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Tea Drunk Founder Shares Secrets of Ancient Beverage

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In Chinese culture, the term “drunk” is a romantic expression describing indulgence in true passion.

“A poet would describe himself as being drunk by starlight, by the gaze of a lover, or by the intense beauty of the sun setting over a mountain range,” says Shunan Teng, founder of Tea Drunk, a fine tea shop in New York City.

Teng has made it her mission to preserve and promote Chinese tea drinking traditions. Her endeavours are as diverse and precious as the rare teas she offers. She goes to China to harvest the teas, makes them available in her shop, and offers educational clubs and retreats for those wanting to experience the magic of Chinese tea firsthand.

Recently, she sat down with Magnifissance to share her insights into one of the world’s favourite drinks.

Drunk on Tea 3
Tea Drunk founder Shunan Teng.

In your view, why don’t more North Americans enjoy drinking tea?

The number one barrier is that tea is often compared with coffee. Both beverages are hot and have caffeine, but the similarities stop there.

Chinese tea is actually more comparable to wine. The stimulant compounds in both beverages are similar—the polyphenols in wine are like the tannins and catechins in tea. The flavour indulgence, aromatic compounds, structure, and manner in which we enjoy both are also similar.

We mainly appreciate tea through our olfactory senses and taste buds. As with wine, there is a hierarchy to the taste structure of tea. At the bottom is aroma, which is wonderful but fleeting.

Then we have taste or the quality of the sensation in your mouth. This is what we call the flavours or tasting notes. Higher up, we have the texture or the body of the tea. Finally, we have the aftertaste, which indicates how long the tea lingers in your mouth.

Another issue is that tea has become an unwilling alternative to coffee for many people. Some may be thinking: “I really want to drink coffee, but my doctor told me I can’t drink coffee, so that’s why I’m drinking tea.” That’s actually a misunderstanding of what tea is about. This is largely due to the very low quality tea that’s commonly seen on the Western market.

For example, English Breakfast tea is popular in the West. It’s real tea, but in a Chinese sense it’s even lower in quality than the equivalent of table wine. It’s very poor quality, which is probably why Westerners doctor it with milk and sugar.

Red tea wilting in the sun in the Wu Liang Shan mountain range.

What is authentic tea in Chinese culture?

In the Western world, anything that’s dried and rehydrated with hot water is tea. From a Chinese perspective, tea needs to come from the Camellia sinensis tea plant.It’s actually analogous to wine. We have plum wine, apple wine, and raspberry wine. However, real wine comes from grapes.

Teas such as rosebud tea, lavender tea, or chamomile tea are herbal teas and don’t come from the actual tea plant. They should be called tisanes.

Additionally, teas like Earl Gray and jasmine are not traditional teas because they are flavoured. Just like you wouldn’t take a good bottle of wine and make it into sangria, you wouldn’t take quality tea and flavour it.

Is drinking tea therapeutic?

In China, tea is considered a very healthy drink. It’s gentle to your body and you can safely drink large quantities on a regular basis.

Chinese tea can also have a subtle balancing effect on the body. For example, in Chinese medicine, men have more yang energy or a warmer constitution. They should drink lighter, cooling teas, such as green tea, white tea, and raw pu-erh tea to balance themselves.

Additionally, if people have bad habits, such as consuming too much meat and alcohol, smoking, or sleeping in, these habits can raise their body temperature. Lighter-coloured teas can help rebalance the body.

On the other hand, women have more yin energy or a cooler constitution. To complement that nature, they should drink darker-coloured, warming teas like black, red, and roasted oolong teas.

Teng offers several educational tea courses and experiences, including the Tea Crash Course, a learning kit for brewing tea at home.

What wisdom can we gain from drinking quality Chinese tea?

People jokingly say that the easiest way for an uncultured person to appear more cultured is to drink tea. In fact, there’s a whole literature about the different virtues of tea.

Tea brings people together. Drinking tea is a social affair. Back in the day, people drank tea outdoors, and this brought them closer to nature.

Tea also gives us a sense of calm, quietness, and harmony. Drinking alcohol, in contrast, can lead to chaos if done in excess.

But the number one virtue of tea is jian (儉), which is often forgotten, even in China. Jian means non-extravagance, without unnecessary distraction. It means that the person isn’t competing for worldly desires.

Who usually drinks tea in China?

In the West, tea is often viewed as a very feminine drink to be enjoyed by ladies during an afternoon gathering. Historically in China, however, men were much more socially active. Tea was viewed as a virtuous drink for virtuous men.

There were two distinct groups of people who saw themselves as virtuous. One was the educated population, which included scholars, artists, and writers. That is why throughout Chinese history, and even today, tea is seen as being very sophisticated.

Traditionally, wealthy people such as the emperor or aristocrats also saw themselves as being virtuous. You would need time and money to appreciate life at its finest level, and drinking tea was part of this.

Today tea is universal. It’s definitely not restricted to a particular culture, history, or background. Everybody can drink tea because we all have taste buds and an appreciation for the aesthetics of taste.

People sometimes worry that they need to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture to enjoy tea. There’s also an assumption that if you’re not part of that culture, you’re not qualified to enjoy traditional Chinese tea. That’s not the case at all. My hope is that the enjoyment of tea may pique someone’s interest in getting to know Chinese culture and history better.


This story is from Magnifissance Issue 111

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