And so it was that our journey was coming to its end. What better way to finish than by visiting one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in China : Wuyi Shan.
I was last here 2 years ago and to be honest, at that time was quite overwhelmed by the place & the tea produced here. This time - a little older, perhaps [or maybe not!] a little wiser I was looking forward to my time here.
We came to meet a number of growers in Wuyi but this blog will focus on our time with Mr Wu whom we currently work with to bring Rock Tea [otherwise referred to as Yan Cha] to tea lovers at Comins. Before we dive into the teas we tasted and the adventure we took through the Zheng Yan area of Wuyi I think it is important to get to know the area a little better. In order to do this I have split this blog into 5 main sections :
- Zheng Yan vs Ban Yan vs Zhou Cha vs Wai Shan
- Famous Areas within the Zheng Yan area
Zheng Yan vs Ban Yan vs Zhou Cha vs Wai Shan
You may remember the term Zheng Yan from our previous posts on Wuyi tea. Zheng Yan meaning Zheng | Original and Yan | Rock is used to refer to tea that is grown in the original area within the boundaries of the natural reserve. Within this world heritage site pesticide use is not allowed, soils are mineral rich and as you will also come to read the surrounding mountains create rich biodiverse microclimates. Just from looking at this last statement with mention of 'soils' and 'microclimates' you can start to imagine the role that natural environment/terroir plays here in determining the final quality of the tea.
- The Ban Yan [half-rock tea] area refers to the area around the edges of the natural reserve.
- The Zhou Cha area [Grown around the river of the nearby Nine Bends River]
- The Wai Shan area [outside mountain beyond both Zhou Cha and Ban Yan].
Through this blog and many of our previous blogs you will have seen us refer to handmade and machine made teas. The most highly sought after Yan Cha are fully hand processed but you can also get part handmade and machine made teas. Lets follow the tea from picking to drinking and explore how Yan Cha is made by hand. What you will experience in this part of the blog are how numerous the stages are - compromise or mistakes at any part in this process will determine the quality of the tea :-
Picking : Firstly a word on seasonality : it is possible to buy Spring, Summer & Autumn teas from Wuyi but the Spring season is considered to produce the best teas. Something to note here is that although the tea is picked in Spring it will not be ready until much later in the year [possibly around September or October - more on this later]. Walking through the Zheng Yan area it is clear that there are no boundaries between the areas owned or managed by different farmers so it is important that, at the picking stage, the pickers are guided to the right bushes and the initial picking is overseen to ensure that standards are adhered to and maintained. Mr Wu shared with us that the traditional picking standard of roughly 3-4 leaves with stalks [as demand for Yan Cha grows there will inevitably be variations in picking standards for more commercial grade teas from outside the Zheng Yan area]. The time of picking in the Zheng Yan area is late April - Mr Wu informed us it was usually around the 28th but this year it was one week later in early May - the picking in the outer areas seems to start earlier - of course it is weather dependent across the areas as in all tea growing regions.
Once the tea is picked it must be rushed back to the village or the place of processing as quickly as possible - more on this later!
Withering : When the leaves reach the point of processing you will observe that the initial processing steps are the same as for other Oolong teas. The leaves undergo sun withering either on bamboo trays or on large pieces of cloth spread on the ground. This important step is closely monitored - too much sun can burn the leaves, over-withering can result in the leaves becoming over-wilted and un-usable. During this careful balancing act the leaves may be brought inside where they are stored in bamboo trays on shelves [an internal environment is much easier for the tea maker to control.] As you can imagine every day is different and the tea maker must observe and question many factors including the conditions on the day of picking and the quality and condition of the leaf itself. On the first day of our visit to the area there was little processing due to heavy rains the day before - on days such as this harvesting will be avoided. On the second day it was sunnier and we could observe how those in charge manually touched and turned the leaf. It is this 'touch' and the regular observations that inform the tea master when the leaves are sufficiently softened by wilting and ready to pass to the next stage.
Bruising : This is a key step in the hand processing of teas. With handmade teas this very manual process further reduces the moisture content and breaks up the surface of the leaves, exposing the juices from the leaves to the air and promoting oxidation. Again observation and 'feel' is important in this part of the process - we were told to look for a reddish border at the edge of the leaves - an indication that the tea is ready for the next step - but in reality this is a much more complex science - the exact time that this stage is stopped and the tea is considered appropriately oxidised is decided by the tea maker based on years of experience. The tea maker will also use oxidation in the leaf as a way for tea to differentiate their teas - often a topic of discussion with tea makers - more on this below.
Wok Frying : When the level of oxidation is considered optimum it must then be 'halted' and for Yan Cha this is achieved by heating the leaves to a high temperature in a wok. In previous blogs you will have heard us use language such as 'fixing' and 'kill green' in this stage of the process. Essentially the heat arrests the oxidation in the leaf 'fixing' the tea at that particular point in time and destroying enzymes [kill green] which would promote the development of an undesirably bitter profile. I myself experienced pan frying by hand in Yunnan last year - it is extremely technical - the leaves must be carefully moved and manipulated by hand in the hot wok. If you watch carefully you will see how the leaves are pushed to the centre and then rotated outwards. Interpretation of what is being felt in the leaf is critical - leaves that are too moist must be given space for the water to evaporate, those at the bottom of the wok must not be allowed to burn. Again we find ourselves talking about 'touch' and you can see why the quality of hand made teas is considered superior - these 'touches' can not be replicated by machine.
Shaping : Mr Wu informed us that for his hand made teas he will then shape the teas using a by rolling the leaves on bamboo trays. We did not discuss this in huge depth but from wider reading it would seem that this is to shape the leaves into the characteristic profile we see in Yan Cha and also to further bruise the leaves - this bruising will have an impact on the way the flavour of the tea develops in the processing stages that follow.
Roasting : Here we see a difference between Spring Yan Cha teas and Spring Teas from other areas of China. Where there is always a high rush to get Spring Teas to market Wuyi Yan Cha Oolongs will often not reach the market for at least 6 months and as you will come to see some will not reach their best until several years afterwards. Lets explore this.
Firstly, many of the factories producing hand made Wuyi teas are very small - for Mr Wu his factory is in the back of his home [you can see parts of this below with the machines for the part machine made tea and the bamboo baskets and charcoal pits for the hand made teas]. With all that is going on during harvest time there is often no time, space or labour to complete the roasting process. So an initial roast is carried out straight away to completely halt oxidation producing a tea referred to as 'Mao Cha'. This roughly finished tea will then have the stems and any unwanted yellow leaves removed by hand before being stored in preparation for further roasting. This will be scheduled for later once the harvesting and other steps are complete.
I remember the first time I walked into the room where they roast the teas in Wuyi - it was a wonderful sight quite different from any thing I had seen before. Leaves are roasted over hardwood charcoal which is placed in wells - [images of barbecues may spring to mind here - you certainly don't want any flames to come into contact with the tea - the roasting is performed by heat not by flames - so the white colour you see over the coals is rice ash placed over the coals] Now, the degree of roasting is not 'set' as one single standard for Yan Cha i.e. it is altered according to taste. Neither is it a single or simple step - during the roasting process [which is overseen by the tea maker] the tea is continuously observed and spread to ensure an even roast and it can be roasted up to 3 times depending on the leaf.
Roasting was originally a method of preservation for shipping and shelf life but is a critical step for tea makers in handcrafting unique Yan Cha teas. The traditional method for the final roasting is to again use charcoal for heat but to use a gentle temperature over a longer time period. This method - which can then be repeated dependent on the leaf and the desired finish - is designed to develop the fragrance, colour and taste of the tea. Only quality leaves such as the thicker leaves from the ecologically rich Zheng Yan areas can withstand this more lengthly traditional process - resulting in high quality teas with intricacy and nuances of flavour often lacking in their commercially produced counterparts. .
Again - nothing is completely straightforward when it comes to Yan Cha and as I have travelled around and met different tea makers in both the Zheng Yan and Ban Yan areas the degree of roasting, also referred to as 'firing' often comes up in discussion. You will typically hear tea makers refer to Yan Cha as low : medium or high 'fired' or 'roast'. Much like the oxidation process for Yan Cha the firing process is a chance for the tea maker to demonstrate their skill and to produce teas with a unique profile.
Low roast teas are often partnered with teas that have undergone lighter oxidation a combination which produces a lighter more 'modern' style of Yan Cha - easier to produce and less complex for the consumers palate. These more fragrant teas tend to be more affordable but lack the 'rock tea' profile - they are however more accessible for those starting out on their Yan Cha journey. Produced well mid fire Yan Cha teas have the characteristic rock flavour and can be enjoyed soon after firing [although it is preferable to leave them for 6-12 months]. The term 'High fired' Yan Cha teas seems to be more often associated with commercial machine picked and made teas from the less ecologically rich outer areas. Here the starting point is a far inferior leaf to a 'Zheng Yan' leaf - the high fire aims to disguise this inferiority by applying a heavier charcoal flavour. So you can start to see that although 'Low, Mid & High Fire' Yan Cha teas can be produced in any of the tea growing areas outlined earlier the quality of the leaf you start with and the process that is undertaken to bring the final tea to your cup can be vastly different. I have a lot more to learn in this area so I am sure I will correct myself on certain details on my next trip to Wuyi - hopefully my mandarin will also improve along with my direct understanding of our tea discussions!
As a final note [and already touched upon] the final roasted Zheng Yan Yan Cha is not available until September. Even then teas that have been subjected to a 'higher' - or in the case of traditional teas 'more lengthly' firing - are often at their best once this has been allowed to mellow for 2 to 3 years. This would explain why you often pay more for older teas.
Sorting & Packaging : As you can see from these photos the teas are then sorted on a large table separating out the high quality leaves that will fetch a premium price. This long process further explores the leaves to the air so at the end there is one last 'fire' to 'finish' the leaves before they are then packaged.
So why does all of this matter? : By now you are probably starting to get a sense of the complexity of tea in this area - if you yourself came to look into or research Wuyi Rock Teas you may find the information about origin & varietals confusing and start to wonder why perhaps so much detail is necessary - and that is before you even reach the processing! So why should the specifics of where a tea comes from and how it is made matter, why should we take time and effort to understand? For different people this journey of tea education and understanding may well be driven by different motivations. For us it is about appreciation and respect for the tea, the growers and the experience each cup presents to us. Let us draw a parallel. We would not consider a blended whisky on the shelves of the supermarket to be the same as a single malt from a single distillery with a master distiller in the Scottish highlands. For us there is little point becoming 'snobby' about it - many of us may enjoy both, at different times for different purposes but we would respect and appreciate the difference in the price and the experience. The reason we can respect this is due to education in the whisky market - by opening up distilleries and sharing information on every step from cultivation to tasting we feel we 'know' the product better and are prepared to explore and pay more for quality. Hopefully creating spaces in tea for this discussion both visually and physically in the UK will help promote a similar discussion in tea! __________________________________________________________________________________
Next stop would be the Zheng Yan area itself to visit the growing areas and to experience these wonderful cliffs, gullies and caves for ourselves. I have been to Wuyi before but each time I return I have new knowledge that enriches my experience further. It is always the case that I leave realising how much I still have to learn but that is the beauty of tea and is to be embraced rather than feared!
Only people with permits can drive up into the park to drop off or pick up their tea pickers - for obvious reasons - so we were lucky to get a lift with Mr Wu. If you are a tea lover and have been inspired by this blog then it is worth saying that Wuyi is a place that you can easily visit yourself. The area can be accessed by high speed train from Shanghai and the park itself [which is described below] can be entered into through either the North or South Entrance where you can pick up a bus to take you to the numerous drop off points from which you can branch out on the many footpaths around the park. The park itself is breathtakingly beautiful - walking around it is hard to believe that you are in such a place.
Leaving the car Mr Wu took us on a walk through the Zheng Yan area. As we walked thorough the scenic area Mr Wu stopped to point out the most well known and symbolic tea producing areas. As discussed each area is distinctive and it was great to stop as we entered each part and take in the environment surrounding us.
As we walked we talked and Mr Wu explained how he owns some of his own land and rents patches of land in other areas of the park. His focus is on producing high quality hand made Yan Cha although he uses part machine processing for the lower quality leaves. The decision on which process to follow is determined by the location and the day of picking. As we walked through the area we constantly needed to be aware of the pickers coming down the narrow paths. Travelling at great speed they will carry between 35 and 65 kilos and will travel over an hour in some cases from origin to either the villages or the trucks waiting to collect the leaves.
No wonder a bench provides a welcome stop.
As we walked up and down and off the beaten track we left the crowds and saw for ourselves just how biodiverse the Zheng Yan area is - Howard who was travelling with us shared with me how a quarter of China's butterflies are in Wuyi - a beautiful sign of a healthy environment. It became clear how the tea plants growing in these areas would gradually absorb the different flavours of the environment they grow in. Looking up above us we saw tea growing on high ridges and old Hermit Daioist caves. Natural water dripped down from the top - this was the valley where the Qi Dan and Dan Gei we enjoyed earlier were from. The caves in this area are several thousand years old with old wood tucked under the ridge - they once built villages here to stop local bandits - I can imagine it was far less accessible back then.
Walking along by the river we saw older [around 60 year old] trees and strips of Sui Shen. Mr Wu informed us that one strip would belong to perhaps two or three households. As explained before there was no marking to divide the tea bushes - there is a code of conduct here that people know their area and respect that of others.
Self seeded bushes could be seen along the row which feeds further genetic variations in the area. Walking on further we looked up to eagle rock - an impressive site towering over the park.
The conversation turned to one of my favourite topics : soil. Over the millennia the rocks in this 'rocky region' have broken down so you have a lot of mineral rich stones and sand entering into the soil. The soil in the areas we passed is sand based so you don't have water logging that you see in other areas. They are also more alkali and high in iron - the tea plants absorb all this mineral content which contributes to the distinct profile we experience when we drink the tea. As discussed in this blog the profile varies across the area defined by river, rock, fine vs corse soils formed from where the mountains erode. We passed the Hui Yan temple before carrying along Zhang Tang Jian. All along our route Mr Wu was keen to point out famous mountains with names linked to the forms they resembled - one looked like a face, another was known as the 'hamburger'. All of these act as signposts to different areas.
One of the final areas we came to and discussed was Dao Shui Keng - here we discussed how the environment in the unique Zheng Yan areas is so significantly different to that in the 'tea farms' - Mr Wu shared how the water quality here is far better than bottled or rain water - so important for the tea. We entered or passed Jiu Long Ke which Mr Wu explained to me meant nine dragons either 'valley' or 'pass' [the conversation was a little confusing so excuse my vagueness]- we talked about how the tea plants on the top of the hill have more fragrance but those in the valley are sweeter.
Our time in Wuxi was coming to an end. For sure this will not be the last visit here - a yearly visit is our hope to build relationships and continue our learning.
So all that is left to say is that we hope you have enjoyed the read! If you have and are intrigued then come in and take tea with us soon - and stay tuned for more great Yan Cha at Comins!