Better than green eggs and ham (with apologies to Dr Seuss): a talk on green tea at the Tea Centre, Sydney

“Tea and Conversation with David Lyons: Green Tea” at The Tea Centre, Sydney, 22 September 2012

I drink enough of the stuff so it’s only fair I should know something of the history of tea and how it is made. Found that The Tea Centre tea shop in Sydney has been holding a series of Saturday 2-hour morning talks on tea history, tea production and the different kinds of tea so I went to a 10:00 am session on Saturday, 22 September 2012. The talk was given by David Lyons who is the ACT / NSW Regional Manager for the company and a student of tea.

Five of us piled into a section above the shop proper so the atmosphere was cosy and intimate enough though noise from below did drift up. David gave us a run-down of his history as a chef and how he came to be involved in the tea-selling business and then he was onto his talk proper. First he explained what species of tea plants are called scientifically and which species and sub-species are cultivated and where they grew originally. He showed us what a tea plant looks like and what the first and second leaves are and what tea plant tips are (tea production jargon often refers to the first and second tips of tea leaves and to the first and second leaves of a tea plant) and why they are important in tea harvesting and production.

From then on he segued into the differences among white tea, green tea and black tea and how the leaves are prepared to produce the different types. As the talk focussed specifically on green tea, he concentrated on how green tea is prepared: Japanese-styled green teas are steamed very quickly after picking, then abruptly cooled to allow only minimal oxidation to keep the fresh green colour of the leaf; Chinese-styled green teas are warmed gently usually by wok-baking, oven-baking or steaming. The Japanese method gives the tea an intense colour and a very different and just as intense taste. After heating, the tea leaves may be rubbed or rolled into little balls.

Chinese-styled green teas were traditionally produced in the Hangzhou region and the revival of green tea production in China is taking place in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. A famous tea from the area is Dragon Well tea and David gave us samples of this tea to taste.

A history of green tea drinking in China and Japan and how it died out in China while surviving in Japan followed. Interestingly, Europeans were introduced to green tea drinking before black tea drinking and again David emphasised how black tea drinking came to usurp green tea drinking through a particular mix of historical circumstances. In Britain during the 1700s, tea became so popular that most tea imported into the country was smuggled rather than legally imported and people outside the wealthy classes attempted to make their own versions of the drink to emulate their superiors. Leaves from local bushes were brewed and coloured with various colouring agents, some of which were copper-based and quite poisonous. Public concerns about people being poisoned by copper-contaminated teas eventually led to British society switching away from drinking green teas to black teas.

It was rather unfortunate that green teas came to have such a bad reputation for there is now a growing body of scientific research and evidence that drinking green tea may have health benefits including the lowering of total cholesterol and the raising of HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good cholesterol”), protection against certain cancers, reducing the inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease, regulating glucose in the body, preventing gum disease and stimulating bone growth and slowing down the onset of osteoporosis.

There were plenty of opportunities to sample various teas and examine the dried leaves from which they were made. David was a very entertaining and genial speaker with his northern English accent and stories about his youth and one of his co-workers, a sales manager based in Queensland whose own youth was spent in wild adventures across the world. The most interesting story David had to tell about himself was the time when he was working in a pub and a group of teenaged boys came up to him to ask if they could use a room for band practice. The lads seemed earnest and sincere enough so the pub manager allowed the youngsters to use the room on a regular basis. The clanger came when we asked what the band was called; David said they were Joy Division. “You’re from MANCHESTER!” I exclaimed and David nodded.

The talk was only meant to last 2 hours but so engaging was our host and so informative was the talk that it went well over time and it was way past 12:30 pm when we had to go and that was because a couple of us had other engagements.

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