Oolong may be a familiar tea for many of us in the West today. In China, however, the name is used to describe a number of families of tea, each containing thousands of variations. Leo Kwan, managing director of MingCha in Hong Kong, explains how Phoenix, one of the finest, is produced.
Tea has been farm-produced in China for an extremely long time. In the geographically and culturally varied territory of the vast country, this history has resulted in tea plants, tea styles, and production methods as varied as the hundreds of dialects the Chinese people still use today.
I have a strong affinity to the oolongs, which I consider to be a superb kind of tea for many reasons. This article aims to explain the principles of premium oolong tea production in general and to focus in detail on one lesser-known but extremely fine oolong - the Phoenix.
The details of oolong tea production can vary quite dramatically from one type to another, depending on the tea plant used, the climate of the area and the intended final character of the oolong. This account, nevertheless, paints a typical representation of traditional fine tea production in South China today.
Fujian Province and the north of Guangdong are geographically linked by the fact that they both form a part of the South China Mountain ranges that lies like a screen across the south eastern coastal border of the country. The subtropical climate, the wet air from the Pacific, and the high altitude combine to make this region ideal for high quality tea plantations. Phoenix teas are produced here on one of these mountain ranges - the Phoenix Mountains of Northern Guangdong, in the Chiu An county, where the local dialect for “drink tea” is ‘jék thé, which actually translates as “eat tea.” And indeed, a very large portion of the population do feed on the tea industry here.
The tea plants grow at an altitude of 1300 meters on terraces carved into the steep slopes of large dark rocks and loose soil of a reddish yellow color. Morning temperatures are not too low - between 11o and 19o C in summer - but with the damp air and mist, it is still chilly for the hard-working tea pickers. They carry the weight of the baskets and move along the steep narrow paths paved with irregular size rocks that stay wet all day from the early morning dew.
Descendants of Sung
Six centuries ago, the last emperor of the Sung Dynasty was escaping south from the invading Mongolians, forced to give up his comfortable capital near the now scenic city of Hangzhou. He had been on the run for many months, covering a few thousand miles and was completely exhausted and very thirsty. One of his servants asked a local resident for a drink for his master and was given a clear light amber infusion. The story says that the emperor was revitalized and his thirst quenched.
The words “Sung Tea” are inscribed on a very large piece of the local typically dark rock, right above the bush whose yield was reserved for the late Chairman Mao Tze-dong for his personal consumption. The bush was specifically renamed “the East is Red” in honor of the communist leader.
Five or six hundred year-old trees are not as productive as younger bushes, but yield exceptionally fine teas that are reserved for only the extremely privileged. Pruning is a common way of extending the life of the plants and of improving the productivity and sometimes even the flavor of the teas. Our harvests come from matured plants that have been propagated from such reputable old bushes.
The village through which the unlucky Sung emperor passed was in the same area in which Phoenix teas are produced today and where tea plantations had been established several hundred years before he arrived. For those who are interested in what happened to the emperor, he escaped to Hong Kong and threw himself off a cliff there - mountain ranges away and a few hundred kilometers further south from where he had the famous cup of tea!
Although under the western biological system of categorization of tea plants, the tea bushes found in this area all belong to the same type - local tea experts have identified tens of different variations, all giving individual aromas and tastes. The same situation occurs in Fujian, the neighboring province to the north, especially in the Wuyi Mountains, where hundreds of different bush types are used to produce varying tea with different characters.
The Phoenix range of bushes comes from a strain of Camellia sinensis that is very closely related to the wild tree plant and it may have been its taste and after-taste that inspired our ancestors millenniums ago to use it to make the beverage.
Picking and Drying
Tea picking in this area is carried out by experienced workers. Knowing what to pluck, how to pluck, and when to pluck plays an important part in achieving the quality expected.
Better quality Phoenix is usually plucked on a sunny day just before or immediately after midday, in order to allow enough time for the leaf cells to be fully spread, dry and healthy, and ample time after picking for the leaves to be withered by the sun for one or two hours. This practice is very different from the methods used to manufacture green tea, such as “Dragon Well,” which requires the leaves to be extremely young and fresh from the spring cool air. In oolongs, such as the Phoenix teas, the leaves have to grow to a certain size in order to be chemically balanced to deliver their maximum quality. That is why the spring harvest for green teas is usually a lot earlier than the oolongs, even though the latter are produced in warmer climates.
The leaves are very thinly laid out on drying sieves and are turned over a few times during the process to allow for even drying and ventilation. The dry leaves are then removed from the light and are allowed to cool before being sorted ready for the next stages. Unlike mass-produced tea, all acceptable quality Phoenix teas have to be processed immediately after picking in order to maintain and seal in the freshness and natural goodness. There is no central gathering of the harvest ready for transportation to a centrally-controlled factory. Instead, production is a craft that is carried out among local tea masters in each individual small estate. That is why it is important to attract young people to the practice in order that the craft can continue and flourish.
After the leaves have been cooled and sorted (usually after dinner time in these Phoenix villages where it becomes dark quite early) they are to be partially fermented. The process takes place throughout the night for a period of between seven and nine hours, during which time the tea master has to roll the leaves briefly for about 5 minutes at regular intervals of 1 to 2 hours, each time gradually increasing the vigor of the hand work. The usual English word for this process, “rolling,” does not actually describe precisely what actually goes on here. The tea master holds up and rattles the leaves gently with a proceeding pattern, a little at a time. Chinese tea producers call this “rocking the green” and the locals call it “scratching the green,” implying a more controlled action than rolling, which is the industrialized method of attempting to achieve a similar result.
This “massaging” of the leaves causes the edges to rub against each other, thus gradually breaking the cell walls and triggering a series of chemical reactions as the plant fluids and substances (such as the enzymes, chlorophyll, polyphenols, and carbohydrates) come into contact with each other. The result is visually evident when the tea leaves are infused later in the pot and a thin reddish rim appears around each leaf.
The stage of rolling is absolutely critical to the process in order for the leaves to attain an optimum condition for further processes to develop the aromas and tastes typical of these oolong teas. Since the weather, both before and during the plucking, and the conditions during sun-drying, temperature and humidity are all variables that affect the quality of the leaves, and the extent and control of rolling will need to be adjusted accordingly in order to maximize the result of the harvest. It takes a great deal of experience to be able to judge the condition of the leaves in the process to fine-tune this adjustment.
Fry Drying and Twisting
By breakfast time, the tea master makes a decision as to whether the tea leaves are ready for the next step, and his apprentice takes over as the old man takes a very short break.
The next step involves arresting the fermentation of the leaves by applying heat. Approximately one kilo of fermented leaves at a time is put into a heated wok and fried at a temperature of about 200oC. The leaves are turned very briskly to avoid over heating. The process usually last very briefly and smell, rather than timing, is used to judge when the leaves are ready.
The application of heat also significantly reduces the water content, making the leaves quite soft and ready for twisting. Premium Phoenix tea is twisted tightly for an easy but gradual release of its flavor. That is why Phoenix is an ideal tea for the popular traditional gungfu infusion, by which tea can be quite quickly steeped repeatedly in a small quantity of water and sipped while hot, thus maximizing the enjoyment of the fragrance and the taste from each sip.
While most small estates now employ small machines to carry out the twisting process, some rare teas are still twisted by hand or by foot, as they were in the old days. The pressure exerted forces the oils and the juices to the surface of the leaves, bringing out more of the flavor and helping to form the character of the infusion.
Harvest time is back-breaking for the tea-master. As the tea is twisted, the mild-mannered man (interestingly, most tea masters we know are quite mild natured) smell-checks the tea for readiness. He may ask the apprentice to fry and twist some batches again if he thinks they do not match his requirements.
The batches that are good will be baked four times for five to ten minutes each time and with one to two hours in between when the leaves are left to rest. The temperature is decreased from 120oC for the first baking to 60oC for the final one. The leaves are laid very thinly (to a depth of about 10 mm) in bamboo baskets during the bakes. The tea master may further twist the leaves to satisfy his requirements of quality before the final bake. Only wood charcoal is used as fuel in order to maintain the taste.
The baking basket is a cylinder with a bell top and bottom. A sieve half way down holds the leaves above the very slow fire. The charcoal sits on a stone drum below the basket.
A Living Tradition
Phoenix oolong is part of a living tradition that has been taking tea very seriously for many centuries. Notwithstanding the turmoils of recent history, the people in this part of China are passionate about life, have a high regard for nature, for the body and for health. Like the very mild old Wen or the radical Chan, these tea professionals live among a population that eat, drink, live, and worship with simple devotion and particular requirements. Forget about canned drinks or fast food. They are more concerned with the maturity of a wine or the age of a game meat, the quality of the air or the soundness of a nap. It is the quality of life that counts.
Taste and Character
Phoenix teas are best three months to two years after being harvested and can be stored for an incredibly long time after that. Some people actually prefer the aged tea. It is a practice to slightly brown the stored teas and age them for five to eight years, and these fetch a higher price in the market. However, this is more commonly carried out with Wuyi teas.
For easy differentiation, we refer to the non-brown versions as “light,” and the browned versions as “classic.” For the products of the “MingCha” brand, which specializes in premium Chinese tea, a colored chop on the label denotes this. The chop also identifies the harvest season and the type of plant that yields the tea. Examples of a few plant types are: Zi’lan (Fragrant Orchid), Mi’lan (Honey Orchid), Ba’xian (The Eight Immortals), and the very popular Phoenix Golden (Yellow Stalk Fragrance). All these plant types can be traced back to their Sung ancestry and are quite limited in quantity.
A more realistic political policy for free economy, together with aggressive pruning and nursery efforts have already made these “thorough-bred” teas affordable to the bigger mass of customers. This was unimaginable just a few decades ago. I am proud to be taking part in this effort to popularize such a fine taste. Most importantly, though, I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy this premium tea every day.
(This article is adapted from a production story covered in the MingCha web site: www.mingcha.com.hk)
Leo Kwan likes to think of himself as an advocate in popularizing fine natural teas from China. He is managing director of MingCha, an international brand for premium Chinese teas in Hong Kong. For more information, please contact: Lee Kwan Tea Trade Limited, 1 Hoi Wan Street ChinaChem Exchange #703, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. E-mail: email@example.com, Fax: (852) 2577 9117, Tel: (852) 2882 9812.