On Monday we left the convention center in Xiamen and departed for tea country with our friend and Fujian tea supplier Daniel Hong. He brought us to Anxi County – home of the famous Ti Kwan Yin oolong tea, and the lesser known Huang Jin Gui. Our destination was an overnight stay with Mr. Lin, who specializes in both these teas. Mr. Lin lives in the rural town of Huqui, about 3.5 hours from Xiamen. It’s the kind of place that has no Wikipedia page.
Anxi wholesale market
On the way we stopped at the Anxi wholesale market, which is open every day in the spring and fall seasons (approx. Apr. 20th – May 20th and Sep. 20th – Oct. 20th respectively). It’s an open hall lined with long benches and a cupping station in the middle. Local farmers gather with large bags of finished (or almost finished) tea leaves aiming to sell. The place is loud, fairly crowded, and has that sweet floral fragrance of green oolong. If you’re interested in purchasing someone’s tea, they give you a small handful to bring to the cupping station. The cupping station is a wet, half-circle table littered with steeped tea leaves, gaiwans, small cups, and a few cigarette butts. There’s a couple that stand behind the “bar” and keep hot water coming in large kettles. For one yuan ($0.16) you simply walk up with your sample, grab a gaiwan, and cup it right there.
Cupping "bar" at wholesale market
We arrived at Mr. Lin’s in the mid-afternoon. It was humid, overcast, and the depth of emptiness from the mountains was striking to someone accustomed to flat land. We immediately sat down to drink some Huang Jin Gui, Daniel’s favorite tea. When I asked him when this tea was made he replies, “Yesterday.”
Bill cupping with Mr. Lin (left) and Daniel Hong (middle)
The evening was spent periodically cupping a batch of Huang Jin Gui they were in the middle of baking. Traditionally in China, baking is the final step of making teas like Ti Kwan Yin and Huang Jin Gui. It is a recent trend driven largely by westerners to skip this step and leave it “green”. But inside China, baking the tea was and still is the tradition. About every 90 minutes Daniel and Mr. Lin would pull a handful of tea from the baking racks, cup it, and make notes and adjustments. Decisions are made using one’s own nose, mouth, and intuition. They were nice enough to include Bill and me in the process and asked for our opinions, but this is when you realize how little you actually know about tea making.
Mr. Lin's tea fields
The next morning was spent visiting Mr. Lin’s tea fields, which are a brief, “rustic” drive up the mountain side from his tea factory. Plucking was already finished for the season so all the bushes were neatly pruned and ready for the summer flush to come. From this perch, the entire panorama was horizontal lines of tea bushes against the more vertical lines of the mountains – as far as the eye could see. Daniel was explaining the physical differences between the Huang Jin Gui and Ti Kwan Yin plants and we spent a large portion of the time just soaking it all in and enjoying the moment. It’s hard to emphasize how much you learn from just being here.
-Michael Lannier, Operations Manager