Monday, September 25, 2017

Tea Nerd Dictionary: Mao Cha

Tea Nerd Dictionary is a series on the blog where I try to define tea world jargon. The main goal is to help those that are just diving into tea to deepen their understanding and to hopefully make it less intimidating for them as a result. Each installment will be indexed on my Learn About Tea page.

Mao Cha is a word that I often read when I first started drinking tea but it took me a while to understand what it actually means. For starters, let's begin by tackling the second part of this term. Cha (茶) is the word for tea in Cantonese as well as many other languages spoken around the world. I really have no idea where the below graphic originated as I've seen it used in many places over the years. It's still a nice breakdown of the meaning of the kanji logographic for tea.

So now that we know what the meaning of cha is, what about mao? Mao refers to hair or fur (as in young tea leaves). It can also mean something that is rough or unfinished. Tea drinkers will most often see mao cha used in reference to puerh but it can also be applied to other categories, particularly oolong.

Babel Carp defines mao cha as:
"literally Coarse [unfinished] Tea (毛茶): in tea manufacture, a stage at which the enzymes in the tea have been deactivated (sha qing) by heat so that normal oxidation cannot occur, but before an optional final roasting to change the flavor, in the context of pu’ercha, there is a more specific meaning: the sun- and/or heat-dried leaves of the Da Ye tea tree prior to compression"
Sheng Puerh Mao Cha

For puerh, mao cha means sun-dried leaves that have not yet been steamed and pressed into a cake. Some tea is kept as mao cha but it is more common to compress the leaves into a shape when it is finished. Loose leaves will age in a different way than a cake does and of course, the way it is pressed also affects the taste (i.e. stone pressed vs machine pressed). Puerh tea leaves are sorted before compression. Those that are the wrong color or shape, called huang pian (or old yellow leaf), are removed. The farmers will often keep these for their own personal drinking. When a company sources puerh, they will often sample mao cha and then have it blended and compressed to their specifications. Some tea drinkers actually prefer puerh mao cha because it tends to be a more floral and aromatic.

In the context of oolong, mao cha will mean tea that has not yet reached the final step of processing. Wuyi cliff teas and Phoenix oolongs are both finished with a charcoal roasting step before they are packaged for sale. The appearance of the leaves will be greener than the finished product with a higher prevalence of stems. You can see this in the image below of some Shui Xian mao cha that a tea friend made in the Wuyi mountains last year. Rolled oolongs like Tie Guan Yin still needs to have the stems removed from the leaves.

Is there a word you'd like to see featured in this series? Let me know about it in the comments!

Shui Xian Mao Cha, note the greener color and abundance of stems