Po, said.

Hui said he first learnt about the intricacies of tea from Chan’s course. “In Hong Kong, you sometimes feel hot or cold, and you drink different types of tea for this. For example, black tea will warm you up, but green tea cools you down.

“In this city, it is too easy to get what you want to eat and drink, so you have to watch your health.”

Lynda Chen, another member of the tea appreciation society, met Chan through her own Meetup group IVeggie. She said she appreciated being taught more about tea’s health benefits. “I drank a lot of tea, but I did not know much about it,” she said.

“My grandparents drank tea every day after a meal. I do not really drink coffee – it keeps me up. But tea helps me to slow down. It is really good for your health.”

At the Meetup sessions, tea cups are often arranged in the pyramid shape of the Chinese character “pin”, which means “to taste”. Tea drinkers are encouraged to use three fingers to hold their cup, as it is considered more polite in Chinese culture, and to drink their tea in three sips.

Members are also encouraged to observe how tea changes from the first brew to the last and are invited to take excursions to plantations to see how tea is made.

Chan hosts two or three sessions each month and charges between HK$200 to HK$300 per person, partly to cover the costs of the tea she provides.

She explained that while some teas she sources, such as the 300-year-old Pu’erh tea which can cost HK$6,000 for 350g, are worth the price tag, others may not be.

“The price does not necessarily reflect the value,” she said. “Some of them are very expensive because of their history.”

Looking back, Chan said she took up an interest in tea while working at the Hong Kong government’s export office.

Her French manager at the time had asked her to help him source for good green tea after his doctor suggested he drink it to assist with a recurring stomach ache.

She had previously studied tea therapy as part of a Chinese medicine course and with that knowledge, she searched for the right tea to help her boss. She found that he should vary his tea intake, according to his health and the time of year.

That request eventually led her to look at how tea could benefit health. And so her journey with tea began.

She has been running the Homeland Tea Garden in Wan Chai the last five years, before launching the Meetup group a few months ago.

The small business owner approaches tea drinking like she would an art form. “No matter how or what you drink, you have to check the balance,” she said.

Hongkongers still appear to prefer tea over coffee despite coffee consumption in the city and the mainland increasing in recent years, particularly among young professionals.

Hong Kong people tend to start drinking tea from an early age, with most commonly enjoying Chinese brews during yum cha.

Toby Hui, a 29-year-old sales executive in the meat trading business, said he was not yet convinced to pick coffee over tea.

“I do not like the flavour; it is too strong,” he said. “And sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable in my stomach.”

As an ambitious professional, he said he was tempted by the potentially lucrative tea market.

“We have been looking at how tea can improve your health,” he said. “Maybe this could be a new business for me.”

Unsurprisingly, Chan’s Meetup group sees members spending a lot of time discussing their thoughts on tea as they sample varieties from all over the world.

Patrick Hui said he had learnt to focus on the emotions stirred up by drinking tea. “May asks us to try to imagine how we feel as we drink the tea,” he said. “You use the taste as a way to relate to your imagination. It is an easy and fun atmosphere at our meetings.”

Chen agreed the group had made her think about tea in a way that she never had previously, and that taking time to enjoy tea can be a welcome break from the often hectic Hong Kong life.

“While you appreciate the tea, you are always learning about it,” she said.

“I did not know how to really appreciate it before. It has been an eye-opening experience.”

“[Hong Kong] is a very fast-paced society and so some people like coffee at Starbucks because it is just a takeaway. But tea appreciation is about slowing things down and just [spending] time with your friends,” Chen said.

May Chan’s top five teas

1. Green tea: It requires more steps to process, but less oxidation occurs. Green tea flavours cover a wide spectrum from buttery and grassy to smoky. The common Japanese green teas, such as gyokuro and matcha, are steamed, while Chinese green teas including Longjing are pan-fired.

2. White tea: Subtle in flavour, very delicate on the tongue. White teas undergo the least amount of processing. Popular types include “silver needle” (“baihao yinzhen”) and “bai mudan”.

3. Oolong tea: Numerous steps are needed to produce this semi-oxidised tea. The best oolongs come from both China, such as “da hong pao” and “tieguanyin”, and Taiwan, such as “baozhong” and “jin xuan”.

4. Black tea: These teas are heavily oxidised and are brewed to be strong, bold, and often malty. Black teas serve as the base of popular scented teas including earl grey from Darjeeling, Assam, and more.

In China, black tea is referred to as red tea because of its colour once brewed.

5. Pu’erh tea: This is a fermented style of tea from Yunnan province in China that is divided into two types: “sheng” (raw) and “shou” (cooked). The latter involves a process that encourages faster fermentation.