In Northern Germany, a Robust Tea Culture

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For years, I was a green-tea snob who would drink only the freshest Dragon Well or Azure Conch Spring. Even worse, as a longtime Sinophile living in Beijing I aped Asian cultural practices, and when it came to tea, that meant fanatically seeking out the tender shoots harvested right after the first flush, usually in early April. Everything else was taboo. Black teas, especially, never crossed my tongue.

Then I met Albrecht Ude, a German who had studied Sinology. His apartment in Berlin was an homage to tea, full of manuals on tea plantations, tea import ledgers and rare works on tea botany. I was excited to meet another tea aficionado in Berlin, my adopted hometown since studying there years ago, and went over to visit.

When I first went to see him, he was studying sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, but our drink that afternoon was something else: a thick, dark, malty tea served in espresso-size porcelain cups, a piece of rock sugar in the bottom and heavy cream carefully poured down the side from a flat, shell-like spoon. Stirring was taboo. The cream hit the bottom and mushroomed up, creating a "tea cloud," as Mr. Ude put it.

"East Frisian tea," he said with pride. It was blended by a tea seller in the region where he grew up. "It is special."

I stared at the strange mixture and sipped. It was strong and biting, mostly dark Assam leaves leavened only by a bit of Darjeeling. But as the sugar and cream rushed up from the bottom of the cup, the brew softened. That afternoon, I indefinitely lifted my ban; some black teas were evidently worth drinking.

At the end of my visit, Mr. Ude showed me the source of the tea. The leaves came in a half-kilo package -- a simple white bag with a faded blue picture of peasants in the field. Below it was the brand, Hedemann, and an address in East Frisia, a region in northern Germany.

"Go there and drink it," he advised. "You can only truly drink it there." I asked why but he shook his head; it was a question I'd have to answer myself. I followed his advice, and was soon on my way.

East Frisia is best reached by car. It has no major airport and is so sparsely populated that it has infrequent train service. So I drove five hours northwest of Berlin, heading to Hedemann's base in Ostgrossefehn, which could be translated as East Great Fens. That meant flat rural countryside -- fens are undrained marshes -- popular with tourists who bicycle.

The landscape isn't spectacular but it is scenic. Just like the Netherlands, its neighbor to the west, East Frisia is flat, with dikes protecting green pastures that swoop down below sea level. Holstein cows, windmills and marshy, canal-crossed fields dominate the view. The region bulges out into the North Sea, its coastline dotted with islands for 60 miles. Huge tides empty the shoreline and drain down the creeks and canals, leaving the mud flats, called the Wadden Sea, to worms, crabs, birds and seals. The area's biodiversity has made it one of Unesco's World Heritage sites.

That geography has defined East Frisia, isolating it from the rest of Germany for much of its history. Frisians looked to the Netherlands or England for cultural traditions rather than to their own countrymen. Starting in the 17th century, that culture included importing and drinking tea. Today, according to the German Tea Association, if East Frisia were a country its annual per capita consumption of 300 liters would be the highest in the world, ahead of Kuwait's 290 liters, Ireland's 257 and Turkey's 225.

When coffee took off in Germany and other parts of Europe in the 19th century, East Frisians kept to tea because it was economical; tea leaves can be used over and over again and they do not require grinders and filters. When guests came, East Frisians showed their hospitality by throwing more leaves in the pot and in time a heavy brew became the standard.

I first stopped at the East Frisian Tea Museum in the Renaissance-era city hall of Norden. The museum's new head, Matthias Stenger, is overseeing an expansion that will turn the charming if hodgepodge collection of local porcelain designs supplemented by tea-serving demonstrations into a modern museum.

The rituals are a big part of East Frisian tea culture. The small cups, the rock sugar, the cream that is never stirred -- all took shape in the 19th century, when Germany was industrializing and urbanizing. In response to the economic upheaval, local histories were written and traditions set down in an effort to keep them from disappearing. East Frisian tea became the key to locals' sense of identity. Even the porcelain used in the area had distinct rose patterns; the museum has display cases filled with teapots, cups and saucers.

And the culture has remained very local. Four companies -- Bünting, Onno Behrends, Thiele and Uwe Rolf -- support the tea museum, but only Bünting markets its brand nationally; the rest can be bought only in the region. A few residents own tiny companies that produce the equivalent of craft brews. Willem Hedemann, the maker of Mr. Ude's tea, is one of those small-batch producers who buys tea from wholesalers and mixes it in his home.

The packet Mr. Ude had shown me had a number on the bottom, so I called and received an invitation from Mr. Hedemann himself for afternoon tea. On the way there I drove along the coast, trying various brands. One scenic stop was the port of Neuharlingersiel, where I sampled a stiff pot of Bünting tea at Cafe Rodenbäck. I picked up tea from the other producers, as well. Almost all of the blends are dominated by tea from Assam in northern India, known for its dark, rich tea. The exact leaves and mixtures are a trade secret but about 90 percent of the local blends are Assam, leavened with as little as 10 percent of the lighter, fruitier tea from Ceylon.

It was all good but wasn't quite what I had in mind. In midafternoon I arrived in Ostgrossefehn, wired but ready for more.

Mr. Hedemann, a tall, fit 71-year-old, has been in the business since his father, a tea merchant, took him along on door-to-door visits when he was 14.

"I had an unbelievable tongue," he said as we sat at his backyard picnic table with tea and cake. "People used to test me, blind tests, and I could tell what they were. I'd chew the tea and say what's the best and what price groups they should be in."

In Mr. Hedemann's heyday, up through the 1990s, he'd sell five tons of tea a year. When the new teas arrived in September by ship at the big importers in Bremen or Hamburg, he would taste and then order big sacks. Then he mixed them at a custom-made wooden table in his attic and poured the mix into white paper bags.

"Then I was 66, and I ran out of bags to pack the tea," he said. "They sold them only in packages of 10,000. And for that I'd need 5,000 kilos of tea. And then I said, 'You know what, another 5,000 kilos! No, it's over.' "

But then he was featured on a television show, and customers called. So he bought another 10,000 bags; 2,000 are left. "When they're gone I really will retire," he said.

Mr. Ude wanted me to visit East Frisia because the water there is exceptionally soft and sweet. The effect on tea is amazing, addictive, the tones softer and more complex than the tea I had in Berlin.

Mr. Hedemann and I talked for a couple of hours, the winds whipping his tablecloth and bringing rain clouds. His tea really was distinctive, more biting than the local commercial brands and much more challenging than anything I'd bought in a store. It was the difference between a peaty single malt from Islay and a smooth blend. He showed me some prized older teas he had mixed in previous years.

In the end, I began to associate the taste with a color. At its best, steeped in soft water and served in the small, thin porcelain cups, East Frisian tea is golden and almost transparent, the cream glistening slightly on the surface.

"When it's like that," Mr. Hedemann said, leaving the tea on his tongue for a moment, "then it's right. Then it's real East Frisian."

IF YOU GO

The East Frisian Tea Museum (Ostfriesisches Teemuseum, Am Markt 36; Norden: 49-31-12-100, teemuseum.de). Though most of the exhibits are in German, the building -- a rare Renaissance rathaus -- is itself worth poking around. Also noteworthy is the gift shop, with products from the four major local brands and antique teapots in the distinctive East Frisian red rose design.

Cafe Rodenbäck (Am Hafen Ost 2, Neuharlingersiel). The cafe is in one of small fishing ports along the L5, a coastal route. Also worth a visit is Carolinensiel, which has a tiny harbor filled with old boats and ships. Cafes are not in short supply along this road and one rarely can go wrong sampling any of the pies and cakes offered. Almost every cafe has East Frisian tea, rock sugar and heavy cream.

Tee-Bakker (Bismarckplatz, Wilhelmshaven; teebakker.com). Though not in East Frisia, this is one of the best tea stores in the region; it has an online shop as well.

Cafe Landlust (Bäderstrasse 134, Schweiburg/Jade, cafe-landlust.de). This cafe has a wonderful selection of teas and cakes. Nearby, one can get a good view of the Jade Bight, a huge estuary off the North Sea.

Hedemann (Kanalstrasse Süd 232, Ostgrossefehn, 49-4944-3625, but a German speaker is needed). Even though Mr. Hedemann's address is on his packaging material, his tea business is in his home, so go there only with an appointment.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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