From the highly refined Japanese tea ceremony known as Sadō to the hearty Cornish cream tea of Britain, tea ceremonies have become integral to life in many diverse regions of the world.
After water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world; and, in many cultures, consuming tea is more than just about quenching a physical sensation of thirst, it is a spiritual exercise as well as a highly polished form of art.
The British, Indians and Kenyans take great pride in their tea culture and cultivation. Across the exotic lands of North Africa, the Arab and Berber cultures of the Maghreb boast the most refreshing Moroccan mint teas.
In the New World, families in the American South enjoy nice, cold iced teas on hot summer days. While back in the Far East, in the 1980s, the Taiwanese concocted what became the now-famous “bubble tea,” which has taken the world by storm!
Evidently, tea has become an important part of everyday life in virtually every corner of this planet. Today, we explore an age-old tea ceremony that arose among the Hoklo people of the mountains of southeastern China’s Fujian Province and a variant of the same ceremony practice among the Hoklo people’s descendants overseas in Taiwan.
In the birthplace of tea, China, a popular form of traditional tea ceremony practice among the Hoklo people is the Gōngfūchá, which means “tea made with skill.” Across the sea, among the Taiwanese, this popular form of traditional tea preparation is known as Lăorénchá, which translates to “Old Man’s Tea.”
Old Man’s Tea uses whole semi-oxidized tea leaves known as oolong. Minimally oxidized tea leaves are used to make green tea, while fully oxidized tea leaves are used for brewing black tea. The oolong tea falls somewhere between the two on the spectrum. It has a slightly stronger flavour than the green but is significantly milder than the black tea.
Fujian and Taiwanese varieties of oolong are of particularly high quality. Taiwan’s Highland or High Mountain Oolong, known for its natural subtle sweetness, is among the most popular varieties.
The tea ceremony is performed using unglazed clay teapots and tiny teacups. The entire tea set has the appearance of miniatures, which enables the participants to sip the tea slowly to fully enjoy the aroma and flavour of the tea. The same batch of tea leaves is steeped and re-steeped, allowing the participants to enjoy changing flavours with each brew.
So why the bizarre Taiwanese name?
According to one tradition, the Taiwanese called the ceremony “Old Man’s Tea” because, in the olden days, tea ceremonies were a lengthy process that required great skill, effort, time and patience. The demands of the tea ceremony mean that it is typically performed by the elderly and retirees, thus resulting in the association with older, more experienced folk.
The association with the elders was reinforced in the 1970s and 1980s with Taiwan’s rapid economic growth and urbanization. As the youth of the era gathered in the cities to partake in Taiwan’s economic boom, the countryside became host to elders who frequently enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of socializing around the tea table.
Away from the bustle of the cities, the image of older folks sitting down to enjoy each other’s company while sipping tea became an image deeply ingrained in the minds of the Taiwanese. The association persisted and thus the name “Old Man’s Tea.”