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Black Teas: Back to Origins:
Part IV

By Lydia Kung & Brian Chao

The story of Fujian’s Black teas is a historian’s dream, and from our vantage point, one inevitably tinged with nostalgia. High caliber traditional black teas –– round, smooth and with that pungent, distinctive aroma –– are still to be had, but they no longer carry the distinction they deserve and once enjoyed.

There are three major Black Congou producing areas in Fujian: Min Dong, Fuding and Zheng He. We had the opportunity to be in Fu An (near Fuding) and visited the Panyang Congou Tea Factory, which was established in 1958, near the three hundred year old village of Tan Yang (sometimes spelled Panyang). The day was grey and drizzly, befitting the rather worn condition of the factory. Long state owned, the Panyang Congou factory displayed only equipment dating from the late 1950s, employing a much reduced staff, and managing with decreasing production and reduced exports. Once a thriving center of Black tea production, we learned it is now considered a backwater assignment.

Traditionally known as “Fujian Red,” Panyang Congou Black has a history highlighted by numerous awards. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, the tea was first manufactured by the Wan Zing Lung Tea Company in the Tanyang Village. The tea’s popularity grew and its distribution spread rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, Panyang was a top tea producing area. On the main street alone, one could count over thirty-six shops specializing in congou tea, plus a fair number of trading companies. The local tea industry employed over 30,000 people from the 1880s to the 1930s, with Panyang Congou exporting to over twenty countries. The tea earned its first major award at the Panama World Exposition in 1915, with a gold medal going to the Fu An Association of Tea Growers. Then, in 1937, machines were installed to take over some of the processing steps, and it was a Panyang congou that commanded the highest price for black tea at the time (sold to a British trading firm).

Today the processing steps for Panyang Congou remain largely unchanged: withering (3-4 hours), light bruising, oxidation (3-4 hours), slow drying, sieve sorting, re-firing. With uniform, fine twisted leaves, the tea is still recognized for its appealing fragrance and exceptional sweetness. Prizes earned in 2003 and 2004 in national competitions may have heartened the factory’s staff, but even within China, this is not a well-known or widely distributed tea.

As we proceeded to the tasting room, we noted that the teas arrayed before us would be served gong-fu style. Golden Needles, Gold Crab King, a Black from a new varietal with the unmistakable aroma of Ti Kuan Yin, Panyang Congou made from different varietals (including the Big Sprout and Hairy Crab), and Golden Monkey were some the “big” Black teas prepared.

Fuding’s tea bushes are generally better known for their White Silver Needles, but they are also the source of Golden Monkey (Fujian Black that is garnering more attention). The tea is plucked from late March to mid April, and the plentiful downy buds are evidenced by many gold tips against the black leaves, giving inspiration to the tea’s name. The processing of Golden Monkey Black is not very different from making other Black teas: withering, rolling, oxidation (4-5 hours), and drying, but to preserve the golden hairs, Golden Monkey is only lightly and very carefully manipulated during the sieving process. The brew is light orange, clear and bright, with a pervasive fragrance that hints at honey; the cup is smooth with an almost crisp finish. Other provinces now produce this tea, but Fujian claims the original.

The teas we sampled all showed beautiful golden tips –– some curled, others extravagantly long –– and shared a sweet easy flavor. These teas may have lost some of their eminence in domestic and international recognition, but they have lost none of the classic quality found in the cup. This group offers an affordable range of styles, striking in leaf appearance, and are wonderful self-drinking black teas showing much finesse and individual character.

Our journey continued Northward, towards the border Fujian shares with Jiangxi Province, and entered a natural reserve in Fujian, a protected area where we were drawn deeper and deeper into lush bamboo and green pockets of pines, our destination being the Lapsang Souchong Tea Gardens. Lapsang Souchong is admittedly an acquired taste, and our anticipation was heightened not so much by the prospect of drinking this smoky tea, but by the aura of mystery surrounding the making of this tea. We followed a gurgling creek for almost the entirety of the trip (two hours) and encountered only one on-coming vehicle on the single lane road. Occasionally, we spotted houses in this peacefully scenic area and small bridges traversing the many streams. As we drew closer to our destination we noticed large barn-like buildings jutting out among the lovely green hills.

As we sat in the reception room for the guests and proceeded with introductions, we braced ourselves for the first sip of that smoky tea. Members of our group looked at each other quizzically with questioning glances: Was the tea brewed too weak? Why was the hint of smoke so appealing rather than overpowering?

During plucking and processing season in the spring, a normal workforce numbering seventy people balloons to over a thousand. In terms of primary tea production, smoke is already introduced during withering, which is done indoors; there is no outdoor withering. Pine wood is the source of the smoke, wafting upwards from the basement. A finger placed lightly against a wall came away smudged with the remnants of years of pine smoke.

Tea leaves are spread out over grass mats, which rest on a bamboo grid that is the floor of one level and the ceiling for the level beneath. These fragile looking latticed platforms can hold several hundred kilos of tea. Withering is done on the top third and fourth floors, which will last ten to twelve hours; rolling and oxidation are found on the first and second levels. Once again temperature and humidity (water may be sprayed) during oxidation are crucial and adjusted accordingly. Most of the processing is done during evening hours through dawn, and the smoking process may be repeated. To create a heavier smoky effect, the finished primary tea will be processed again.

Fujian History & Garrisons
Towards the end of the 16th century, the central government in the capital viewed parts of Fujian as rogue strongholds, where loyalty to the capital was suspect. Garrisons were stationed in this border area of Fujian and Jiangxi, hindering tea production, which up until then had supplied large quantities of Green tea. Moreover, the presence of the soldiers hampered the movement of tea to other parts of the country. The tea growers had no choice but to allow the tea to oxidize. Some of this tea made its way to a seaman, who carried it to Europe, sold it, and returned for more of this “damaged” tea. The Dutch managed to penetrate the blockade ringing Fujian’s coast, while enterprising tea farmers put the plentiful pine to good use, smoking the tea to make it keep longer. Between 1610 and 1640, both Fujian tea innovators and Dutch sea merchants benefited from this black market enterprise. By the 1660s, the East India Company carried this tea to England, and in 1684 the port of Xiamen was reopened to export teas. As demand increased in the 1800s, tea was brought in from Anhui for Lapsang Souchong production. Today, the greatest quantities produced are the Lapsang Souchongs destined for export; leaves are fairly large, thick and robust, suitable for capturing the smoke that will defines this tea.

At this point, we at last learned from our tea manager that the tea we drank earlier was the original WuYi Bohea tea, or what the tea manager considers the authentic Lapsang Souchong, or the proper Zheng Shan Xiao Chung. He cautioned us that the Lapsang Souchong we see in the West is not the original smoky tea, and although it is somewhat confusing, the same Chinese name Zheng Shan Xiao Chung applies both to this original tea and to the Lapsang Souchong teas known from exports. Xiao Chung refers to the limited production from this region, and the relatively small leaf of the genuine article. Approximately 300 to 400 years ago, no trademarks defined tea from this area. Zheng means genuine or authentic, so Zheng Shan (mountain) was used to distinguish teas of this area from other producing areas. The local dialect pronounces pine as “lap,” which was later added and thus became Lap Shan Xiao Chung. This, however, eventually developed into Lapsang Souchong (as it is known today).

The special grade fine leaf tea that was served (the group later learned) was made after six hours of withering and 12 hours in the smoking rafters. The gentle hint of smoke we detected in the tea was sweet and haunting, inviting repeated sips. This original Zheng Shan Xiao Chung is soft and tasty, without the brasher smoke of a conventional Lapsang Souchong.

At an altitude of 1135-meters, this tea comes from trees in a small area in this hidden reserve. Admittedly, the very limited production from a single season’s (spring) plucking makes this costlier than the standard Lapsang Souchong, and one that rarely finds its way to being exported. However, knowing a bit about its locale and comparing it to the bolder, somewhat harsher standard version, the original Zheng Shan Xiao Chung can still be considered a relative bargain.

If I have dwelled on fancy high grade teas, this is in part because our hosts were naturally proudest of their best products, but one does hope that attention to the beguiling, variable, complex tastes these teas offer will create a more educated tea consumer, one who will seek out the almost forgotten and often overlooked Black teas of Fujian, or who will give traditional Ti Kuan Yin’s another try after an early heady infatuation with the Light Fragrant style, and who will do a bit of hunting to find that fabulous Phoenix Single Trunk Oolong. But the pocketbook need not always suffer unduly: the very affordable prices, say, of a first grade White Mutan or a Shou Mei may encourage tea drinkers to experiment with these as iced tea perhaps, and a first grade Min Nan or Min Pei Oolong – very much a bargain – makes a good starting point for comparing Oolong styles.

The aging equipment we saw at the Panyang Congou Factory made us a little wistful, mindful of past glory now gone; if the village seemed isolated it is because tea production driving the vitality of the village has diminished. Later, however, we left the hulking Lapsang Souchong smoke houses with regret, not quite ready to depart from this remote, quietly beautiful green spot. If the tea factory was dark with smoke, it was aged in a way we hoped would not change too soon. Finally, how fitting that our trip concluded here: in a journey to educate ourselves, what we discovered and hold most memorable is not some new fangled tea or tea fad, but something very old and very original.

Lydia Kung and Brian Chao are affiliated with Eastrise Trading Corp., an importer of specialty teas. For further information about the teas mentioned here, write to: teas@eastrise.com.

Tea & Coffee - June, 2007

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