Tea is consumed regularly among Asians, especially among the Chinese as it’s part of their culture.
History reveals that in ancient China, tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar.
In both social and formal Chinese occasions, tea is always served as it represents a welcoming gesture for guests. Additionally, Chinese tea is also used in herbal medicine and Chinese cuisine.
Traditionally, a guest to a Chinese home is expected to sit down and drink tea while talking; standing while speaking is considered rude.
Tea culture in China differs from that of Europe, Britain or Japan in its preparation methods, apparatus used, tasting methods and the occasions for which it is consumed.
For Hooi Kien Seng, not a day goes by without him sipping at least 10 to 20 cups of his favourite tea. Whether it’s Chinese tea, Taiwanese tea, Japanese tea or the occasional English tea, he is only content when he has had his daily dose.
For almost two decades, the retired engineer has been collecting various types of teas, especially limited editions, which are more than 30 years old. Like fine wine, some types of tea taste better with age. The price tag on older varieties of tea can go up to a hefty RM20,000 per kilo!
“I’ve been drinking Chinese tea from young but it wasn’t until a colleague introduced me to Taiwanese tea that I began acquiring a taste for other types of tea. The taste was light and very easy on the palate. I’ve come to realise that there are so many varieties out there,” says Hooi, 59.
Hooi started visiting teahouses, trying out different flavoured tea and soon after, began his hobby. He surfed the Internet, talked to sellers, growers and other tea collectors to enhance his knowledge.
“My first batch was a 375gm pack from south-west China’s Yunnan province, which I purchased for RM40 in 2000. I savour every little bit and still have it!” he says.
All tea originates from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Processing methods, geographic location of the plant and the taste of the infused tea differentiate the varying types of Chinese tea. The most expensive are the first blossomed and curated.
Chinese tea can be categorised into five different groups – green, black, oolong, white and post-fermented tea. Hooi has them all – almost 50 varieties from different manufacturers.
One of Hooi’s favourites is the post-fermented tea, known in China as hei cha. It’s made with tea leaves that have undergone a long period of fermentation after being fried and rolled.
Since the fermentation process is extremely thorough, only an experienced tea master – following decades of study – is capable of producing this type of tea. After the unique process, which is a closely guarded secret, the finished tea takes on a dark brown colour.
“The fermented leaves last much longer than other types of tea. As a Chinese specialty, post-fermented tea is usually compressed into different shapes for storage and transport convenience,” explains Hooi.
The most famous variety is the pu’er from Yunnan. The large-leafed tea is gathered from trees that thrive in the area’s varying climate and acidic soil. Famous as a medicinal tea, it is believed to aid digestion, reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reinforce the immune system. The smooth, dark pu’er tea has a rich and distinctively earthy flavour.
Whenever Hooi has spare time during his travels, he tracks down this type of tea. Hooi purchases it in blocks and stores them in a moisture-free room. Tea leaves can go bad and grow fungus if not stored properly.
“Sometimes, bugs get in, but I get rid of them immediately. The bugs only appear when the tea is sold with a bamboo frame. I do take my collection out and check them occasionally. After all, I have so much time on my hands,” he says, laughing.
When he has identified a tea he’d like to consume, he pinches some off its block and places the rest in a tin.
Hooi says: “I’ll look through my collection and decide which one I want to drink. Once it’s opened, I try to consume it within a month or two. When I was younger, I liked my teas lighter, such as green tea, but now, I seem to prefer stronger ones. At night, I’ll opt for post-fermented tea as it’s smoother and has less caffeine.
“My wife and three children enjoy drinking tea, too, although they all have different tastes. My second daughter prefers western tea.”
When the Hooi family goes out to dine, they bring along a tin of tea. They just pay for the hot water and enjoy brewing their own cuppa. Tea has plenty of health benefits, digestion being one of them.
Hooi also has more than 50 teapots, along with three huge clay ones. Tea leaves are regularly turned over in his clay pots. This process allows the leaves to dry further in a way that preserves their full flavour.
Proudly, he runs off to grab some of the blocks to help me differentiate between semi-fermented and post-fermented tea.
“Look at these,” Hooi beckons, spilling some leaves onto his hands. “These are lighter coloured, so, it’s semi-fermented and can’t be brewed for too long. And this one has longer leaves, so, you know it’s fermented.”
Lately, he has reduced purchasing tea, particularly the ones processed within the last few years, as reports have indicated the high level of chemicals sprayed on the plants.
“I don’t think I can finish drinking all this tea in my lifetime!” he admits. “I’m not going to sell or trade them, either. Though, I wonder how much I could get if I were to sell my collection …”