The original article, with the same title, was published in TSingapore, the New York Times Style Magazine Singapore.
Written by Guan Tan, Photos by Pham Quang Tung
Tucked in a corner at Joo Chiat is a breathtaking studio apartment – starkly white, and sparsely fitted with light oak. A dignified concrete table sits in the centre, which is where Kenny Yap brews the finest Chinese teas for both friends and clients.
Yap’s pursuit for tea began over a decade ago after he stumbled into a specialty tea shop in Chinatown. “I remember inviting friends over, brewing tea for them. I stopped when I went to UK for university, but found it again when I came back,” Yap confides carefully.
At several points in our conversation, Yap reiterates that there are many tiers to tea appreciation, and the way he does it is perhaps the finest.
He made the move from consumer to connoisseur a couple of years back, after he tried a high-grade Pu’erh for the first time, “which was unlike any Pu’erhs that I knew – the typical dark, earthy-tasting ones that we get at dim sum restaurants.” Pu-erh is a fermented black tea that ages in humidity. Like wine, precious raw Pu'erh descends from single-trees. A myriad of flavours manifests over time – the older it is, the better it gets.
“That was when I understood why people would pay so much for tea, so I bought a small lot,” Yap quips. It’s a breeze for Yap since his day job entails frequent business trips to Shanghai. He then mastered tea brewing from a Singaporean teacher.
Over the years his collection ballooned, and “very recently, last year [he] set up Yè Teas”, selling tea leaves to different collector profiles. Yè in Chinese literally means ‘leaves’, which also happens to be Yap’s surname.
There are but a handful of private tea collectors in Singapore, the majority in their 40s and 50s. “A lot of them haven’t tried the top notch stuff,” Yap carefully considers. From his observation, the Chinese tea industry is peculiar, because “the best teas are kept in China.”
Local consumers are so wealthy, there is no need for foreign export. Yap notes that “traditionally it’s always been cheap teas that are exported, it’s still the same now.” But what’s more striking is the exclusivity of these tea leaves.
By a rough gauge, “not even the top one percent of China’s population has tried them. People don’t have access to them.” The best leaves are snapped up even before they are harvested – by direct reservations from officers and collectors. Fine tea leaves are conventionally gifted by officers to curry favour with their governmental superiors.
Unless you’re chummy with these farmers and makers, they won’t reveal their top-grade reserves to you. It's a closed circle powered by immediate relationships.
“It’s a fragmented and opaque market, a market where relationships come first,” Yap says. He consistently visits his partners to maintain good personal friendships. That way, “you are able to get better things” and not be ripped off.
Apart from the farmers who typically own the plantations, there are expert tea makers who process harvests – through an exacting procedure of drying, withering, fermentation, oxidisation, firing, and rolling practices.
Coupled with the scarcity of said tea leaves, prices are sent soaring. In Shifeng, Hangzhou, for instance, “prices of the Shifeng Longjing (Dragon’s Well tea) is the highest currently, amongst all Longjing. There’s only one harvest season – Spring.” The region reaps approximately 50 kilograms of First Flush (first plucking) Spring Longjing tea leaves per year. “And everyone wants their tea. That drives prices up,” explains Yap.
He reminds us that he’s referring to the finest single-tree origin tea leaves. These solitary wild trees are so rare, and potentially “have been around for hundreds, or thousands of years – and are still producing tea leaves!”.
In Spring, farmers pick out a small selection of leaves from the crown of these trees. Yap stresses that "older leaves are left behind because they are too coarse to be made into fine tea." Younger leaves too, for they have not yet harnessed ample age and flavour, also citing sustainability’s sake.
“The finest teas are produced in very small quantities.” Yap continues, “[they] must, first of all, be whole leaves, grown in terrain with appropriate climate, weather conditions, soil composition, altitude, and harvested [at] the right time. It should have a good balance of aroma, aftertaste, and smoothness.”
In all teas, you’ll find astringency – a sharp, prickly tinge on your tongue. But finesse is found in an equation of low astringency, robust aroma, sweetness, even texture and a beautiful, lingering aftertaste.
An excellent collectors’ grade tea might not even have a price to it. Yap recounts an exceptional episode, “I once tried a black tea from Yunnan, made from a tree that [was] more than a thousand years old.” The tea was prepared by a devout Buddhist, who wanted to offer it to some Buddhist monks – as a refresher during meditation.
It so happened after he went uphill, back home to deposit his harvests, a landslide occurred. He couldn’t wait it out, lest the leaves withered beyond repair. So he strayed from usual processes and started on fermentation.
“I was lucky enough to sample it, [because] that was all they had. The tea from the same tea tree in subsequent years never tasted like the one I tried – possibly because of different weather [conditions],” Yap recalled enthusiastically. Till date, the Buddhist man is still trying to recreate that fateful batch of leaves. “That tea was amazing! It was priceless!”
Yap scurries into the kitchen and disappears behind the refrigerator. He quickly shows up with a small bag of the aforementioned Longjing in hand. Literally translated as Dragon’s Well, it’s a gentle variation of green tea. According to Yap, green teas are best appreciated in clear glasses – for its gradient hues of greens.
Longjing (Dragon’s Well) are typically harvested from tea bushes grown in plantations. The best Longjing leaves "come from a specific area within the hill, which farmers typically reserve for themselves and their friends, so they try not to use pesticides if they can." Even so, the tea leaves remain pristine. Yap explains that these mountainous regions are thousands of years old, and boasts its own ecosystem – pests have their own predators – which is also why wild tea leaves are the most precious.
He brings out a comprehensive set of non-porous teapots and cups, “I only use non-porous clay…it’s more convenient.” Porous clay pots and cups are dedicated for a single class of tea – for the pores retain and impart flavours.
Here, Yap is using a gaì wân – literally means lid and bowl. “You put more leaves than usual, and don’t steep it for too long,” Yap explains as he demonstrates. This is the traditional ceremony of tea appreciation, called Gong Fu Pao (Kungfu Brew) – albeit minimised by Yap for a brisk process. It takes approximately 20 minutes to complete ten circuits of steep and drink.
First, he rinses the tea leaves and cups in hot water to remove dust. The tea leaves are steeped in hot water at 90 to 95 degrees, and served after five seconds. The steeping time is increased by 10 seconds with each subsequent round. As one goes along, one will find deeper and different notes surfacing.
Over the years, Yap realised that specific climates and terrain are optimal for various types of tea production – the mildly humid conditions of Hangzhou's Shi Feng (Lion's Peak) mountain produces the best Longjing (Dragon's Well) tea leaves, while the stark wintry climate of picturesque Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in An Hui province yields the finest Mao Feng (Fur Peak) green teas.
The cool atmosphere of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong province produces unparalleled Phoenix Dan Cong – a varietal of Oolong tea leaves. Yap recalls sampling this tea from a renowned maker here: "The most expensive tea that I've [tried] – where there was actually a price tag – costs 40,000 Chinese renminbi per 500 grams!" And that was priced for wholesale, he adds. "I think there was a total of two kilograms of finished product per year. That was all the tea maker made in a year. He spends all his time looking after that tree, making sure it's healthy. That tea tasted as strong [as the first brew] even after ten brews. And despite the cold weather in January in China, the back of my knees was perspiring!"
Yap has heard folklore about these centuries-old tea trees – that the older they are, the more qi (energy) they would have harnessed over time. While you're imbibing the trees' energy, you'll find yourself burping away.
Apart from the teas Yap had mentioned, there are also Pu-erh from Yunnan province, Hou Kui (Monkey Leader) green tea from An Hui province, Bi Luo Chun (Jade Snail Spring) green tea from Suzhou, and the Wuyi Yan Cha (Bohea Rock tea), an Oolong derivative from panoramic UNESCO-listed Wuyi Mountain in Fujian (Hokkien) province. While there are innumerable tea districts in China, these are the select few Yap frequents.
Based on Yap's observation, Singaporean tea-collectors seem to enjoy their Pu-erh and Oolong, more than the green and white teas. It's a small community, but he's confident of growth, "As Singaporeans become more health conscious, and appreciate subtle flavours, the demand for fine tea will grow."
He doesn't market his products nor sell to the masses. Clients approach him via word of mouth recommendations and visit his apartment for tastings before purchase. That way, Yap sieves out connoisseurs from consumers, only meeting the right faces. He quips, "There is a whole world of tea! Unless you're in it, you wouldn't know it."