The Exploration of Tea with Rishi Tea

Written by: Vanessa Da Silva
ICC Wine Studies Coordinator
Certified Sommelier

Justin, a self-described crazy person (when it comes to tea) has spent the last 2 decades not only sourcing some of the finest teas in the world but also, painstakingly retracing the historic roots & practices which have shaped the tea trade over the last 1,200 years! Justin, along with Keiko Nicolini & an entourage (truly) of trained tea enthusiasts, walked us through the cultivars & techniques of these rare & artisanal teas at a recent demo in ICC’s New York campus.

There are so many things we overlook when considering tea. Here are 5 teas that will make you thirsty:

Woojun Green Tea, South Korea – This tea is crafted in South Korea by Mr. Lee Chang Yung & his family. This is the first young leaves that are picked for the season, and Mr. Yung hand fires the tea leaves in a wok in small batches to bring out all of their beautiful fresh aromas. This tea, picked just in mid-April, was bursting with fresh spring flavors of grass & just bloomed fresh white flowers.

White Peony King Organic White Tea, Fujian province, China – Rishi was Organic, long before the USDA Organic seal came into play in 2002. They have built their career on sourcing from environmentally responsible tea farms across Asia. This White Peony King was described as the “Grand Cru of tea” and it well delivered. The tea was smooth & delicate with aromas of magnolia, hints of honey, and a savory saline quality full of umami.  It’s a generally overlooked fact that white tea is the ‘freshest’ of teas. With very minimal processing, most white teas are just allowed to dry out to fully express their pure & delicate flavors.

Four Seasons Spring Oolong Tea– As the name suggests, this tea produces leaves at least 4 times yearly always offering a fresh ‘spring’ taste.  Within this category, we tasted two teas of the same cultivar (variety), made in the same way, but one grown in Taiwan & the other in Thailand. Now, we wine-enthusiasts are very familiar with tasting notes in wine & the idea of ‘terroir’; however, I had no idea that Tea could show similar variations based on where they are grown. These two blew me away. The Taiwan-grown tea (where this variety originated) was incredibly fresh reminding me of hydrangeas, fresh lychee fruit, and white raspberries.  In contrast, its Thai counterpart, showed a distinct nuttiness of toasted almond skin, along with bright sweet basil & sage. The comparison was a big eye opener & finding two Oolongs to compare could be a lot of fun!

Vintage Ancient Pu-erh Palace Organic Pu-erh Tea, Yunnan province, China – This tea was another eye-opener as the concept of vintage tea is completely new to me. Pu-erh teas are among the few that benefit from long-term aging, a minimum of 2-years is required before they are suitable for drinking as the teas are fermented and need to mellow out. These teas were from the Menghai Broad Leaf cultivar and we tasted the 2012 and 2009 vintage. The 2012 (just 5 years old) was strong and tannic with notes of bittersweet chocolate; whereas, the 2009 (now over 8 years old) was smooth and luxurious with notes of dark roasted coffee, cocoa, and black cherry.

Flowery Jin Xuan, Organic Oolong Tea, Doi Mae Salong, Thailand – There were so many dynamic Tea throughout the day, it was difficult to narrow down to just 5, but this was a personal favorite. This ball-rolled Oolong is oxidized to give a greenish-golden hue. It has a beautifully silky mouth-feel that made it seem almost milky (which is why this cultivar is often referred to as ‘Milk Oolong’. The tea was pleasant & smooth and smelled exactly of fresh blooming lilacs, which brought me right back to my childhood in rural Maine.

In addition to all of this, we learned that it takes around 35,000 tea leaves (each plucked by hand) to make just 1 kilo of dried tea!

The passion & expertise from the team at Rishi was infectious around the room, I heard question after question from our graduates being met with enthusiasm. It is clear that this is merely scratching the surface in what is becoming an area of interest in more & more restaurants.