History of Chinese tea
Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province
There is no brief history of Chinese tea. China’s Yunnan province is generally accepted as the origin of the indigenous tea plant Camellia sinensis and China is the first country to cultivate it. Chinese legends date the “discovery” of tea as far back as 2,700 BC. Though there is no firm evidence these stories are true, it’s clear that tea has been part of Chinese society for a very long time. Initial uses of tea were for medicinal purposes, but tea is now woven into Chinese life as part of their social customs, spirituality, and recreation.
Every type of tea that currently exists - black tea, green tea, yellow tea, wulong tea, white tea, dark tea – and all the methods that define them have their ancestral home in China. In effect, all tea is originally Chinese tea. This remarkable fact helps explain the difference between Chinese teas for domestic consumption and Chinese teas for export. Chinese teas are for Chinese tastes (and some countries near China who’ve adopted similar preferences). Though there is some import of teas into China, this is not common.
Chinese Tea Regions and Styles
China is the largest tea producer in the world. It was the first to cultivate it and is the originator of all processing techniques (though other countries have significantly changed and modernized these methods). Each region of China is so uniquely different from the others, that it’s better to consider them as individual locations rather than being lumped together as “Chinese.”
The top ten tea producing regions in China (2019):
Fujian – 439 million kg
Yunnan – 437 million kg
Hubei – 352 million kg
Sichuan – 325 million kg
Hunan – 233 million kg
Guizhou – 197 million kg
Zhejiang – 177 million kg
Anhui – 121 million kg
Guangdong – 110 million kg
Guangxi – 82 million kg
This list of tea growing regions is not comprehensive. There are many more, but this gives a sense of the scale of China’s tea production. Also, higher production doesn’t necessarily mean a particular region produces better tea. Certain regions are more famous than others, most often as the originator of a traditional style. Below is a list of those famed regions:
Fujian Province (subregions and Specialties):
Wuyi Mountains, home of Da Hong Pao
Rock wulong (also known as “Big Red Robe” or in Chinese “Da Hong Pao”) is the signature tea of this area. It has long, dark, twisted tea leaves with minerally, toasty, and citrus-like flavors and aromas.
Lapsang Souchong (in Chinese “Zhengshan Xiaozhong”) is famously known as the pine-smoked tea from the Wuyi mountains, but is also the generic name for all black teas produced here. The pine forests of this area are now a UNESCO protected site and many Lapsang Souchong teas being made are not smoked and offer a range of flavors from softer floral/sweet to dark and savory.
Mr. Lin Rui Fu’s tea fields in Anxi
The home of Iron Goddess of Mercy (Chinese: “Tieguanyin”) and Huang Jin Gui. These wulong teas are tightly rolled and baked to bring out deep floral qualities. This style takes an immense amount of work and patience through all the withering, shaking, and what a tea-making friend calls “shaping torture.” When asked what he meant by that term, he explained all the work that goes into shaping, rolling, and drying tieguanyin and said, “Doesn’t that sound like torture to you?”
This region is the originator and produces the most famous of white teas. Because of the minimal processing and handling of white tea, there are only three styles produced (a simplification, but mostly true) and they are all large, bulky leaves. Depending on the style, the flavors tend to range from bright/fruity/herbaceous for the less oxidized versions to spicy/nutty/woodsy for something more oxidized. Despite some decent press coverage, white teas are still largely unknown and little understood in the west.
Yunnan Province (Subregions and specialties):
Mr. Du Yong Gang, Feng Qing
The city of Feng Qing and its surrounding area is the heart of Yunnan black tea, which is commonly referred to as “Dian Hong”. Yunnan teas come in many styles that are too numerous to cover here, but they tend to be being heavy-bodied with tobacco-like flavors and more pointed and spicy nuances.
Xishuangbanna (and surrounding regions):
The one and only home to puer tea. Puer is incredibly difficult to summarize, because it eludes a fixed definition and is dependent on geography. There are two types of puer tea - Sheng (“raw”) and Shu (“ripe”).
All puer starts out as Sheng or “Raw” puer, which could be loosely described as a very simple green tea. Unlike green tea, the kill-green is less thorough, allowing further enzymatic oxidation to occur very slowly over time and the finished product is air-dried. For this reason, raw puer is frequently stored and aged so the flavor can deepen into a more wild, earthy, and rustic character. Young puers tend to be fruity, grainy, and pleasantly astringent.
Shu or “Ripe” puer starts out as raw puer, but then goes through an “accelerated post-fermentation” process with an additional step called “pile fermentation”. This method was invented in the 1970’s and is meant to speed up the process of change that naturally occurs in raw puer over the course of 10+ years (pile fermentation achieves this in 6 weeks). Shu puers are naturally smooth (no bitterness from over-steeping), but the cup has an earthy, leathery, barnyard character (all terms of endearment) that some find to be an acquired taste.
Known for its signature dark teas, Hunan also produces many high-quality green and black teas. Anhua dark tea comes in three basic styles - Qing Liang (log), Fu Cha (brick), and Tian Jian (loose) - and tend to have a mildly sweet, pine, hay-like flavor.
The most famous Chinese green tea of all, Dragonwell (Chinese: Long Jing), has its origins in Zhejiang. Dragonwell teas are known for their nutty, toasty, cooked vegetable flavor that is unmatched anywhere else.
Anhui Province (subregions and specialties):
Two of the most famous Chinese green teas, Huang Shan Mao Feng and Tai Ping Hou Kui, come from Huang Shan (translates “Yellow Mountain”). Huang Shan is also the origin of the “pan-fire” technique, which greatly improved the aromatic qualities of the leaf and is the pre-cursor for all wulong craft. Huang Shan Mao Feng is the exemplar of simple, primal, classy Chinese green tea character.
Also spelled “Keemun”, Qimen teas have a dark, chocolate, earthy characteristic with a thick, textured body. It is usually the only black tea you will find on China’s list of “Ten most famous teas.”
Known for its Dan Cong wulong teas. These teas are similar in appearance to rock wulong, but have an extraordinary sweet, fruity, and fragrant character. “Dan Cong” translates as “single tree” and was used to signify that tea was made from a single plant. But that is rarely the case now and is generally the name given to this style of tea produced in the Phoenix Mountain area (Chinese: Fenghuang Shan).
Regions not mentioned here as “famous” are not any indication that it lacks notoriety or makes lesser quality tea. The above list can easily be expanded, but we focused here on the regions and styles most familiar in the west.
Mr. Lin Rui Fu preparing tea gongfu style
Gongfu Style Tea Preparation
The common thread amongst all Chinese tea varieties is that they are traditionally made using the gongfu style of preparation - large amounts of leaf in smaller steeping vessels (usually a gaiwan) for many short steeps. This style is largely unfamiliar in the west, but we highly recommend it for traditional Chinese tea types. It’s not to be taken too serious or ceremonial. It’s a lot of fun and anyone can do it.
Though the details and variants can be endless, simply put 6-8 grams of tea into a 150ml gaiwan. Pour water that has been brought to a boil (or close to boil) over the leaves. Immediately decant into a pitcher and discard that steep. Then pour the hot water over the leaves again and steep for 10-20 seconds, decant, and serve. Repeat as many times as the leaves will yield satisfactory flavor. Always adjust to suit your tastes.