Looking For Chun Mee

Greg searches the proscribed list of acceptable tea descriptors from the Specialty Tea Institute

So we drank the Chun Mee.  This batch is “Special Grade,” from Upton Imports. It was nice, a lighter green tea with cucumber notes.  Greg says all green teas taste like Froot Loops.  He is a wiser man than I.

So what is chun mee’s deal?  Again, the name is a transliteration of zhen mei, which means “precious eyebrows.”  It was formulated in the twelfth century by a farmer named Otis Red Ding, who, after he leaned too close the tea firing pan, exclaimed, “you don’t miss your eyebrows ’til your head catch fire.”  Sorry.  “Precious Eyebrows” is supposed to refer to the shape of the finished leaves.  And that is just not enough information.

Who knows where it’s from? Apparently zhen mei originated somewhere in Jiangxi Province, but nowadays a tea called zhen mei might just as well come from Anhui or Zhejiang provinces.  Well, those are the three big tea-producing provinces in China, so great job on that.  There’s no indication that a particular cultivar is used to make zhen mei.  So much for terroir.  So if it doesn’t have specificity of place, theoretically you can take any tea and put it through the “zhen mei” manufacturing process?

I haven’t found any information about how zhen mei’s actually manufactured. When making green tea, there are any number of ways you can manipulate leaf while it’s being dried, but they tend to a few categories.  You can toss the leaves minimally, as they’re being dried in the sun or in an oven, and you get a non-uniform, tangled mass.  If you fire the leaves in a wok, they typically become broad and flat, being pressed against the sides of the hot pan.  You can thoroughly roll leaves into little balls to create “pearls” or “gunpowder.”  But I imagine most leaf styles are variations on “basket-fired”: the leaf is gently rolled and twisted in a broad basket over a heat source.  Of course nowadays there are machines to replicate all these artisanal processes, should you wish to increase your output.

But zhen mei doesn’t look that much different from other green teas, so I can’t imagine the process is that distinctive or specific. As far as I can tell, this is some manner of “basket-rolled” tea.  But by saying “basket-rolled” I mean to include any kind of planetary roller. And given that this batch of tea was pretty cheap, I doubt it was rolled by white-gloved virgins.

Here’s my interpretation: chun mee is an outdated category.  In the 18th century, most Chinese green tea was generally known in English as “Hyson.”  Reading the linked wikipedia article, and this source whence it came, one gets the impression that “chun mee” and other distinctions were broad, and sufficient at the time to differentiate the teas then coming through limited channels from China to the West.

Nowadays, we’ve got an unprecedented amount of direct access to Chinese teas of every stripe.  That kind of diversity invites more specific identification.  Wine enthusiasts can expect that the name-tag of any decent wine will list its geographic origin, the strain of its grapes, some broad indicators of its manufacture, and a vignette about that first ancestor who caught the viticulture bug.  The stuff that comes in a box, well, you want to know that it’s pink.  Similarly, the Chinese green tea that grows next to a cloverleaf of the G320, is rolled by something that looks like a commercial floor buffer, and is shipped by tractor trailer to every Shanghai McDonald’s, maybe that’s chun mee.

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