Beyond the Leaf
What do we mean when we refer to different "lots" of tea?
All tea produced is unique to its place and time. A tea produced in spring is not the same tea produced in the fall, even if they are using the exact plants/garden/person/equipment/technique. The spring tea is the “spring lot” and the fall tea is the “fall lot.” This can be even more specific to teas made a week apart (as opposed to seasons). The important takeaway is that a “lot” is a distinction – 2020 Red Dawn and 2021 Red Dawn are distinct “lots” of tea. All other facets are near identical, except they were made one year apart. No matter how similar they are in every other way, they are different.2021 material for Red Dawn
The primary difference between the 2020 and 2021 lots of Red Dawn teas is the age of the leaf. The 2020 lot was picked on March 22, but in 2021 on March 16, making this year’s lot a younger leaf. Though it may not sound like much, each day brings gradual chemical change to the sprouting leaves which will affect the outcome when harvested for production. The increased proteins, polyphenols, and caffeine in these younger leaves tend to produce a more vigorous mouthfeel, but lack some of the aromatics that more mature leaves can produce. The sole reason they picked a younger leaf in 2021 – weather. The forecast predicted rain, so they took the best opportunity presented to them. But younger leaves cost more, so you’re getting the expensive stuff.Cloth-wrapped oxidation of Red Dawn tea leaves
Comparing the 2020 and 2021 lot side by side – the 2020 lot is lighter, but has better aromatic sweetness. The 2021 is thicker with a more satisfying mouthfeel. The sweet aromatics are definitely present in 2021, but not as pronounced as the 2020 lot. The younger leaves also have a tendency to be much more astringent that older leaves, but this is muted by the cloth-wrap oxidation and a special “post-roasting” craft (usually used in oolong tea making) which will not only smooth out the rough edges, but bring forth and fine tune cultivar-specific aromas.Tea fields in Anxi County, Fujian Province, China
Some might consider these two vintages of tea very similar and they would not be wrong. The only significant difference is the calendar year the leaves were picked, but that’s the point. Nothing in nature can be perfectly replicated and the Chinese method of making tea lets nature play its role. The degree to which the differences between lots may be judged as subtle or substantial is determined by the lens through which you’re viewing it. Whether those differences be big or small, it’s our job to notice and point them out as best we can.
Roughly pronounced “Hwong-Jin-Gwee”, it is one of two famous cultivars from Anxi county, Fujian province (the other is the far more famous Tieguanyin). Anxi wulong is a traditional form of wulong tea, so almost all Huang Jin Gui plant material is produced this way, though sometimes it is made into green tea. It has a thin leaf with a high/sharp/floral aroma that is easily released. Using it as material for black tea (as in Red Dawn) is rare. The aroma can shift from floral to honey/peach from light shaking/fermentation. Huang Jin Gui is locally known as “Huang Dan” (“yellow morning”) and is extremely important to its economy and culture. The mother bush can be found in Luo Yan village, Anxi.Tea fields in Anxi
There are four classic cultivars in Anxi: Tieguanyin, Huang Jin Gui, Hairy Crab, and Ben Shan – but the first two are the most revered. Each cultivar has specific characteristics that make it more/less desirable depending on your goals. It’s generally accepted that Tieguanyin can produce the highest quality tea, but is the most difficult to work with. Ben shan is similar to Tieguanyin, but easier to plant/manage and has better output. However, it has less potential for great outcomes.
Huang Jin Gui, noted for its aroma, has been hybridized many times, particularly with Tieguanyin, to produce plants that will meet desired goals, these include Jin Guanyin, Huang Guanyin, Jin Mu Dan, Yellow Rose, and Purple Rose. Each version has its strengths and weaknesses and certain unique characteristics that make it desirable – depending on your goals.
Click here to view our Huang Jin Gui teas.
Click here to view our Tieguanyin teas.
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. 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.