Beyond the Leaf
Mr. Lin preparing tea for indoor withering
Red Dawn is a black tea from Anxi county, Fujian province, China. It gets its name because in China, black teas are called “hong cha” which translates as “red tea” and because it is made from the Huang Dan cultivar (more commonly known as Huang Jin Gui), which translates as “yellow morning/dawn.”
This tea was the idea of our friend Daniel Hong with the help of his partner Mr. Lin Rui Fu.
Plucking Huang Dan fields (also known as Huang Jin Gui)
Huang Dan is most commonly made into oolong (see Golden Dawn), but Red Dawn is more interesting than our simple description. Daniel got the idea from the Taiwanese “Red Oolong” (making black teas with oolong cultivar and processes) and from his attempt at bread-making during the Covid-19 lockdown (more on that later).
He and Mr. Lin had been experimenting with this process of Red Oolong over the last three years (see Brandy Oolong). The Huang Dan cultivar, known for its aroma, gave the best results.
Indoor withering in Mr. Lin’s factory
Traditionally, black tea starts at the indoor withering racks where it loses moisture and becomes limp to avoid being broken during the rolling process. It is then rolled to break the cell walls of the leaf and begin oxidation (and become black tea).
By contrast, Red Dawn starts with outdoor withering, but then goes through two rounds of tumbling (like oolong) before withering again overnight indoors. This helps move moisture from the stem to the leaf to facilitate chemical changes and improve aroma.
Oolong is traditionally tumbled/shaken many times, but this gentle approach of only two rounds preserves more energy for the oxidation stage.Tumbling the leaves after outdoor withering
Now regarding bread-making (allow us to digress). During lockdown, Daniel attempted homemade bread as a way to keep him and his young daughter busy. He heard of these bread-fermenting machines and it occurred to him this may be a useful way to control the fermentation process during tea-making (it is worth noting that the Chinese often do not make much distinction between oxidation and fermentation, only that there are different degrees or ways of accomplishing it).
He bought a bread-fermenting machine at the time when China had just loosened the stay-home rule, but it wouldn’t fit in his car and he needed to get it to from Xiamen to Anxi (approximately 60 miles).
He went to the bus station in hopes they could help him, but they switched to running smaller buses due to Covid and couldn’t transport it. He talked to a driver of a bigger bus outside the station who promised he could transfer the bread machine to another bus, and it eventually arrived at Mr. Lin’s factory (though he could have bought another one for same price as the transport fees).
Daniel and Mr. Lin ran parallel experiments putting some tea in the bread-fermenter (that he had to haul up the side of a mountain) and some tea wrapped in cloth bundles in the sun. His conclusion is that all he needed was a cloth.
Lesson learned. After the overnight withering indoors, the tea is then rolled, but rather than just laid out to oxidize, it is portioned into 15kg bundles, wrapped in wet cloth, and put in the sun for approximately four hours. This blurs the line between typical black tea oxidation and shu puer post-fermentation. Since water is not applied to the tea leaves it preserves its freshness (unlike shu puer), but the enclosed moisture and heat provide it a micro-climate to ferment in (like shu puer).
The result is clearly recognizable black tea, but a greatly improved aroma and an intensity to the cup that is clear, unique, and universally desirable.
Leaves after rolling
Bundled leaves fermenting in the sun
This tea was made in Luo Yan village, which is home to the mother bush of Huang Dan. It is also the home and factory of Mr. Lin Rui Fu.
The town discovered this tea bush back in 1860 and it is now widely planted in the area. Luo Yan translates to “Buddha Rock.” The local language is Min Nan language, an ancient language from central China a thousand years ago.
The story of this village backs up this claim - a long time ago criminals were exiled under armed guard from the center of China. When they arrived at this location the road was blocked with a big Buddha-shaped rock. The guards took the inspiration, freed the criminals, and decided to stay. To this day there is a temple for the guards.
The temple for the guards in Luo Yan village
Chinese tea names, though exotic to the native English speaker, are often simple descriptors of the region and leaf style (though not all follow this pattern). Huang Shan Mao Feng is an example of this “where/what” title. Its direct translation is “Yellow Mountain Hair Point.” Huang Shan or “Yellow Mountain” is where the tea is grown and processed – the Mao Feng or “Hair Point” refers to the visual of the finished leaf. Call it poetic or purely observational, but the buds on this tea are coated with fur and the tips resemble a mountain peak.
Huang Shan Mao Feng is the quintessential green tea profile – a pristine clean and soft character, sweet floral aroma, and a mellow, savory, vegetal flavor that isn’t bitter or musty.
Huang Shan is located in Anhui province where centuries ago monks perfected a technique now known as “pan-firing”. This is the step used to “kill green”, which means to stop or prevent oxidation (and, oddly enough, keep the tea green). Prior to pan-firing, Chinese tea was steamed, a technique similar to what is still used in Japan. By switching from steaming (which retains moisture) to pan-firing (which decreases moisture) they changed the craft of Chinese tea – a trajectory that modern tea-making is still following today.
The original pan-fired green tea from Huang Shan was called Song Luo, invented by a monk there named Da Fang during the Ming dynasty.
The loss of moisture from pan-firing facilitates the kind of chemical changes that can improve aroma and bring out new characteristics in the leaf. Most importantly, it changed the approach to tea processing. In 1650, the mayor of Wuyi invited a Huang Shan monk to teach pan-firing to local tea makers. These efforts were the foundation of what we now know as oolong tea. The shaking, rolling, and baking of the oolong process requires the steady loss of moisture at each step to bring about the added characteristics. This expanded the tea experience with aromatic and visual appeals (and made it super fun and interesting - Wuyi is the home of rock oolong.)
In 1875, a merchant named Xie Yu Tai further refined the original Song Luo tea by changing two steps.
But this story is not about oolong. In 1875, a merchant named Xie Yu Tai further refined the original Song Luo tea by changing two steps. First, he applied a light (as opposed to heavy) rolling after pan-firing so the leaf could retain more of its original shape and preserve the down on the bud. He also split up the final drying into multiple stages – first with a high heat to quickly lose moisture (and bad smells), then with a second, longer, lower-temperature firing (sometimes covered) to bring forth desirable characteristics and stabilize the tea. These changes greatly improved the final product and became the style now famously known as Huang Shan Mao Feng.
Big Red Robe or “Da Hong Pao” is the signature tea of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, China. This tea is also known as “Rock Tea” or “Rock Oolong”, which can become confusing. It’s defining features are long, dark, twisted leaves that have been partially oxidized (like black tea) and baked (sometimes referred to as “roasted”). The flavors range widely from toasty and spicy to citrus and sweet.
Big Red Robe is said to have originated as two plants in the Tian Xin temple in Wuyi. The monks there spent a great amount of time and resources on these plants and the outcome was the now famous Big Red Robe. Though the plants do not exist in the temple anymore, it is believed to be the same plant that is growing out the side of a rock face nearby that is considered the official mother bush “Da Hong Pao” plant (Qi Dan cultivar). As to be expected, there is not 100% agreement on this as fact.
The official Mother Bush "Da Hong Pao" plant is a popular tourist attraction.
Though Big Red Robe is the source of many old and fantastic stories, a comprehensive written record of its production doesn’t appear until 1943. In 1949 the Chinese government took ownership of the original plants and placed strict protections over them, but in China’s reform era of the 1980’s the practice of using other cultivars to make Big Red Robe became routine. Now “Big Red Robe”, “Wuyi Rock Tea”, and “Rock Oolong” are all synonymous.
“Rock Oolong” and “Big Red Robe” are two different names for the same product.
The variety of cultivars used to make rock oolong will vary depending on the desired price and quality as determined by the tea maker. The most popular (and expensive) rock oolongs are made in the Wuyi mountains, but it is possible to produce similar styles elsewhere (often at lower prices and lower quality).
Wuyi Mountains, Fujian
The name on the package can lead to unnecessary confusion. “Rock Oolong” and “Big Red Robe” are two different names for the same product. This product is often a blend of cultivars that could be different from each tea seller and still retain the name “Big Red Robe”. There is also Big Red Robe made from Qi Dan or Bei Dou cultivars, each one considered the true Big Red Robe plant. However, if the rock oolong is made from 100% Rou Gui (“cinnamon”) cultivar or 100% Shui Xian (“water immortal”) cultivar, then it will usually be marketed as “Rou Gui” or “Shui Xian” and not “Big Red Robe”. These tend to be the only cultivars that get this treatment, but ultimately this is a marketing decision for the tea seller.
Rou Gui is popular right now and many tea farmers are removing Shui Xian plants and replacing them with Rou Gui. The difference between these two was summed up well by my friend when he said “Rou Gui will light you up while Shui Xian will lay you back”. Rou Gui tends to have a sharper, spicier, more intense mouthfeel where Shui Xian is softer, sweeter, and more subtle.
Most tea producing countries largely specialize in producing one kind of tea (and many of these are excellent). China is different. It has the knowledge, the history, the location, and the ability to make a seemingly endless and evolving variety of teas. With so many options, I’m interested in “why” tea producers choose their teas and “how” they choose to make them. I asked Mr. Tang why he makes “Golden Buddha”. He said because people like it. He is wise.
“Golden Buddha” is a black tea from the Anxi region of Fujian province. The tea cultivar (named “Mingke 1”) originated in Anxi and is commonly grown there. Mr. Tang gave it the name Golden Buddha because the cultivar is a hybrid of Tie Guan Yin (Translation: Iron Goddess of Mercy) and Huang Jin Gui (Translation: Yellow Gold) and Buddhism is popular in the region. I was scheduled to be there this spring to witness the making of Golden Buddha and gain some insight into tea production, but Covid-19 cancelled those plans. Mr. Tang is old school and doesn’t take pictures, so there are no photos to share. But my friend described tea making this way, “Check what material you got and watch the weather before making the decision.”
Tea fields in Fujian
Two ideas in particular stood out to me when we discussed this tea on my last visit (though these lessons could apply to other teas). The first was finding the right source material. Not all tea makers grow their own tea, a practice that is becoming more common and opening up opportunities to new talent. When searching for the right location for leaf material, he checks the soil surrounding the plants for life, such as earthworms. As my friend Daniel said, “No grass is no good.” However, if the new leaf is dark green in color, that means food is being made available to the plants and that could yield low quality tea. Mature and healthy tea plants are self-sufficient with strong roots that find their necessities deep underground. According to the “Tea Classic” book, “The best tea grows on rotten stones.” Tea plants can live hundreds of years in the right conditions…and location matters.
A close-up of the "Mingke 1" tea cultivar
The second aspect was what guided his decision-making during production. After plucking and withering, Mr. Tang applies a shaking technique typically reserved for oolong. Applying this to the production of black tea is relatively new and not common. The purpose is to improve the aroma and texture when nuance is the goal (rather than strength). The specifics for how to apply this technique are different for black tea, which should not be shaken as hard as oolong. If there were a “by-the book” method for shaking black tea it would be “two shakings for four minutes each”, but he says it’s impossible to make high-quality tea this way. For the best results, the tea requires constant guidance through a series of moments that are largely out of your control. It’s this process that attracted my attention.
Shaking the leaves
For Golden Buddha, he says the first shaking (four minutes) is used to “wake up” the leaves. This will release the aroma (sweet, floral, potent, and memorable) and cause the leaves to stiffen as water transfers from the stem. After an hour’s rest (the leaves will now be soft and yellowish from moisture loss), he will shake it again and longer this time (maybe 15-18 minutes), depending on the leaf and the weather conditions. This second shaking will cause the leaf edges to turn red, release more aroma, and cause the material to stiffen up again as more moisture travels from the stem to the leaf. He would typically let is rest overnight to become limp and ready for rolling the next day. Rolling the tea may be longer for spring leaf, lighter for old leaf. Harder on a rainy day, shorter on a summer day. But no straight answers on any day.
The edges of the leaves turn red after shaking
Tea is an end unto itself, like music. I do not consider tea “functional”, though there’s nothing wrong with using it that way. It’s easy to appreciate when we suspend our expectations of it and instead ask the makers how they make it. If you want to make Golden Buddha at home the recipe is picking -> withering -> shaking -> rolling -> oxidization -> drying. Let me know how it goes and remember to “check what material you got and watch the weather before making the decision.”
This blog was written with help from our friend Daniel Hong.
I’ve written about Mr. Lin Rui Fu before and don’t hide my admiration for him. As a guy from a Midwestern, blue-collar family, I relate to his hard-work, high-quality, no-nonsense approach. Most Chinese tea makers and traders have an ornate room with a tea table and fine tea ware to entertain their guests (and I have no problem with this aesthetic). Mr. Lin has a small, spartan tea room resembling the office of the local auto mechanic.
Mr. Lin in his tea fields
His tea is some of the best quality oolong tea I have come across. Growing at a high altitude of 2,400 feet, the tea plants are perfectly manicured lines wrapped around the mountains. The tea, the fields, and the factory are all immaculate and the homemade food upstairs is my favorite. Below is a comparison of our current teas from him which highlight basic Anxi tea styles.
Golden Dawn Oolong Tea
(Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)
More commonly known as Huang Jin Gui, the locals call this tea “Huang Dan” (Yellow/Morning-Dawn). To be properly understood, it should be appreciated for the way it yields. This tea is pristinely clean and light and seems to digest like light rain on ready soil. The most prominent aspects of the flavor are its dark mineral notes, acting more like rests in a good beat - felt rather than noticed. Huang Jin Gui is famous for its aroma which is clean, lightly floral, and pleasantly lacks any thickness of perfume or broth. This cup of tea goes down easy, doesn’t linger long, and seems to always take the path of least resistance. It’s an everyman’s everyday tea and doesn’t require you to pay attention to it to be appreciated.It’s not the tea I bring out to impress my friends, but I drink a lot of it, especially in the morning.
Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea
(Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)
Ti Kwan Yin, a classic Chinese oolong tea, translates as “Iron Goddess of Mercy” - and such great names are always worth noting. This is a traditional version with a moderate amount of baking in the final step of processing. Ti Kwan Yin and Huang Jin Gui are both named after the tea plant cultivar used to make the tea and are often processed in similar ways. However, each possesses unique attributes, and the thick tea leaves of Ti Kwan Yin tend to give it a fuller and more pronounced flavor and mouthfeel, where Huang Jin Gui tends to highlight the aroma. The dark color of the liquor can be misleading as it is surprisingly light in body and floral in character. The baking brings out depth more than toastiness – a warm familiarity in the gut rather than frills and fancy on the palette. This cup of tea is not too fussy when you steep it, either, and stays knowable and dependable on each visit. It’s not a tea to get in the way of a moment, but a tea you wanted to be there.
Huang Jin Gui Full Roast Oolong Tea
(Gongfu steeping - 6 grams | 6 oz water | 195°F | Rinse 5 sec. | Steep 30 sec | Repeat)
Sometimes the best way to judge the quality is to hold it in your hands. The finer details of craftsmanship tend to reveal themselves at these moments. Though this tea is the same tea plant cultivar as our Golden Dawn Oolong, the similarities end there. As stated in the name, this tea gets the traditional baking that brings out depth by sending the flavor into the body rather than up into the nasal cavities like “green” oolong tend to do. It has a full body and oily mouthfeel that allows those dark, sugary flavors to linger. The aroma is stacked, but stays surprisingly floral instead of charcoal-like, which is the sign of skilled baking by Mr. Lin. There’s a certain comfort in this cup of tea - like the old country music lyric “sometimes this old farm feels like a long-lost friend.” If you don’t have an old farm, this tea gets you similar sentiments - a loyal companion to everyday life.
Here’s a quick comparison of the three most recent sheng puer arrivals. Each was steeped in 150ml gaiwan with 8 grams of tea, 15 second rinse, and then 20 second steeps (with close-to-boiling water each time).
This is the softest of the three. It was made by Mr. Yang Xiu Hai, the same gentleman who made our 2018 Yiwu Sheng Puer, though this one comes from the Menghai region. It’s light and fruity – reminds me of those mornings where breakfast was a quick bowl of instant peaches and cream oatmeal (with hoppy beer added to your oatmeal – not that I’ve ever done that…). There are small mineral and bitter elements that service the cup like pinches of salt to the cookie dough recipe. The mouthfeel is soft and smooth and memories of grapefruit in the exhale. This tea has an important quality that our typical assessments have no words for - it just feels good to drink. Some teas feel good because they taste good. Some teas feel good because they are ritualistic or nostalgic. All these are good reasons to drink those teas. But I swear there is an objective measure for teas that just plain feel good. This tea is gentle and present. The most important things rise to the top without saying much at all. Like a sad song without lyrics, you just know.
This is the most complex of the teas mentioned here. It was made by Mr. Zhao Tian, who lives on the famous tea producing mountain of Nan Nuo Shan (see blog post for more about him). The steeped aroma of this one is a bit damp and fishy, maybe gamey. If you haven’t had much puer tea before, you may not find it pleasant. But as it cools, the aroma sweetens up like apricots. Puer teas can have a “wildness” to their character that’s just difficult to describe other than…wild. When I attempt to describe it, I often say off-putting things like those above, but they are terms of endearment. Those untamed savory/charcoal-like flavors get balanced with familiars like hops and grains. The mouthfeel has a granite-like texture (without all the weight that implies) and there’s a certain electrical intensity to the cup (not quite bitter, not quite astringent) that seems to be uniquely present in some puer teas. It starts out light, but intensifies through the second and third steeps. Even the 4th and 5th steeps are still very present while becoming more subtle. It is not sweet, it is not soft, it is not simple, but still very easy to drink. Like a good riddle, it lacks many affirmatives, but you enjoy it none the less.
This tea is the strongest of the bunch and the most affordable (those two attributes have no inherent connection). It was made by Mr. Liu Zhao Quan, a tea-school classmate of our mutual friend Mr. Tang. This tea has a notable sharpness, which is not bad, but it will make its presence known. It can easily be controlled by reducing the amount of leaf used or limiting steep times, but I wouldn’t shy away from the challenge if you’re willing. The floral/bitter/charcoal flavors flex their muscles early with a full and oily mouthfeel. It’s a good performance, but it can overpower if you’re not careful. The tea is warming and travels to the gut quickly, which lasts much longer than the aftertaste in the mouth. These are admirable qualities for an inexpensive puer and I highly recommend it as an everyday tea. The landscape on this one flattens out sooner than the others mentioned here, but you can still easily get 4-5 steeps. Those last rounds have a gentler, melon-like sweetness that makes for a pleasant finish, but it signals that the house lights are about to come on and the show is over.