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The art of naming teas

Decoding the nomenclature of Japanese, Chinese and Indian brews

The simplest kind is where you mention region and type, like Darjeeling white tea or Assam orthodox black tea. (Istockphoto)
The simplest kind is where you mention region and type, like Darjeeling white tea or Assam orthodox black tea. (Istockphoto)

I came across a whole set of Darjeeling first flush teas with the words “moonlight”, “moonshine”, “moon drops”. Curious, I asked tea-planter friends, who explained that this implies high-quality, more tippy, floral and mellow spring teas.

It got me thinking about tea nomenclature. The simplest kind is where you mention region and type, like Darjeeling white tea, Assam orthodox black tea, Kangra green tea, Shizuoka matcha, Pu-erh dark tea…except that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Is the Darjeeling white tea a silver needle or a white peony? Which flush was it made from? Is the Assam orthodox of the grade FOP or SFTGFOP? Which garden does it come from? How tippy is it?

There are no standards for naming teas—and we are incredibly un-poetic about it. Indian black teas come with a system of abbreviated letters (OP, FOP, GFOP, TGFOP…): tea grades, another confounding British legacy that sealed the fate of our teas as a commodity.

Also read: The ‘kombucha’ connection

Japanese tea names seem to be fairly literal, with most names suffixed with cha, or tea. The first kanji, or character, may refer to processing style: Where matcha is rubbed or smeared, kukicha uses stem or stalks, while bancha is ordinary tea. The more specialised teas have names which support their exalted status. Like the exceptional green tea gyokuro, which roughly translates to “jade dew drop”. Sometimes, the names just baffle. Like the karigane, whose name references wild geese because people thought the stalks used to make this tea resembled the driftwood that geese rested upon.

But if there’s any culture with truly befitting tea names, it has to be Chinese. The names evoke a certain grandeur—or just wonderful whimsy. My favourites are Da Hong Pao, or the Big Red Robe tea; Tie Guan Yin, or the Iron Goddess of Mercy; Shou Mei, or the longevity eyebrow; and Longjing, which translates to Dragon Well.

The Da Hong Pao was once the most expensive tea in the world (at around $1000, or 75,000, per gram). Quite appropriately, then, there are a few legends about its origins. Possibly the most appealing story goes that a young man, on his way to write an important exam, felt weak. Spotting his condition, a monk made him a cup of tea. Rejuvenated, he moved on, wrote his exam and earned a red robe of honour. He returned to the monastery to express thanks to the monk and the tea bushes, draping his own red robe around the plants. The Da Hong Pao is also called Wuyi rock tea, or Wuyi rock oolong (oolong grown on rocky terrain in the Wuyi mountains), which, while helpful, falls woefully short of poetry.

Also read: Decoding the price of tea

I asked my tea friend Chris Chen, a tea merchant from China, about how the names are decided. There are so many tea regions and varieties, he says, that every farmer, factory and brand has to find ways to stand out. In effect, it’s mostly about marketing. And behind each name, says Chris, there is a story.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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