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The key to tea

Updated : 2013-01-21

By ( chinadaily.com.cn )


Zhou Yutong says the best tea means finding the blend that makes you happiest. Fan Zhen / China Daily

Zhou Yutong may not be familiar with every tea produced in China, but she comes pretty close. This young tea sommelier brews a pot for Sun Ye.

You shouldn't ask her which is the best tea in town. Zhou Yutong believes the best tea for you is the tea you like best.

The 24-year-old Zhou calls herself a "tea-maker" while others prefer to address her as the "tea-master". At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing, they call her their tea sommelier.

Zhou believes there should be no favorites when it comes to drinking tea and the young lady from Heilongjiang province adds there is only the right choice at the right time - in drinks as in life.

"There is only the tea that suits you and is good for you. The key is this, look for the tea that makes you happy," she says.

For the moment, she is happy where she is, in charge of the Tea Garden at the newly opened Four Seasons Beijing. This is the fourth place she has managed, and the softly lit wooden setting with its tea menus carved on wooden plaques reflects her philosophy of "natural simplicity".

Her expertise with tea is so impressive that Zhou's boss Alexander Lahmer, the director of food and beverage at the Four Seasons, has complete faith and trusts the Tea Garden to her.

Knowledge did not come easily for Zhou. In her seven-year quest, real insight into tea did not arrive until 2011.

When she was younger, tea was something that was unattainable.

"My father used to keep the cans on the shelves, out of reach. I think that was what made tea appealing to me in the first place."

She studied teaching Chinese as a foreign language at college in 2007. At that time, tea was first used as a teaching prop in class, before it developed into a real interest.

In her words: "I combed all elements of traditional Chinese culture and felt tea was the thing for me."

Zhou then delved into all the literature she could find on tea, and took up tea drinking.

"Half a small cake of Hunan bailiang black tea a day kept me warm, refreshed me and kept my weight down."

She also started learning and practicing the art of the tea ceremony as an unpaid volunteer at a Harbin tea shop.

"While my friends were out doing part-time jobs and earning money, I was working at a tea-shop without pay, just to be able to observe."

She then studied under Han Yihai, the national senior tea master, and tea took on new meanings.

"My first lesson with my master was not about tea rituals, but about living life and respecting its timing. It's the same. He showed me there was no such thing as must-drink or must-do. He always gave me choices and let me follow my instincts. That's how you make peace with yourself and the world."

The renewed understanding changed how Zhou looked at things.

"I used to ask for the best of everything. But then I learned to respect whatever comes my way," she says.

"I see her becoming calmer and much more settled. She's already the brightest of all my students, with a very rare gift of understanding the profound," Han says.

Han still keeps track of his student's progress. "I think she's on the way to really knowing the Taoism of tea."

In 2011, during Harbin's deep winter and over pots of dahongpao oolong tea with her master, Zhou learned about Chinese traditions, the rituals, the distribution of tea varieties and about tea house management.

She gradually realized that her life would be devoted to tea, and her mission would be to help people understand and enjoy the beverage.

She is also working hard at understanding what her guests need, perhaps even before they realize what they want themselves.

"Choosing the proper tea is like interacting with people. Tea caters to your palate, cares for your mood, relaxes you and cheers you up. You just have to know what's right."

She looked at me and picked a tea with leaves that resembled silvered needles for its soft, "peaceful" flavor - a calming infusion for a novice with a short attention span. Zhou is not just a tea sommelier, she is also an uncanny judge of character.

Contact the writer at sunye@chinadaily.com.cn.


(China Daily 12/23/2012 page4)