Yunnan: My New Favorite Tea

emanuel apr15 tea.jpg

Photo by CoCreatr/Flickr CC

Tea is hot these days (yes, I mean the pun). Ever since I was a graduate student in Oxford, I have been a tea lover--with a tad of milk and sugar. For many years I preferred the cheap, strong British and Irish teas--P&G, Tetley's, Barry's, interspersed with what I thought was the desirable tea: Earl Grey. Then I searched for something a bit different and, I cannot remember how, stumbled upon Yunnan tea.

I have fallen in love. It is strong, so takes milk well. It has a smooth,a slightly liquored flavor and a hint of smoky overtones. The smoke adds complexity without being overwhelming, like with Lapsang Souchong.

A few years ago, I happened to be invited to give a lecture at the university in Kunming capital of Yunnan Province. Yunnan is the southern Chinese province where tea plants were first domesticated. I asked my hosts to take me to a tea market. We stopped at what appeared to be a mini-mall. It had 40 to 50 tea vendors on the first floor and purveyors of tea paraphernalia--cups, pots, tea spoons, trays, mesh filters, etc.-- on the second. My Chinese is nonexistent and my translator was a lovely 21-year-old student who knew nothing about tea.

After running out of the tea I purchased in Kunming, I had to find more.

From stall to stall I tried to find Yunnan tea, but was only shown Pu'erh tea--the large-leaf kind, molded into rounds and buried in the earth. Not being a worm, I hate the earth taste. No one seemed to understand that I wanted loose-leaf Yunnan tea. Finally, a tea merchant who spoke a bit of English helped us find the Yunnan up high on a shelf. Divine.

After running out of the tea I bought in Kunming, I had to find more. Desperate, I bought "Gold Standards"--a pack of three different Yunnan varieties from Todd and Holland tea purveyors, in the western suburbs of Chicago. The teas had interesting names like Golden Monkey and Golden Kingdom. All three were wonderful--intense, but with delicate smoky flavors. Plenty of straw-colored leaves indicated high quality. The problem: price. It was $25 for the three packets of ½ ounce tea leaves. And prices just went up from there. Prices over $30 for a ¼ of a pound was typical.

Next stop: T Salon of Chelsea Market, New York. The tea is expensive--not quite at Todd and Holland level, but $15 for 3.5 ounces (why the crazy half-ounce difference?). There were fewer yellow leaves than the Todd and Holland version, suggesting less high quality. Concomitantly, I found it a bit less intense and complex. I would say it was at the weaker end of the spectrum and since I like it with milk a bit too weak.

I then tried Imperial Yunnan from the Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange. Cheap, intense, with slightly more smoky flavor--$19.95 for one pound. The strength was very good for holding up to milk.

The final version was from Teaism, with several locations in Washington. It came in two-ounce packets for $9.75. This version had about the amount of yellow leaves at the T Salon, with slightly more complexity and smokiness.

My overall assessment: if you are splurging or giving a gift to a tea lover, it is Todd and Holland. But I don't think it is worth it for everyday consumption. If you like your tea strong and with milk, I would buy the Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange version. At this price it is substantially cheaper and better than alternative Yunnans. In fact it is a better deal--better tea at a cheaper price--than the "high end" bag tea versions, whether Twinnings or Tzao or Mighty Leaf tea bags. And now you know: I am a "cheapy" who likes quality at the lowest price.