Jing: tea as it’s meant to be

Jing: tea as it’s meant to be

by Tom Shingler 6 November 2018

China alone is home to over 10,000 different teas, with 5,000 years of tea tradition and culture to call upon – not bad for a drink that’s derived from a single plant. Tom Shingler talks to Jing founder Ed Eisler to find out why top-quality tea is akin to fine wine, discovering a world of diverse flavours, textures and colours in the process.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

How would you describe the flavour of a bog-standard cup of tea? Once you start thinking about it, a specific description is actually quite difficult – yes, there’s a tannin-like dryness combined with the flavour of the milk, but the distinct flavour is quite hard to pinpoint beyond simply saying it tastes of, well, tea. We’ve clearly developed a taste for it, as around 165 million cups of tea are consumed daily in the UK, but the majority of us are missing out on tea of a higher quality; something which offers all the variety, flavour and depth of fine wine.

This is something that Jing is changing, one cup at a time. Started in 2004 by Ed Eisler, he and his team travel the world to source the very best of the best, treating the leaves with the utmost care and working with producers to ensure freshness and flavour above all else. The teas they bring to the UK are unlike anything you can get elsewhere; rather than having nothing more than that generic ‘tea’ taste, they are packed with complex flavour notes and a depth that really comes through in the cup.

‘I first tasted Chinese and Japanese tea in Prague when I was young and immediately fell in love with it,’ says Ed. ‘It was quite a hedonistic, enjoyable thing to drink that wasn’t alcohol-orientated, which was fantastic. I then travelled around Asia during my gap year and visited lots of tea-growing areas – experiencing the wealth of culture, heritage, history, knowledge and passion for all these different types of teas was just so inspiring. When I got back to the UK and ran out of the tea I’d brought back with me, I quickly realised there was no way to get any more. So in my last year of university I set up Jing to import some of those leaves into the country.’

Ed Eisler set up Jing in 2004 after drinking incredible teas in Asia and realising they weren't available when he returned to the UK
Jing now sells tea all over the world, travelling to places like China, India and Japan to source the very best leaves

Attitudes towards tea in places like China, Japan and Taiwan are completely different to the UK. While many of us will happily drink cup after cup of non-descript black tea with little regard to its taste or characteristics beyond strength, in Asia it’s regarded as more of an experience, combining everything from how it makes you feel to how best it represents the region it’s grown in. It helps that the quality and variety of tea on offer is often much better, but through Jing it’s possible to get those same incredible leaves in Britain.

‘Most of the standard black tea we drink in the UK is from Africa and at the absolute lowest end of the spectrum in terms of quality,’ explains Ed. ‘It’s become a commodity, which makes it very cheap to produce but also means there’s no real flavour to it. We’ve become accustomed to looking at the colour and strength of tea to decide whether it’s ‘good’, but if you actually think about it there’s very little flavour there. All you’re getting is the tannins and that ‘jump’ in the mouth that comes from its strength. When you compare that to our Assam, for instance, which is full of rich, sweet, malty flavours and is selected from the absolute best of the yearly harvest, you instantly realise that commoditised teas don’t taste of very much at all.’

This is something I’d never really given much thought to. I knew there was a world of tea beyond PG Tips, and that green tea, oolong and white tea offered something different to the standard black. But it wasn’t until I talked to Ed and tasted some of the teas they source that I realised just how astoundingly complex tea could be. There was Ali Shan oolong tea from Taiwan, full of distinctly tropical fruit flavours. Iron Buddha from Fujian boasted delicate, bright floral notes, while Dragon Well green tea was nothing like the bitter, intense green teas I’ve tried before – this was all freshly cut grass, vegetal and savoury with a pleasingly refreshing bitter finish. The jasmine tea was incredibly subtle, barely colouring the water but imparting a heady, scented flavour, and the Assam was so sweet and malty it was hard to believe Ed hadn’t slipped a teaspoon of sugar in it. All of them not only tasted distinct and complex; they also had their own textures and mouthfeels, ranging from light and creamy to viscous and almost syrupy. After tasting these, the tea I usually drink at home suddenly felt very thin, boring and uninspiring.

All tea comes from the same single plant – Camellia sinensis – but the climate and environment the plant is grown in has a huge impact on its flavour
Once harvested, the processing methods dictate what category of tea the leaves fall into (green, white, black, yellow, oolong and pu erh)

‘China is home to at least 10,000 different teas and production in terms of hectares is larger than all the vineyards in Europe,’ says Ed. ‘That gives you an idea of just how varied tea can be – saying ‘green tea’ is like saying ‘white wine’; it’s a category but within that there’s so much variety to discover. We usually have around sixty teas for sale at any one time, although that changes each year as some of our teas are seasonal and, depending on the quality of the harvest, we might not stock it again. The majority of what we have is from China, as it is the mother of tea and is the birthplace of all six categories (green, white, black, oolong, pu erh and yellow), but we also stock some fantastic Japanese green teas, Darjeeling and Assam from India and Taiwanese oolongs.’

With so many teas and 5,000 years of tea-making experience to fall back on, it’s perhaps no surprise that China is home to such exceptional varieties. And while Ed goes to huge efforts to ensure Jing’s teas are as fresh as possible (as well as offering beautiful teaware to brew and serve it in), it’s clear that the main aim is to import teas that truly reflect their place of origin. People talk at length about how terroir is such an important aspect of wine, and the same can certainly be said of tea – the exact same variety of tea plant can be planted in two different locations, but the local climate, soil and production methods have a huge impact on the final flavour.

Even if you’ve never bought from Jing, there’s still a chance you’ve tasted their teas as they’re found on the menus of many of the world’s best restaurants. Tea pairings are becoming more and more common in Michelin-starred restaurants, and chefs are some of Jing’s biggest customers. One of Ed’s first orders was from Heston Blumenthal, who instantly put his teas on the menu at The Fat Duck (and still works with them fourteen years later), and today Jing can count nearly 100 Michelin stars within its global chef network, including the likes of Pierre Gagnaire, Anne-Sophie Pic and many of the the three-starred restaurants in Spain. ‘It wasn’t part of our strategy or anything, it’s just that the people in those restaurants – from the chefs to the sommeliers and the customers – all appreciate flavour, so they’re really keen and open to tasting top-quality tea,' says Ed. 'Then there's our online shop, where everyone from teachers and lawyers to writers and accountants buy from us regularly. There's a large number of people out there who appreciate the many different flavours various teas can contain and how they make you feel.’

Ed and the Jing team travel to where their teas are harvested not only to check them for quality, but to get a sense of where they're grown and how that comes through in the flavour
Storing and brewing tea correctly is an incredibly important part of enjoying the drink, which is why Jing puts such an emphasis on quality teaware and education about brewing methods

Without getting too spiritual and new-agey, it’s true that the teas I tasted while talking to Ed offered more than just flavour. Obviously, the caffeine in tea wakes us up, but rather than the jittery jolt to the system that coffee provides, these teas were more like a gradual awakening. Tea of this quality really is an experience; something that’s conducive to talking and socialising rather than a way to stave off a lack of sleep. It’s as relaxing as it is stimulating, leaving you feeling serene, calm and alert instead of over-caffeinated and skittish.

In the UK we’ve become so accustomed to tea being a certain way (strong without much flavour) that we rarely go beyond the commoditised, stale, blended varieties that offer nothing very interesting at all. Tasting the real deal – something which tastes of where it comes from, offers an explosion of different flavours and textures, showcases the artisan processes required to make it and simply makes us feel good – is a shock to the system in the best possible way. If you’re looking for something as interesting and varied as wine that you can drink at any time of day, a bag of tea from Jing is hard to beat. At the very least, try their Assam breakfast blend in place of your regular teabag – it’ll make you rethink your daily cuppa.