There is a story behind every cup of tea at CHA YI Teahouse and owner Daniel Tremblay knows them intimately. Every year he travels to tea-growing regions of the world to meet new tea farmers and add to his impressive top-quality tea selection. He recently returned from a trip where he climbed mountains and drove around remote areas in China and Taiwan, making personal connections with tea farmers and bringing back treasures to share with his customers in his peaceful oasis on Eddy Street in Hull. We wanted to know what the region’s top tea sommelier learned on his latest journey.
Where did your tea-scouting travel take you this year?
This year I wanted to explore some tea producing areas that I hadn’t been to before. For two and a half weeks I visited the countryside and small towns of Zhejiang, Anhui, and Jiangxi (provinces in China) in search of the best green teas available. The territory was so huge and my visit was short, but I am very happy with the teas we found. In early spring, the harvests were at their best and that is the only time of year to buy the teas before they are sold out. Flying south, Guangzhou was the last Chinese stop for tea before heading to Taiwan for another 14 days of my tea quest — for oolongs this time. I drove all around the high mountains of the island, meeting small producers and sampling their teas in order to choose the ones I felt would be best for our catalog. We found what we were looking for — and more!
Tell me about your most exciting tea discoveries and the people who produce them.
I met so many interesting people during this trip. Some are simple tea farmers like Mr. Gu, our new anji bai cha producer, who cultivates and transforms his green tea with obvious passion. There was Mr. Chang, a fourth generation producer of bao zhong oolong in Pinglin, Taiwan, who wants to carry on the work of his family and pass on the tea production techniques to his son. Some others like Mr. Tsay, one of the few famous Taiwanese tea masters, have a mission of teaching both the tea producers and consumers how important it is to have high quality, organic, and small-scale crafted teas.
In the Yellow Mountains, we met Mr. Zhang, a wonderful man who produces our new huang shan mao feng. The Yellow Mountains are a great tourist destination in China, a very busy place normally. But Mr. Zhang’s gardens are very isolated — a one-hour walk up the mountain. Cultivated at 1,800 metres, growing besides wild orchids and water streams, the green tea we bought from him was entirely hand-made in the tiny factory — like a closet — at the back of a old Qing Dynasty mansion located at the foot of the tea garden. When drinking this tea, we feel its purity and preciousness.
In Taiwan, Mr. Li and his wife produce an awesome dong ding oolong in his tea garden located in the original area that made this tea renowned worldwide. Mrs. Li studies and teaches the Taiwanese art of tea preparation. Besides the dong ding oolong, they sometimes produce guei fei, an oolong tea that is seen as “a gift from heaven,” as you can only produce it in very special conditions. A certain insect must bite the tea leaves at a certain moment of the year and in reaction, the tea plant secretes a flavorful hormone that calls a predator spider to come and eat the plant torturing insect…a desired symbiosis. It forces the producer to use organic farming methods to attract the insects to the tea plants in order to develop the well sought-after “muscat” aroma that we find in good guei fei… like the one we got this year from Mr. Li!
Did you learn anything new about tea on this journey?
There is a new wave of tea artisans in China who care passionately about caring properly for tea plants. They choose to harvest only once a year, normally in the spring, and then let the tea plants rest for the whole year. The new trend is to keep the tea plants living for many decades, some living for more than a hundred years. It’s the same concept as “vieille vigne” for wine, where you don’t replace the plants every 20 years as is typical, which also is the norm for the tea industry. Having studied in organic and biodynamic farming as well as wine making, I agree totally with this idea. I have chosen many of those teas this year and I am looking forward to encouraging more and more of this way of thinking by making more of these products available.
How do you see the world of tea changing in North America? What about in Asia?
North America is definitely going more and more for tea. The statistics are already showing a huge increase, but it will be even greater in the years to come. From what I see, Canadians are developing slowly but surely as their epicurean lifestyles grow along with an interest in quality rather than quantity when it comes to food. We saw that in the past decades with wine, with coffee, with chocolate, and now it is tea’s turn. And I mean good tea, terroir tea. And because of its recognized health benefits and the diversity of flavour profiles, tea won’t be a trend, it will eventually merge with our daily lives, like in Asia.
I often say that Western nations are taking the best parts of Asian habits while Asian nations are taking the worst things from us. We are learning many great things from these old civilizations – oriental philosophy and spirituality, eating habits, and I feel that with globalization, we are not giving them many good things in return.
In Japan and Korea, tea is losing popularity to coffee. The younger generations are seemingly more attracted to coffee, as tea is considered to be a beverage for older people. In China and Taiwan, tea is everywhere and still the king drink, but coffee is gaining some momentum, especially in larger towns where Starbucks outlets are popping up. Many Chinese people have greater wealth with the economic rise of the country, their living standards are getting higher, and the quality of the tea they buy is higher, forcing the internal market to change. Since the high quality tea is limited in production and the demand is increasing, I believe it will become more and more difficult in the future for a Westerner to buy. That’s why I feel it is very important for us to develop strong, trusting relationships with tea farmers for the future.
Do your tea drinking habits change in the summer?
I personally don’t really change my tea drinking habits in hot weather. Actually, tea aficionados continue to drink hot tea in summer in the same way that real coffee lovers don’t switch to cold coffee during the warmer months of the year. There is something really refreshing about drinking hot tea in warm weather. White and green teas in particular have cooling properties. Besides being prepared with cooler water (between 75 -85°C), they help to hydrate and stimulate our organs to release the extra warmth trapped in our bodies. I am in the habit of listening to which tea or herbal my body is calling for depending on the time of the day or the weather outside, in the same way we feel like a salad when it’s hot or a soup if it’s a cold day. It can just be a grey or rainy summer day with cooler temperature for me to feel like having a comforting oolong or pu er.
Any tips for making home-brewed iced tea?
Homemade iced tea can be a good option for summer as a replacement for fruit juices or soft drinks that are both terribly sweet and expensive. I often recommend using the old teas from your cupboard…everybody has those old tea pouches that you’ll honestly never use. It is now time to steep them into an iced tea blend to which you can add lemon or orange slices, frozen berries, fresh mint leaves, spices, rose petals, or any other inspiring ingredients to give life back to an old or cheap tea. Rooibos blends are great for making iced tea and kids can enjoy this caffeine-free and healthy drink anytime.
For the brewing method you can either make it hot as a normal tea and cool it down afterwards, or prepare it with my favourite method: cold brewing. Place loose leaf tea (about 6-8 teaspoons per litre) in a jug of cold water. If desired you can add a small quantity of cane sugar or honey (about 1 tablespoon per litre) and refrigerate overnight or for eight to 10 hours. After that period of time, you’ll just have to filter the brew with a strainer. Voilà! And it keeps for at least three days in the fridge.
CHA YI Teahouse, 61 Eddy Street, Gatineau (Quebec), 819-205-1830, www.chayi.ca