Beyond the Leaf
Rare, very limited quantity pressed wulong tea now available! Each piece is approximately 9 grams each. Click here to buy!Immortal Diamond (Zhang Ping Shui Xian) is the only deliberately pressed wulong tea
Immortal Diamond is a uniquely geometric tea with a soft texture and clean, cooling, mineral character. The floral aroma is symphonic in its performance and worth the price of admission alone.Ms. Zeng Puyu in her tea garden in Fujian
Produced on June 3, 2021, by Zeng Puyu from Middle Pacific Village, Long Yan City, Fujian. The Chinese name for the tea is Zhang Ping Shui Xian. Zhang Ping is where the tea originally came from and Shui Xian (translation: Water Immortal) is the cultivar used. Ms. Zeng’s garden is named “Huoshao Liao” (translation: Burning Hut) where she only uses organic practices.
How is Immortal Diamond Produced?Square mold and hammer used to press the tea
Zhang Ping Shui Xian is the only deliberately pressed wulong and was invented in 1920 (approximately) by Liu Yong Fa. Because the Shui Xian cultivar is traditionally used in making rock wulong, this tea is a unique combination of Wuyi rock tea (heavy withering/light shaking) and Anxi wulong (light withering/heavy shaking).Red edges on the steeped leaves
The Shui Xian cultivar ferments easily and the steeped leaf reveals its pretty red edges, but the character retains its overall fresh green character. A single cube is the serving size.Pressing mao cha into molds
It’s produced as such:
Starting with mao cha leaves: (think of “mao cha” as a finished tea in its raw material form):
- Lay down white paper wrap
- Prepare square mold and hammer (approximately 16cm high and 5cm wide)
- Place approximately nine grams of loose mao cha into the mold
- Hammer the mold with a mallet
- Remove mold and wrap tea with white paper
- Final low roast of the paper wrapped tea
The “Burning Hut” Tea GardenMs. Zeng's "Burning Hut" tea garden
In 2010, Ms. Zeng became the first woman in her village to build a tea factory and plant a tea garden. The local government had a plan to promote tea production, but few people were interested. Ms. Zeng used the opportunity to secure land and a loan to get started (not as easy as it sounds). The fields are managed solely by her and her neighbor Mr. Wang. She alone manages the tea production. This limits the amount of tea that can be produced. The fields are exclusively Shui Xian cultivar with the exception of 1.6 acres of new Rou Gui plants that will not be ready for production until at least next year.
The name of the garden comes from the legend that these fields were burned down several hundred years ago by a jealous god who was resentful of the happy lives being lived there. A god of love restored them by transforming into a bird to come down and deliver some tea seeds to sow and prosper.
What is the “Shui Xian” Cultivar?Shui Xian cultivar
水 = shuǐ = water/liquid/potion
仙 = xiān = transcendent/immortal
Jian Yang city (a neighbor of Wuyi city) is the home of the shui xian cultivar. It was discovered in 1861 and it’s primarily used for making Wuyi rock tea (see: Water Sprite). The name comes from a cave there named “Zhu Xian”, which is the local pronunciation for “shui xian.” The cultivar is often associated with having a more gentle, softer character than other plants in the region. Shui Xian is also used to make white tea in Jian Yang.
Shui Xian holds more moisture than most plants, so for making Zhang Ping Shui Xian it needs more withering than typical Anxi cultivars like Tieguanyin or Huang Jin Gui to remove excess water (otherwise an undesirable vegetal smell will set in and degrade the quality). But because it also ferments/oxidizes quite easily, timing is important and only light shaking is applied to preserve the intended fresh, green Anxi style character.
How to steep Immortal Diamond
Traditional Steeping: Unwrap and place one whole cube (approximately 9 grams) into a 150ml gaiwan, use boiling water and steep as follows:The leaves completely break apart after multiple steepings in a gaiwan
- Rinse - 10 seconds (discard this steep)
- 1st Steep – 1 minute (it takes time to open the leaves up)
- 2nd Steep – 15 seconds
- 3rd Steep – 20 seconds
- 4th Steep – 25 seconds
- 5th Steep – 45 seconds
- 6th Steep – 90 seconds
- (Or steep it however you want)
Western Steeping Instructions: Not recommended, but if you wish, break off a 3 gram chunk, place it in your steeping device and steep using boiling water for 5 minutes.
TeaSource Exclusive! Only 12 kilograms made of this one-time only experimental tea! Available in 4 oz. quantities only. Click here to buy!
The Tieguanyin Project, Spring 2021
Produced on May 2, 2021 by Daniel Hong. The material was harvested from the west side of the Bamboo Tea Garden in Lutian Village, Anxi county, Fujian. The exact translation for Tieguanyin is “Iron Goddess of Mercy” and the loose pronunciation is “tee-gwan-yin.” By definition these teas are made from the Tieguanyin cultivar. Anxi county is home to this revered and respected tea.
What is the Tieguanyin Project?Daniel Hong, tea maker
Daniel Hong is not satisfied with the Tieguanyin teas he’s been finding lately and decided to create one himself. But you can’t make a banjo roll the first time you pick it, so this is going to be a journey. He’s looking to capture what he refers to as “Guanyin Charm” - which can be loosely described as having a fruit/flower aroma with heavy body – almost like you could eat it. He doesn’t feel like he achieved that here, not even close, though we feel he did achieve a respectable fruit/floral aroma. But the point of an experiment is to test your hypothesis. It’s an invaluable lesson for us to experience the progress along the way. This is a continuous experiment, with the next round scheduled to be produced in the fall of 2021.
A few notes on this teaBamboo Tea Garden in Lutian Village and nearby bamboo forest
Lutian village is referred to as a “high mountain” area, which means it’s elevation reaches/exceeds 3,000 feet. He used tea from the west side of the mountain, because this will provide it with afternoon sun, which should give it a better aroma. The Bamboo Tea Garden gets its name from the bamboo forest that grows nearby.
Before and after the kill-green step, he employs a “stacking” technique, which involves piling up tea leaves in a big covered basket, which increases the temperature to improve fermentation. Fermentation should be thought of as an overall agent of “change” rather than being strictly oxidation or microbial in nature.
Next time he’s going to try a different tea garden (in hopes of better material) and a factory with better equipment (to dial in those nuances). Here’s a couple thoughts directly from him:
“May 2 was a sunny day, outdoor withering goes quite well and the indoor temperature stay at 20 °C for whole night which is quite good for oolong fermentation. In order to make an experiment we divided 100kg raw leaves into two lot and apply different craft especially for the “Shaking”, one applied 8 minutes and another one 13m, the result is 8m win. I document the whole process including temperature, humidity (indoor & outdoor), wind direction etc.”
Excellent floral/apricot aroma! Fresh mouthfeel. Brisk fruity character. The flavor lingers long afterwards with many scene changes along the way.
Western Steeping: 3 grams, boiling water, 5 minutes
Traditional Steeping: 8 grams in a 150 ml gaiwan (or teapot), use boiling water and steep as follows:
- 10 second rinse (discard this steep)
- 1st Steep – 15 seconds
- 2nd Steep – 20 seconds
- 3rd Steep – 30 seconds
- 4th Steep – 50 seconds
- 5th Steep – 90 seconds
- (Or steep it however you want)
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.