I may live in the coffee drinking capital of the world but tea is making a big splash. No longer seen simply as something your Grandparents drink, tea has been making a revival over the past years with dozens of boutique tea stores – think T2 and Oriental Teahouse – opening shops around Australia. Even the tea section of the supermarket has gone from simply stocking three or four brands to stocking a huge range of speciality loose leaf teas and tea bags.
This past weekend, a tea festival come to Melbourne. Following on from the success of two years in Sydney – with their third event coming up in August – the Tea Festival headed south and brought some of Australia’s best speciality loose leaf teas to South Wharf.
From watching and participating in a modern take on the traditional Japanese tea ceremony with performance artist Yuka Mikayama to tea-flavoured foods, tea leaf reading and – of course – much tea drinking to be done; more than 4,000 passionate tea enthusiasts explored the Melbourne Tea Festival in the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre.
With more than 50 stallholders, you had plenty of opportunities to smell, taste and touch a huge variety of tea and tisanes; but, if you wanted to level up your tea knowledge, the Melbourne Tea Festival ran six workshops which were available to sign up to for an extra fee. I took part in the Tea Essentials Workshop and the Food & Tea Pairing Workshop with my friend Katherine.
When you think tea, many people think of a tea bag in a cup, boiling water in, milk & sugar and you are good to go. But if you really take the time to understand the tea – the types, flavours, grades, precise boiling temperatures – you’ll have a completely different experience with your next cuppa.
By far the standout workshop for me was with Amara Jarratt, the co-founder of the Tea Festival and founder of The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar in Sydney’s Redfern. Her Tea Essentials Workshop covered the four main types of tea: black, oolong, green and – my personal favourite – white!
Some of the most interesting facts I learnt were:
- Traditionally, all tea comes from the same plant. Green tea plants are the same as black tea plants. Much like wine, what makes each tea different is the terrain, altitude, season, amount of water, and how it’s treated once plucked. As Amara put it, “anywhere you can grow a camellia sinensis, you can make any of the “types” of tea.”
- There is such thing a ‘yellow tea’. It’s a rare blend, most commonly found in China, and is produced similarly to a green tea, but with an additional step of steaming the leaves under a damp cloth after the oxidation process, which gives the tea the slight yellow colour.
- Herbal tea isn’t strictly ‘tea’ because tea is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis bush. Herbal tea is considered a ’tisane’.
- Are you a coffee drinker and not sure if you’d like tea? Try Pu-erh tea as a gateway. Pu-erh is a fermented and aged dark tea with a bold taste.
- You know that bitter taste left in your mouth after some tea which we disguise with milk and sugar? That’s called ‘astringency’ and is often from using water that is too hot when making your tea. Each tea has a different optimum boiling temperate and brewing time.
- White tea is considered a ‘princess tea’ because it’s delicate and not processed. That being said, the delicate nature of it means it’s easier to detect flavours in it.
- There are two popular ways to treat green tea before packaging. The Japanese steam their teas, such as Sencha, while the Chinese prefer to fry the tea before packaging.
- Tea grading isn’t the same in every country. Some, like Indian tea, is graded by flush – or when it was picked – and others, like Chinese tea, by quality (A, B, C or 1, 2, 3)
- Like Champagne from Champagne, France, some teas can only be given their name if produced in a certain region, like Darjeeling in India’s West Bengal state.
- Did you know tea has caffeine in it? Decaffeinated tea is treated in one of two ways: brewed shortly before dried and packaged or chemically treated.
What’s Amara’s favourite thing about tea? “The thing I like about tea is the subtle nuances in tea… the depth.“
Often you’ll be offered a cup of tea when chowing down on yum cha, but do you really think about the tea and how it matches? Like wine, there are ways to combine high-quality food with excellent tea. The Food & Tea Pairing Workshop was a great way to discover how to pair your meals with quality tea. Cheryl Teo from Flag & Spear is a tea master who took us through flavour theory and pairing hot and cold teas with different types of food.
Aside from learning more about tea, I had one burning question that I wanted an answer for: why does my white tea often taste bitter? Well, the answer came in the Masterclasses.
“A good quality tea should never be bitter. If it is, it’s crap but [a good tea] can be astringent,” Cheryl Teo from Flag & Spear said.
My problem boiled down to two simple reasons: white tea is extremely delicate, even being nicknamed the ‘princess tea’, so you need to be very careful not to use water that is too hot nor brew it too long. White tea needs to be brewed in water that is 70-75°C for three minutes maximum.
“Being tea drinkers, we’re often forgotten about in a lot of places.” Well, forgotten no more. So, what about it: do you fancy a cuppa?
Melbourne Tea Festival
Dates: 29 May 2016
Location: Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre
Sydney Tea Festival
Dates: 21 August 2016
Location: Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street Eveleigh
Photo credit: Simon Shiff
iPhone images are my own.