Tea Trek 2006: China, Japan & Tibet
by Mary Lou Heiss ©2006
Our tea trip this spring brought us to Fujian Province in eastern China, the home of many of China’s famous teas. The emphasis of the trip was to observe production of oolong tea in both south and north Fujian, and also Fenghuang Dan Cong oolong in northern Guangdong Province. Fujian is a treasure-house of China’s tea, and produces, in addition to the oolong teas, superb examples of black tea, jasmine tea, (such as the Jasmine Pearls) and authentic white tea.
Because the fresh tea leaf that is used to make Fujian oolongs must be larger in size than what is necessary for the manufacture of green tea, plucking does not begin in the early part of the spring but later, in May and early June. Due to this later timing, we were able to stop in Japan along the way, and observe, for the first time, the green tea harvest in Shizuoka and Kyoto (Uji ) Prefectures.
Tea cultivation and manufacture in Japan is extremely different from that in China. Land is at a premium in Japan, causing tea growers to squeeze tea gardens into small plots of land in the mountains as well as on the outskirts of towns and cities. In fact, we saw tea bushes growing in front and back yards in residential neighborhoods, and the bullet train whizzes by tea gardens in Shizuoka on a daily basis.
In keeping with Japan’s mode of efficiency, most Japanese tea leaf is cut from the tea bush by mechanical shearers – a few of the most expensive teas are hand-plucked in the early spring, but the goal in manufacturing Japanese tea is in how the leaf tastes, and not how it looks.
In Tokyo we met up with our colleague Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku: Recipes from a Japanese Kitchen. The three of us jumped on the Shinkansen ( bullet train ) and traveled down to Shizuoka, where we visited tea production, tea gardens and the fast-paced Shizuoka wholesale tea auction. In between tea lessons, Elizabeth gave us a serious cram-course in odd and unique Japanese cooking ingredients. It is amazing just how many variations of miso, soy sauce, tofu and noodles there are to be found in Japan !
In Kyoto, we were hosted by a wonderful group of Japanese businessmen who ended up learning more about tea than I think they ever thought possible. They had as good a time as we did ! They took us to ancient temples, contemplative tea gardens, chanoyu ( the Japanese tea ceremony) on several occasions, a tea research center, tea factories that specialize in Gyokuro, Matcha and Sencha tea, and introduced us to artisan tea producers who uphold the highest standards of quality in their tea production and manufacture.
From Japan, we continued to Shanghai, China. It seemed like a lifetime ago that we were last in eastern China for the tea harvest ( two years ago we ventured into western China which is geographically and spiritually a very different place ). In fact, it has been six years to be exact and much has changed for the better in the parts that we re-visited in eastern China.
Six years ago the skyline of the new Pudong section of Shanghai consisted of more construction cranes than buildings, and that was a mind-boggling sight to behold. Back then, looking across the Huangpo River from the walkway along the Bund to this new section of the city, buildings were still mostly steel frames and no one was yet living there. Few lights pierced the darkness at night. At that time, we were told that Shanghai contained the greatest concentration of construction cranes in any one spot on the planet, and the strange, futuristic sight of dozens of them poised in various positions seemed to make it a true statement.
Today, the cranes are gone and a first-class, very brightly lit and densely inhabited new city has emerged. This brawny city now boasts a new skyline and packs enough glass and steel muscle to rival cities like Hong Kong and Singapore for contemporary style, modern attitude and density of vertical space. In fact, from across the river we could just make out strategically placed neon signs that announced the presence of Starbucks and Hagen-Daas stores.
Our first trip exposed us to unrelenting air pollution in the form of thick clouds of stone dust that was generated by massive rock grinding operations set-up along side roads to supply materials for road construction projects and road repairs. We also realized that all of the blasting previously underway during the construction of the Yangtze River 3 Gorges Dam Project had come to an end, bringing to a close one of the worst episodes of environmental air pollution inflicted on the planet in modern time.
To our amazement ( and delight ) clear blue skies have now returned and smooth roads pave the way to the distant provinces where the tea grows. Even in the heart of the countryside the familiar bumpy old roads that were scarred with bone-rattling holes from missing chunks of pavement have been replaced with efficient, fast new lanes. It is evident that it is indeed possible for a country to re-invent itself in 6 years when there is a large enough large labor force, deep enough pockets to make it happen, and the common goal to achieve results.
From Shanghai, a short flight to Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, brought us to the region that is home to the fragrant ‘Clouds and Mist’ teas. Here, in early morning and evening, fast moving blankets of swirling, gossamer mists nestle into deeply-cut mountain valleys, swaddling the tea bushes in veils of moisture. In this region of lush bamboo forests and imposing mountains, this background has provided inspiration to Chinese landscape painters, hermits, and poets for centuries.
Here we discovered two highly-esteemed green teas from the Lu han and JingGanShan regions, both of which are rarely available outside of China. We were invited to visit the LuShan Tea Research Center that oversees the tea cultivation in a handful of villages located within a strictly controlled agricultural production zone. LuShan tea, as we learned, is an early-spring picking of buds only, that to me, possesses the quintessential sweet taste and fragrance of early spring teas from eastern China.
Tea has been produced on LuShan for over 2,000 years and was, like many of China’s premier teas, first cultivated in temple gardens by local monks. Progress has been slow to come to LuShan – we were told that the first paved road into the mountain was built within the last 50 years. Only a small quantity of LuShan tea is produced – this year the total quantity was only 10,000 kilos. The highest grade of Lu han tea contains 40,000 tips in 1 pound of finished tea. This tea is priced ex-factory in Chinese yuan at 1,000 yuan or the equivalent of U.S. $125.00 per pound.
Because of the booming Chinese economy and China’s new position in world politics, many of the finest Chinese teas are being purchased exclusively by the Chinese government for use as diplomatic gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries or important high-ranking officials. LuShan was the first of several highly-regarded, place-specific teas that we encountered on this trip that are experiencing unprecedented demand from Bejing. This in turn is focusing attention within China on its treasure house of teas and contributing to a rise of tea prices both internally and for export.
From LuShan we traveled south to JingGanShan another area of exceptional natural beauty that also produces exquisite ‘Clouds and Mist’ tea. Only 4 villages make up the entire production of JingGanShan tea, which consists of one grade of bud-tips and 4 grades of leaf. This tea is also only available in limited quantities – only about 10,000 kilos from one spring plucking is the total yield.
Again, the top grade of this tea fetches hefty sums –only 400 pounds of the bud-tip, first grade tea is produced and the ex-factory price for this tea is U.S. $250.00 a pound. Following the first grade is the second grade tea, of which just 1,000 pounds is available. This tea, which is comprised of a 1 bud and 1 leaf picking, is the favorite in Bejing and all of it is reserved for the government’s private use. We estimate that this year’s tea fetched the villagers close to $225.00 per pound.
At the tea factory in JingGanShan the entire village put on a demonstration for us of how they manufacture their tea. Since their tea harvest was completed for the year, the workers went into the tea fields and picked some tea leaves ( larger in size than what they would ever pluck, but it gave them something for them to use ) and then proceeded to fire up their charcoal-operated tea firing-pans in order to show us the hand-skills that they use to shape the leaf. All 15 of the female tea firers took their places at their tea firing pans and began working in unison. Before long, a deft, rhythmic motion settled in as they worked turning freshly plucked leaf into finished tea.
We spent several spellbound hours watching them shape the fresh leaf, then roll and twist it as they dried it in their tea firing pans. Periodically, they would pick up a bamboo scoop and lift the leaf out of their firing pan. They took the leaf to a large wooden table where they would work and shape it by hand, letting it cool a little before returning it to the tea firing pan.
When the fresh leaf had been transformed into finished tea, pots of hot water arrived and we luxuriated in the taste of freshly-fired tea. In style, JingGanShan tea was similar to Lu Shan tea, in that it possessed a soft, sweet, fresh and clean smelling aroma and flavor, but it also presented a pleasing, rich mineral note. We felt honored to have witnessed such a special afternoon, and we applauded the efforts of everyone in the tea factory. The workers responded to our enthusiasm with big smiles and lots of shy and embarrassed giggles.
From Jiangxi Province we headed south to southern Fujian Province. To say that we were excited to be finally visiting the most historic tea growing region of China doesn’t quite do justice to the anticipation that we felt. To explain why, Fujian is home to what is considered by tea professionals to be China’s most sophisticated and complex teas – oolong teas – which includes the famous Wuyi Rock Oolongs as well as Tieguanyin Oolong. Fujian is also the historic home of the popular Chinese white teas. If this were not enough to make a hardened teaman weak in the knees, Fujian is also the origin of delicately scented and exquisite jasmine teas, as well as the unique, smoky and tarry Lapsang Souchong black tea.
Fujian has the longest history of commercial tea production in China, and it is here that many of those historic teas were first produced for the Dutch and British traders who came to purchase tea from the Chinese during the days of the China Tea Trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From Jiangxi we took an overnight train to northern Guangdong Province, which is located just south of Fujian. It was here, in northern Guangdong, a place once known as Canton, that we would begin our hunt for oolong. We awoke on the train in the city of Chaozhou in the outskirts of the Phoenix Mountains. We had come here to see the legendary Fenghuang Dan Cong Oolong tea trees, and to observe production of this tea. Local history dates production of this tea back to the Tang Dynasty ( 618-907 AD ) when indigenous tea bushes in this area were first shaped and pruned in such a manner that the bushes developed into trees with a single trunk.
A long and winding drive up a steep and notoriously narrow road brought us to the elevation where the ‘clouds and mist’ settle in. By the time we reached this isolated garden of old tea trees, the dense veils of mist had enveloped the tea garden and the trees appeared as ghostly apparitions peering out at us from the beyond. Standing nearly 15 feet tall and looking more like apple trees than tea bushes, these old trees were reported to be well over 100 years old.
Fenghuang Dan Cong Oolong tea pickers use ladders to climb up into these trees in order to reach the large leaves. Wet stones and muddy paths added to the atmosphere but made it difficult to walk on the sloping paths. But the thrill of seeing these large tea trees made the adventure worthwhile.
These tea trees are one of the nearly 300 varieties of indigenous tea plants that are unique to northern Guangdong and most of Fujian Province, and are the primary reason why these oolong teas cannot be duplicated elsewhere. In addition to the characteristics that the leaves from these old tea trees ( and the other indigenous local tea bushes ) impart to the tea, local modifications in leaf processing techniques coupled with varying soil and weather conditions convey distinctive nuances of flavor to these teas. The large-sized leaves yield gorgeous and stylish tea that is long and slightly thick in appearance, and that has a unique and desirable twisted shape, a fully oxidized appearance and well–developed floral fragrance. Multiple infusions are the norm with these teas.
Later, on our way to the Fenghuang Dan Cong tea factory, we discovered that tea farmers here use the side of the road as a convenient place to spread their freshly plucked leaf for ‘withering’ before the leaf is brought into the co-op tea factory for shaping and firing. (Withering is the slow process of gradual cellular change brought on by moisture loss that begins within tea leaves once the leaves have been plucked from the bush. It is critical that a reduction in moisture occurs in fresh leaf before the manufacturing process begins when the tea will be an oxidized style. )
We watched farmers working in a small section of road quickly remove handfuls of tea from their baskets and sprinkle the leaves in a single layer over the asphalt. After a short withering ( perhaps one hour ) the tea was swept up and put back in the basket as if nothing at all had occurred. We were delighted to observe this ingenious method of withering and marveled at the simplicity and common sense of these hard-working farmers.
However, in the private tea factories withering is done in a more controlled environment. The fresh leaf is laid out on a series of large bamboo trays, which are placed side by side on drying racks. After withering comes the lengthy tumbling, rolling and drying processes required to make Fenghuang Dan Cong Oolong. Processing usually begins at 3 PM and is finished around 11 AM the following day, and each step in the manufacture is critical – one mis-step and the entire batch of tea is ruined.
Oolong teas are partially oxidized (they are not fermented as is erroneously stated in many tea articles and books ) and this process of manufacture is the is the most complicated to execute. The exquisite floral aroma of oolong teas is a result of the numerous stages of rolling and drying that the fresh leaf undergoes.
While the tea making process is similar for all oolong teas, large tea leaves such as Fenghuang Dan Cong require even more time for the tea workers to finesse the tea leaves to the proper color and to coax the leaves into developing the distinctive sweet, floral aroma that tea aficionados savor and demand.
Our next stop along the oolong tea trail brought us to Anxi in southern Fujian, the home of the most famous Chinese oolong, the noble Tieguanyin. Anxi sports an abundance of tea shops and all of the necessary auxiliary tea businesses that the growers and producers require, such as bamboo basket makers, tea machinery repair shops and tea sorting stations. Tieguanyin is big business here – only the Tieguanyin cultivar of tea bush will yield genuine Tieguanyin tea. Tieguanyin is named in honor of Guan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.
Our host, Mr. Wei Yue De, an exuberant and charismatic teaman, was thrilled to have us visit – even though we arrived at 11:30 PM. He immediately shuttled us off to dinner and then later brought us back to his office where he personally conducted a gongfu tea tasting for us of both his traditional and new, floral-style Tieguanyin teas. Before the night ended ( we “called it quits” after the 11th infusion of the leaves ) he wanted us to go to sleep understanding the three distinctive qualities that Tieguanyin should express in the cup – fragrance, aftertaste, and resonance – and personally see to it that we experienced the fulfillment of this expectation as we tasted his tea.
The following day Mr. Wei Yue De took us up into the mountains to visit his tea gardens. He was very excited to show us his oldest tea garden, where the mother plants of most of the plants in his garden were located. These old plants are approximately 150 years of age. He showed us a commemorative stone that he designed and had placed in his garden marking the existence of the bushes. He also paid homage to the Goddess of the tea, Guan Yin, by installing a life-size, white marble statue of her in the center of his tea garden. From her vantage point, she overlooks the terraced rows of tea bushes that cascade down the mountainside. She is a prominent sight in the garden.
From Anxi we headed to Changle, the region of fine Jasmine tea production. We visited a very fragrant, perfume-drenched Jasmine tea factory and were amazed to discover that the tea-scenting manufacturing step had not yet taken place yet this year. The intense jasmine aroma we so enjoyed was leftover perfume still permeating the factory from last years blossoms and production. Outside the factory, we wandered thru an extensive garden of jasmine bushes from which the aromatic flowers would be obtained. Blossoms are ready for plucking in July and August, at which time the flowers are introduced to the already-made base tea and the scenting transfer fro flowers to tea occurs.
From Changle, our next destination was a White tea factory in Fuding. It was very early Sunday morning, but fortunately for us, tea workers work every day during the height of the busy tea season, so we were able to have our anxiously awaited visit. This rural tea factory was peaceful and quiet and we heard only the sounds of local birds breaking the silence. Here, the tea gardens are owned by the villagers, and only village residents ( about 100 ) are used to pluck the tea – no outside migrant workers are brought in.
Inside the factory, the tea withering room was cool and breezy. Freshly-picked bunches of leaf were laid out on the withering mats, which were supported on wooden racks. The room was designed to hold the maximize volume of wooden racks. Eight double rows of shelving ( front and back ) filled the room with barely enough room to walk around each rack. Each wooden rack consisted of 5 sections of shelving, and each section had 15 rows of mats. Which makes for a lot of fresh leaf.
The tea in the withering room was Shou Mei white tea. This leaf was plucked from the ‘Da Hao’ Big Sprout variety of tea bush, a cultivar specific to Fuding. The season for the manufacture of the fancier grade of bud-tip tea, the White Peony, had finished in March. This village plucks 95 % of their leaf from the Big Sprout variety of tea bushes and only 5 % from the Big White variety, which develops the thinner sprouts plucked for making White Peony.
Last but certainly not least, we arrived in the Wuyi Mts, a place of extravagantly shaped rock landscapes, natural waterfalls and lush nature preserves that feature protected bamboo forests. Wuyi is historically very important in Chinese tea history, as this is the place from whence the first teas came that made their way to Europe with early Dutch traders.
The oolong teas manufactured here are called Wuyi Rock teas, and they are rare and expensive oolong teas produced from specific tea bush cultivars found only in this region. Cultivated tea gardens have been developed here, but the lack of truly cultivatable land here has kept the gardens small and isolated from one another. Over 800 cultivars of tea bushes exist here and no where else in China. Each cultivar produces a slightly different leaf and resulting finished tea. Additionally, the rocky soil and the mineral-rich environment adds nutrient and flavor to the tea. Cuttings from these tea bushes planted and grown in other parts of China (or anywhere!) do not have these flavor characteristics because of this unique terroir.
Here, the tea grows in thin, rocky soil, and wild tea bushes sprout out of the rock faces in places that seem impossible for plants to live. But live and thrive they do – many of the old plants growing here are hundreds of years old and still produce leaf. Accordingly, the manufacture of fresh leaf here used old, traditional skills, and often the tea is still dried over a charcoal fire. We visited several factories and tasted many of the great Wuyi Rock Oolong teas – Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui, and Shui Xian. These teas are the stuff of legends. Never did we think that we would have such a splendid opportunity to taste and to learn so much about these famous teas. No wonder these teas are the realm of Chinese tea connoissueurs – we cannot rave about them enough.
Before leaving Wuyi, we obtained last-minute permission to visit a rarely-visited Lapsang Souchong tea smoking shed. Wuyi is the home of this legendary tea, and the tea is still slowly dried over indirect aromatic smoke from controlled pine wood charcoal fires. During our visit we were presented with cups of a very subtle, very elegant smoky tea that we had never before encountered and did not recoginze. The owner of the tea factory took great delight in stumping us with this, his most prized smoked tea. Called Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong, he explained to us that this is the original smoky tea of this area and processed in a more specific and controlled manner than the standard, familiar Lapsang Souchong, The price of Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong reflects this special treatment but we think that our smoked tea devotees will agree that this tea’s unique style and very special flavor merits the extra cost.
Now, back home, far from the clouds and mist and the traditions that foster tea making hand-skills, we anticipate the arrival of all of the new teas that we purchased on our trip. We think that you will find some amazing new teas in these additions to our already stellar line-up of black, jasmine, oolong and white teas from Fujian:
Black Tea – Fujian Province
Lapsang Souchong – authentic Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong
Panyang Black – Golden Monkey
Green Tea – Fujian Province
Green Snow Buds – Lu Xue Ya
Lotus Heart – Lian Xin Cha
Tongyu Mountain Special Green
Green Tea – Jiangxi Province
Jin Gang Shan Jade Green
Lu Shan Clouds & Mist
Yangtze River Tribute Green
Jasmine Tea – Fujian Province
Oolong tea – Fujian Provincent
Cave of the Golden Buddha
Da Hong Pao – Wuyi Rock Oolong
Rou Gui – Wuyi Rock Oolong
Tieguanyin – Charcoal-Fired Traditional Style
Tieguanyin – Clear Fragrant Style
Tieguanyin – Traditional Style
Oolong tea – Guangdong Province
Fenghuang Dan Cong