I recently sat down for an interview with Mr. Zeng Shui Yong (曾水勇) who is an expert in the field of oolong tea. He comes from a long line of Anxi oolong tea cultivators in Fujian Province. Mr. Zeng manages a tea shop in Kunming, which has been open since 2004.
Interviewer: Why did you choose to come to Kunming to open a tea shop?
Mr. Zeng: My family has been in the tea business for generations. I grew up on a farm located in the tea mountains of Anxi and during my childhood I participated in every step of the process for making oolong tea. Though I love the tea mountains of Anxi very much, I wanted to have a change of scenery and so I chose to come to Kunming after I graduated from high school. I was attracted to its beautiful weather and climate – Kunming is known in China as the ‘Spring City’. It’s a very relaxing and suitable climate for drinking tea. When I first came to Kunming, there weren’t many other people dealing in oolong tea, so there wasn’t a lot of competition. Now, ten years later there is much more competition, but Kunming is a wonderful place and I’m very happy that I decided to come here.
Interviewer: What are the special characteristics of Anxi oolongs and how do they differ from other types of tea in China?
Mr. Zeng: Anxi has four famous teas. These are: Tie Guan Yin (铁观音), Huang Jin Gui (黄金桂), Ben Shan (本山), and Mao Xie (毛蟹).
Tie Guan Yin is probably the most well-known of these teas. It has the natural fragrance of flowers and is not too bitter or too astringent. The lingering aftertaste left by Tie Guan Yin is very distinct and is its most special characteristic.
Huang Jin Gui is named after its natural fragrance of osmanthus. The taste is cool and refreshing. The difference between Tie Guan Yin and Huang Jin Gui is mainly found in the variety of tea tree that is used and also some minor differences in the way the tea is processed, especially during the wilting stage.
For both Ben Shan and Mao Xie, the amount of tea produced is much higher than Tie Guan Yin and Huang Jin Gui. This is because they are easier to grow and to cultivate. Ben Shan has a special light and fresh taste, and the leaves are a piercing green color. Ben Shan can look a lot like Tie Guan Yin, but it is not as fragrant as Tie Guan Yin and some people like that about it. Mao Xie also has a unique taste that comes from the variety of tree that is used. Even within these four categories of oolong, there are also many sub-varieties and variations.
The best way to understand the differences is to compare the fresh leaves of the four varieties. The Tie Guan Yin leaves are curved outwards and have rounded serrations, Huang Jin Gui has thinner leaves with pointier serrated edges, Ben Shan has thicker leaves and even more rounded serrations than Tie Guan Yin, and Mao Xie is somewhere in between Tie Guan Yin and Huang Jin Gui in both thickness of the leaves and pointedness of the serrations.
Compared to other teas in China, what stands out the most is the distinct environment of Anxi and these four special varieties of tea. I don’t believe you can say that there are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ teas, just that every tea has its own unique characteristics. Personally, I like Tie Guan Yin the best. The main reason is the lingering aftertaste that you get from drinking it. After becoming accustomed to this, I’ve noticed that other oolongs do not give me the same feeling.
Interviewer: How is Tie Guan Yin made, and what are the differences between the different grades of Tie Guan Yin?
Mr. Zeng: For oolong teas like Tie Guan Yin, the clippings can only be bought directly from the government. Once these clippings are planted, the leaves are not picked until the second year, which is the year when the leaves taste the best. The leaves of the plant will continue to be harvested for another 2 or 3 years after that. Once the tea plant is 5 or 6 years of age, the quality of the tea leaves drops noticeably and so these plants are usually replaced with new bushes. This process of replacing the tea bushes every 5 or 6 years can be a bit costly, however, as money is needed to purchase new clippings and for the labor. When growing oolong, both the amount of sunlight exposure and the composition of the soil have to be ‘just right’, as the amount of water given to the plants, etc. For Anxi oolongs, the Autumn tea is considered to be the best, followed by Spring tea; while Summer and Winter teas are considered inferior.
After the fresh leaves are picked, next comes the ‘kill green’ process where the tea leaves are placed on a large mat and are sun-dried, after which they are taken to a room with a cooling system to rapidly lower their temperature. There are different types of Tie Guan Yin that have variations in the method used to ‘kill green’ and have variations in the time used to cool the leaves afterwards. The next step in the process is the shaking of the leaves in order to cause minor breaks in the cell walls which has an affect on the taste and the fragrance, so variations in this shaking step will also yield a slightly different end product. The shaking also causes the serrated edges of the leaves, which are red, to fall off, and the stems are removed during this stage as well. After this shaking step, the cooling step is usually repeated and then another ‘kill green’ process in which the leaves are placed in a hot-air dryer. After this is completed, the leaves are either hand-rolled or rolled by machine. The tea is then roasted to further bring out the aroma and flavor.
Determining the different grades of Tie Guan Yin, such as ‘fancy’, ‘premium’ and ‘imperial’, has a lot more to do with the way the tea is processed through these complicated stages rather than the quality of the original leaves themselves. Although these core processing steps are the same for all grades of Tie Guan Yin, it is very difficult to conduct every single step perfectly for a given batch of tea, and so only by tasting the tea at the very end can the grade of the tea be determined.
Interviewer: How is Jin Guan Yin different from Tie Guan Yin?
Mr. Zeng: Jin Guan Yin (金观音) is a fairly new variety of oolong tea that is made by combining Tie Guan Yin cuttings with Huang Jin Gui root-stem systems. This is the only difference, the process for making the tea is the same. The result of combining these two varieties of tea plants is that the final product has the natural osmanthus fragrance of the Huang Jin Gui and also has the lingering mouth-feel of the Tie Guan Yin.
Interviewer: How is ginseng oolong produced?
Mr. Zeng: This type of tea is also produced in Anxi and any of the four varieties of Anxi oolong could be used in its production, and will affect the quality of the final product. A special machine is used to mix the oolong tea with a licorice and ginseng paste which gives the tea the natural sweetness and forms the pellet-like shape.
Interviewer: How are darker roasted oolongs produced, such as Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian?
Mr. Zeng: Da Hong Pao (大红袍) is a special variety of tea-tree from the Wuyi area of Fujian that has only three remaining original trees left, but the clones of these trees are used to make ordinary Da Hong Pao. This tea is then processed in a similar way as Tie Guan Yin, but the leaves are ‘kill-greened’ by hand-frying them in a wok before they are dried with hot air and roasted.
Variations in the redness and greenness of the leaves is determined by the temperature during the ‘kill green’ stage and also how long the leaves are roasted, which can range from a couple of hours to several days depending on the kind of tea that is being produced.
Shui Xian is also processed in a similar manner, but it is another varietal of tea from Wuyi. Wuyi teas are often large arbor trees that are different from the smaller bushes used for Anxi teas such as Tie Guan Yin.
Interviewer: Where does the name Da Hong Pao come from?
Mr. Zeng: Da Hong Pao literally means ‘large red robe’. The story goes that during the Qing dynasty their was a student who was passing through the Wuyi mountains on his way to attend the imperial exam in Beijing. While passing through these mountains he fell ill. A villager gave him some tea and the student immediately felt better and then continued on to Beijing to score number one on the exam. Word of this got around, and before long the Empress also fell ill and so some Da Hong Pao was given to her and she also soon recovered. The Qian Long Emperor then personally visited these tea trees and draped his red robe over one of them in order to to mark his pleasure for this tea.
Interviewer: How are Guangdong oolongs, like Dan Cong, different from Fujian oolongs?
Mr. Zeng: Dan Cong tea trees are a large arbor variety that is similar to Wuyi oolong, and they also have long life-spans similar to Pu-erh tea trees in Yunnan. There are about 3000 trees that are over 100 years old. The trees are about 1 to 2 meters tall and a single tree can produce roughly 10kg of oolong leaves in one year. There are also many varieties of Dan Cong, as this tea has about 900 years of history, much longer than Tie Guan Yin’s 300 years of cultivation.
Interviewer: Can oolong tea be aged in a way similar to Pu-erh tea?
Mr. Zeng: Yes. People in Anxi will put aside some Tie Guan Yin every year and age it for 15 to 20 years. This tea is considered to have medicinal properties. This aged tea is often very expensive, and since this is usually undertaken by private families, it can be very difficult to verify the true age of the tea.
Interviewer: Please tell me what you think is the most ideal way to brew and prepare oolong tea.
Mr. Zeng: I prefer to use porcelain teawares and ideally the thinnest gaiwan possible in order to allow some of the heat to escape while infusing the leaves. The most traditional and common way to pour tea in Fujian is to not use a chahai glass pitcher, but to pour the tea directly from the gaiwan into the cups for drinking, also without the use of a filter. Some people who sell oolong teas like to use the smelling cups, but those who drink oolong tea on a regular basis very rarely use them. Each time I infuse the leaves, I only steep them for about 5 to 10 seconds, sometimes 15 to 20 seconds, and drink about 7 infusions. This is for Tie Guan Yin, however, and Da Hong Pao, Shui Xian, or aged Tie Guan Yin teas need slightly longer infusion times.
Interviewer: What is your personal favorite tea and why?
Mr. Zeng: My absolute favorite tea is Guan Yin Wang (观音王), which is the highest grade of Tie Guan Yin there is. This tea can go for about 10,000 to 50,000 RMB per kilogram. The process of making the tea is exactly the same as lower grades of Tie Guan Yin, but every step of the process is done with absolute perfection, making it the most fragrant Tie Guan Yin conceivable.
Interviewer: Please tell me your views of the tea business and how things have changed.
Mr. Zeng: I make tea for people who like drinking tea, so as long as my friends and the people I work with enjoy the tea that I produce, that’s enough to make me happy. The tea market is growing in size every year and so there is always more and more competition, while prices for teas continue to inflate. The Guan Yin Wang tea that I mentioned above that goes for about 10,000~50,000 RMB per kilo, used to be 50 RMB per kilo 30 years ago.
In the past , the process for making oolong tea was much simpler and we didn’t have the same kinds of machines that we do now. Tea such as Tie Guan Yin used to have a much stronger and deeper taste and less fragrance than it does now, because the tea was oxidized for longer periods of time. Now the market demands that Tie Guan Yin has a stronger flower smell, and so the teas are oxidized less, which means that they are more fragrant and also the taste isn’t as strong as it used to be.
My dad told me stories that 30 years ago in the tea mountains of Anxi, most of the tea was hand-picked by beautiful young girls. Young men would have the job of carrying the large baskets of tea over the mountain roads by foot. This created a culture of courtship by song, as a boy would sing a song to a girl to express his interest in her, and then the girl would accept or reject that boy also by singing a song back. Now that there are so many more options for younger people in the cities, tea is frequently picked by the housewives of farmers and this culture of singing is practically non-nonexistent. Tea famers used to be very poor and life was isolated and inconvenient for them, but now there are paved roads and the growing tea economy has brought a lot of wealth directly into the hands of the farmers and cultivators.
Overall, the future of the oolong business looks bright, and I am very happy to share my Anxi oolongs with people from all over the world.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for taking the time to sit down with me and answer my questions.