by Mila Shwaiko
The Story of Tea – Tasting Indonesian & Balinese Teas
On a recent beautiful Saturday morning, some twenty Slow Food Bali members gathered to attend a tea party like no other. As we walked down, down into the Campuan river valley in the heart of Ubud, moss began to cover every surface as the air became cooler and the sun struggled to get past huge trees and tangled vines.
We reached the site of the spring and found all the trappings of a tea party waiting in a small, traditional Balinese pavilion beside the holy spring temple, along with our two hosts, Tea Master Tjok Gde Kerthyasa and Asri Kerthyasa, owners of the best tea house in Bali, Biku. Tjok De and Asri are also members of the Ubud royal family and the event was at the site of their family’s private holy spring, a source of the sacred water vital for Balinese rituals. Tjok De and Asri are not only serving and promoting Indonesia teas at Biku, but are pioneering the first tea plantation in Bali itself. This Slow Food Bali Story of Tea event was specially designed and curated by Biku to showcase the best teas Indonesia and Bali has to offer and to give our members an overview of the rich history of tea in Indonesia.
Indonesia was the second place in the world to grow tea after China, a surprising fact, considering most people would guess India instead. The Dutch beat the British by over 50 years in smuggling the protected (on pain of death) plants out of China. Tea will grow in the same places and climates as coffee. Coffee is considered a more profitable crop, despite being more fragile and prone to disease. Tjok Gde told us that most of the tea in Indonesia is immediately exported. Whole plantations in Java are earmarked and immediately exported to the Turkish or Russian markets.
The higher up you plant tea, the higher the quality and the more subtle the flavor; however, the higher the plant lives, the lower the yield. The very highest quality of tea comes from the very top of the branches. The grade of tea is determined by a system of letters; the more letters a tea has, the higher the grade. The Chinese system of grading is even more complicated and often involves a lot of intuition and feeling. The Chinese believe the source of water is also extremely important to the brewing process. At this Slow Food Bali tea tasting, we used water from 100 meter deep subterranean spring and full of minerals, adding a deeper dimension to the tea.
Sitting cross-legged on cushions, next to a traditional Balinese wood fire stove with a big kettle kept constantly on the boil, we started with the lightest of the teas. The high-grade white tea called Silver Needles is grown high in the mountains above Bandung, Java. White tea is often called the Emperor’s Tea and is made of the first tea buds of spring. It is tea in its most natural state, dried not cooked, with no rolling. The taste was fresh and delicate.
The second tea was the Sunda Red, grown at an altitude of 2,000 meters on the slopes of Ciwidey Mountain near Bandung. This was a richer cup with a slightly smoky flavor. We were served some amazing dishes between teas, including poached and spiced Balinese salak (snakefruit), green and red tea jellies, and green tea cupcakes to cleanse our palates.
As we took a break between the second and third teas, Tjok Gde told us about the first tea plants in China, cultivated thousands of years ago. The oldest trees today are over 1,700 years old, living in the province of Yunnan. Some of the most famous trees in China are considered to have been sent from heaven in a bolt of lightening and cling to towering cliffs. The harvest from these and other special trees in China are reserved only for the President of China’s teapot.
Our final two teas were the ones we had been waiting for, grown here in Bali, at an altitude of 1,300 meters above Danau Tamblingan, a famous lake in central Bali. The first Bali tea is complex, but still fresh, with very little tannin and a touch of muscatel. The second Bali tea is a more experimental version, smoky with more levels.
The trees were planted three years ago and the harvest is still extremely limited. This type of tea is semi-oxidized. Two months ago, Tjok Gde picked the leaves, let them wither in bamboo until the leaves were rubbery. After that they were hand rolled to help break down the cells and oxidized for an hour, roasted in earthenware woks on wood fires. Tjok De believes there should be no metal contact in the tea making process; metal heats too fast and often burns the leaves. When you brew tea, he advises only using glass or ceramic pots.
When the last cup was drained, we reluctantly headed back up to the surface, our bellies full of tea and good food, and minds turning over images of emperors and farmers, teapots and tea plantations.
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