Arriving in Qimen town in the late afternoon we were immediately struck by how much smaller the city seemed than places we have visited before. The main hotels were along a straight strip running through the city so we dropped off our bags and headed out. The town was busy - it was holiday season full of families and friends enjoying the early evening. Wandering through the town we came across these couples dancing - a common sight in squares across China in the early evening. Old & young, experienced & novices this is a wonderfully spontaneous sight & the very talented Howard Boyer [who I travelled with on this trip] captured this great photo. Heading down a quiet alley we had dinner at a great recommendation. Woks outside on the street [another great shot by Howard] marked the entrance to our delicious feast of dumplings, noodles vegetables & a beer. We left feeling satisfyingly full & ready for the busy day and early start ahead.
The next day we woke early ready to explore & understand the black tea which is so well known and popular in the UK. Our first step was a small tea museum where we met the lovely Vincent who shared his knowledge on Qimen town and Keemun black tea with us. Firstly categorisation. Keemun Black Tea covers three styles of black tea. One, Keemun Congou [KungFu] black tea uses the traditional process, the other two, Hong Mao Feng (straight) & Hong Xiang Luo (rolled or curly) are made using the new process. The new process pays more attention to shaping and less attention to fermentation - the traditional process is the opposite. The traditional process - [the end product of which we are most familiar with in the UK]- includes the primary process (withering, rolling, complete oxidation, drying) and refining process (screening, shredding, winnowing, picking out, re-baking, blending, spreading out evenly & packing), then tea leaves will be made into the strip-type Keemun Congou [KungFu] Black Tea. The details of the primary process as explained by Vincent are outlined below [Photo courtesy of Howard Boyer]
Is the first step of the whole process and usually completed within 3 to 5 hours. During this process the tea leaves turn dark green & maintain a folded but not broken leaf structure with a light fragrance.
The second step. At this particular garden they usually do the rolling twice for 30-45min each time. Rolling makes the tea leaves slender whilst at the same time destroying the cell wall of tea leaves releasing 'tea sap' onto the surface of leaves.
The third step which is the most crucial step in determining the quality of black tea. The tea is placed in the a humid room with humidity and allowed to oxidise for about 3-5 hours in temperatures below 30℃. After fermentation, the tea leaves release a strong fruit fragrance and their colour can be seen as having turned reddish but bright.
The last step in the primary process involves the dehydration of the tea leaves. The leaves are dried two or three times to achieve a water content of below 6-7%.
Vincent informed us that the picking this year would last from the 1st week April to the middle of July with processing itself lasting around 70 days [withering rolling fermenting and drying] followed by the 13 refining steps which can take up to 7 months. Different plucking standards come in from the gardens at different times - for one crop the 'traditional process' will last two 2 months end to end. For the 'new process' producing the fully shaped teas 1 day is enough. These teas are more expensive with more complex fragrance & mellow flavour.
So how did they come to produce black tea in this area? Well Vincent shared with us that the tea from Qimen town was very important in the Tang Dynasty but at this time it was green tea especially those green teas made using the method of pan fixation. Tea makers learnt the refining process for black tea from Wuyi who were successful in producing tea for the export market. The first factory for black tea was established when a tea master 'Yuanlong Hu', who learned the processing from Wuyi Shan, was appointed in 1875. By 1936 tea production in this town was thriving with 128 factories in Qimen feeding an export market with an appetite for this tea as a key ingredient in 'English Breakfast Tea'. This black tea production was not for the local market - even 20 years ago the Chinese were not drinking black teas from here. It was the unique profile of Keemun tea that the export market sought - a highly distinct aroma & balanced flavour. From 1950 to 1978 Vincent shared how up to 2000 people could work in just one factory. At that time everyone including the tea master were forbidden to drink the tea as part of 'relaxation' - only special tastings were allowed. Moving forwards in history it should also be noted that before 1984 all the tea produced from local factories was purchased by the government. When that ended they needed to sell to the Chinese market not only foreigners in order to survive. That is when the 'new process' producing fully shaped tea came about - starting in 1997.
Qimen - The Region :
Qimen County is a county in Anhui Province, under the jurisdiction of Huangshan City
The region has a large number of rivers and around 80% tree coverage - with the most famous area, located to the west of Qimen Town, enjoying a unique microclimate due to the high mountains [the peak of the Guniujiang mountain is 1700m]. We had long discussions with Vincent about soil and biodiversity [two of our favourite topics!] that need translating - more on that when the translations are complete!
There are 7 towns influenced by the mountain ranges - teas from different towns have different characteristics obviously influenced by the different microclimates. As previously mentioned Anhui province owns 4 of the famous teas and Huangshan [which you can see on this map] has 3. Huangshan sits on the line of 'Northern 30 latitude' which is considered favourable for tea, the moist climate providing a favourable environment for the tea trees to grow. After browsing the museum we tasted some teas before heading to the car to travel up towards Likou Town.
Qimen - The teas :
 Keemun Congou [II] Keemun Maofeng [III] Keemun Maofeng
First Class 15.4.17 First Pick 28.3.17 Special Class 4.4.17
Above you can see three different teas that you can come & taste at Comins if you feel tempted after reading this blog!. Lets quickly explore the family of Keemun tea - if you have read more widely about this tea you will most likely have read about Keemun Mao Feng , Keemun Hao Ya A and B, and Keemun Congou. When the Chinese refer to congou-type teas they are referring to teas that require a 'great deal of skill and discipline [gongfu]' to produce. Vincent informed us that Congou means 'progress', 'handmade' and 'time'. The Keemun Congou you see above needs 17 processes [see traditional process above] to get to the final tea that you enjoy - the best Keemun Congou teas must be made by hand - and if you look at the Keemun Congou tea closely here you will see the tea maker must produce 'fine taut strips' without breaking the leaves. Keemun Maofeng is a special tea processed to resemble green Mao Feng tea in shape. It is harvested earlier with a very short harvesting season [lasting just 8-10 days] with a plucking standard of two leaves and a bud. As you would expect from early Spring leaves the leaves plucked for Keemun Mao Feng contain softer, milder polyphenols and amino acids. The liquor is lighter and sweeter than other Keemun teas. Finally moving to Hao Ya teas [not represented above]. The harvest for these teas will begin a few days later than the Mao Feng harvest. These teas have small, thin, and tightly twisted leaves similar to the Keemun Mao Feng and are graded into A or B [for the Western markets - not for the Chinese market] on the basis of the quality of the tips.
Qimen - Onto to the tea gardens :
We had come to learn about & taste tea from 2 gardens producing high quality teas to European standards. One 400mu garden in Likou town with rainforest alliance certification and another under Guniujiang mountain which is only seeing its first harvest this year. Heading up into the mountains we passed through Likou town where the local tea market was in full swing just after lunch as the farmers had come down to eat lunch & sell their leaves. Obviously the processing is a lot more work for black tea than green tea so a lot of this 'local leaf' will be used to produce green tea for local consumption.
Naturally everyone thought our interest in them & their trade was interesting - we exchanged questions & of course took photos of each other taking photos of each other - all in great humour & a great way to break the ice. Sadly there was no time to stop for lunch from this chap - it looked delicious - we got back in the car and headed back up to the gardens.
These organic gardens were beautifully tranquil. Previously owned as small plots by local farmers these have been consolidated over the last 7 years into a larger organic garden - the local farmers are still involved here as you can read below. As we wandered around with the foreman who lives permanently on this site we learned that he had been working at this garden for 3 years & working in tea for over 10. Our host stopped regularly to pick and enjoy the wild strawberries growing amoung the tea bushes - welcome refreshment in the extremely hot sun.
Crossing a river we then walked across the most glorious meadow with wild birds flying out of the foliage as we disturbed their feeding. I have been to a lot of gardens around the world but the presence of this meadow with tea gardens either side, framed by mountains was idyllic.
As we climbed the small tea slope on the other side of the meadow we met with a group of pickers, mostly ladies who had come to work here for a month - some from Shandong and others from further afield. As in other areas of China their accommodation, food and transport is all paid for and ladies like this will pick from March 20th to the end of June at this particular garden. The 60 people working across this area pick 5 or 6 kg per person a day in teams across this Huansha garden from the local Keemun varietal bushes that cover the slopes - all of this leaf will be used for black tea. Across the mountain you could see small 'sub-groups' of pickers - these groups rotate around the tea gardens - by the time they complete a full cycle new growth is there and ready to be picked.
As we walked we talked about agricultural practice at this garden. The tea bushes here are around 50 or 60 years old and undergo pruning each July. Following this the soil is turned in August - here they believe the leaf matter helps fertilise the soil. Rapeseed straw is also used as a fertiliser spread between the bushes . This agricultural work in the summer months is completed by the local villagers - a group of around 10 come to help for about a month and in the picking season two tea farmers join the team permanently to oversee the picking. As we wandered we also saw a huge variety of insect and bird life testament to the organic status of this garden and the rainforest alliance certification. We also saw a few wild growing larger camellia varietal which can be used for tea oil.
We left the garden to head down to the town for a local lunch where we also had the pleasure to meet a local artist. Apparently it is quite common for artists to travel around these areas, visiting companies where their great skills are appreciated - he very kindly presented us with signed calendars with his artwork. I continue to be overwhelmed by the openness of the people we meet in China to become involved in discussion and exchange - an openness we could certainly learn from back home!
And then it was time to leave - having found some great teas and met some wonderful people we left feeling energised about the experience we could bring to you our customers. We hope you have enjoyed this whistle stop tour through Qimen & this introduction to Keemun tea! Do call in for your own tasting and make your mind up on this flavourful and fragrant tea!