As someone who grew up in England, I'm no stranger to tea. The Brits take their tea seriously, using it as a national remedy for almost any stressful event (Lost a leg? You'll feel better after a nice cuppa). However, they are mere amateurs compared with the Chinese, who've elevated the relatively simple act of infusing hot water with tea leaves into a beautiful (and often bewildering) art form.
As one of Asia's most Western-influenced cities, Hong Kong is caught in the middle. It has experienced the same coffee-culture explosion that's happened in almost every capital city during the past decade, but it's also resolutely clung on to its tea-drinking heritage. This is good news for visitors, because it means you can get an insight into this ancient tradition but still find a decent flat white when you reach your lapsang limit.
If you're interested in learning about the history of tea, visit Flagstaff House in Central. Formerly the residence of the commander of the British Forces, the imposing two-storey colonial building now contains the Museum of Tea Ware, which has tea-themed exhibits and events.
If you'd like to taste some tea, there are many options, from historic establishments such as the Lin Heung Tea House in Central, through to more contemporary venues such as Teakha in Sheung Wan.
If, however, you want an insight into the etiquette and ritual of actually making tea, you should book a class at the Homeland Tea Garden with certified tea master May Chan.
After studying tea therapy at Hong Kong Baptist University, Chan visited dozens of tea plantations before becoming a certified China National Tea Taster and Tea Artist. She regularly runs tea appreciation classes from her small tea store in Wan Chai, where she covers every aspect of the tea-making process, from the origins of the word itself through to the pros and cons of different types of tea ware (apparently porcelain is the best).
During the two-hour session we learn how to distinguish the six main types of tea (green, white, yellow, oolong, black and dark), get lessons in pouring technique and discover its purported health benefits. Chan is an enthusiastic advocate for tea's ability to treat both physical and mental ailments, and her own Zen-like aura of calm is certainly a compelling advertisement (a state she manages to maintain even when I confess I normally make tea by dunking a tea bag into a chipped non-porcelain mug).
And, of course, we get to taste some, starting with a jasmine green tea made in a glass teapot (refreshing with a fragrant floral note). Next up is the same tea made in a porcelain teapot, which apparently should taste slightly different but seems identical to my untrained palate. Then we sample a steamed green tea, which tastes exactly how I'd imagine licking the bottom of a lawnmower might. We finish with an oolong, which is much less challenging and has a subtle sweet aftertaste.
Overall, it's an entertaining and informative session and Chan's earnestness is endearing. According to her website, "Enjoying the simple pleasure of tea brewing would change your state of mind, relieve you from the pressure and agony of work, and ultimately fulfil the purpose of life preservation." I'll drink to that.
Rob McFarland was a guest of The Murray and Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Located in the historic Murray Building, The Murray features a spa, a stunning rooftop restaurant and one of the city's best Cantonese eateries. See niccolohotels.com
Two-hour tea appreciation classes at Homeland Tea Garden start at HKD380 per person. 7 Mallory Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. See homelandteagarden.com