Fox & Squirrel’s Lindsay Faller caught up with Don Mei, owner and tea apostle at chinalife, one of the first distributors of artisanal Chinese tea in the UK. Don and chinalife’s mission is to promote and sell tea only from the highest quality producers; producers with whom he has developed exclusive relationships.

LF: What is the mythology around the first tea brewing?

DM: The legend states that in 2737BC Emperor Shen Nong was sitting either in an outside wood heated bath or next to a cauldron of hot water. A leaf from a nearby tea tree fell into his bath or cauldron and the water began to change. The curious emperor decided to drink the water and was so mesmerised by the flavour and effect that he began exploring this magical leaf. Yes, that means that the emperor supposedly drank his bathwater!

How did your love affair with tea begin?

It began about 10 years ago when I first tasted a good oolong given to my father by Chinese dignitaries. After 30 years of drinking what I thought was tea, this was the first ‘true’ tea that I had ever tasted and I was captivated.

Why do you think drinking tea has become so popular in recent years?

Tea is special because it represents everything that we are all striving for. It combines natural health, with artisanal passion and the excitement of discovering new taste and knowledge.

What are some of the main differences between our general idea of tea (British tea with milk, scones etc) and the kinds of teas you sell?

Most people associate tea with either poor quality ‘commodity tea’ for combining with milk or awful artificially scented tea. This is not true tea and we encourage everyone to push the reset button and begin a fresh relationship with this amazing leaf. Tea is like wine – so many varietals, regions and secret hand processing styles which create different tea. Once you begin to understand the delights of single estate, hand produced tea you will never view a teabag in the same way!

Is one able to pair tea with food, just as wine with food, and if so, what are your tips?

Absolutely. Tea can be paired very successfully with food and more restaurants are offering a decent tea list and tea sommeliers! The trick with tea pairing is to find the right weight and go for matched rather than contrast pairings to accentuate the flavours in the food. A great example is a dark roasted oolong with dark chocolate!

What is the potential for tea to eventually become more popular than coffee?

Tea is already more popular than coffee if you take into account the whole world. Tea is the second most popular drink after water. In the West we have a love of coffee and a huge part of that is the stimulant effect that it has. What most people do not realise is that tea has many more psychoactive compounds that improve energy, creativity, mood and performance. When that secret gets out then I think more people will turn to tea.

What are some of your favourite teas and how do you drink them?

I am currently having a love affair with aged teas and young, raw PuErhs. These are so powerful in flavour and effect and are so affected by terroirs that it has become an obsession to taste as many as possible! I drink them Gong Fu style which means drinking in strong tea ‘shots’. Think of it like sipping healthy shots of a beautifully aged whisky.

What are your tips on how to make the perfect brew?

Brewing loose leaf tea is super simple if you follow a few basic rules. First get yourself the following

1. Good whole leaf tea (not tea bags or broken leaf)

2. Brewer that allows you to remove the leaves from the water and gives leaves room to move (not those metal tea balls!)

3. Well filtered water

Put on the kettle and bring the water to the ideal temperature for the type of tea. For Green tea do not use water over 85 degrees otherwise it will go bitter. All other teas should be ok at about 90-95 degrees. Pu Erh and Oolong can take boiling water. The easiest way to achieve the right temperature is by adding a splash of cold water to the kettle after boiling.

For western style brewing (Chinese style is s little more complicated) add 1 heaped teaspoon of tea leaves per 300ml of water. Pour over water at a height to make the leaves dance in the water. Cover and allow to brew for 2 minutes. Remove leaves from the water and set aside. Enjoy your tea. You can reinfuse the leaves multiple times as they will continue to release flavour and nutrients. Add an extra 30 seconds brewing for every subsequent infusion. The number of infusions usually is related to the tea type but you should be able to get at least 3 infusions from any good quality tea.

What teas are most holistically beneficial to one’s health? 

All teas are healthy for you but some are more suited to certain aspects of your health. For example White tea has a very powerful anti-collagenase function which protects skin elasticity. Green tea is very high in Catechins and L-Theanine which are powerful for your immune system and mood enhancing. Ripe PuErh tea is great for digestion, weight control and reducing cholesterol. I am often asked which tea is the best for health. My answer is that people should drink a variety of tea types to get the most health benefits. If you think of tea as a lifestyle to explore and enjoy then you are much more likely to drink regularly and feel the effects rather than thinking of it as a medicine!

You mentioned tea terroir earlier in our conversation, what can you tell us about  the ranges of minerals qualities between certain teas?

Terroirs are fundamental to quality tea. The climate, altitude, microclimate, surrounding plants and soil etc are the essential building blocks of tea. The perfect example is PuErh tea. This type of tea comes from Yunnan province forests but there are many different mountain areas and they all have their specific characteristics because of the surrounding plants and geography. Some areas produce tea which is light and flowery, others which are rich and minerally.

When you throw in other factors like the age of tea tree (we have tea from trees which are 1600 years old), the season and year of picking and how long the tea has been aged after processing you can understand that you could spend your life tasting the tea from one province without ever tasting the same tea twice! The age of the tea tree is one of the most important factors because older trees have deeper roots that can reach mineral layers in the soil for a more powerful and delicious tea.

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