Thank you for coming onboard and travelling and savouring our world with us.
We aim to bring tea drinkers into the world of very fine and exclusive teas. These teas used to be inaccessible to commoners in time gone by, but today we are able to bring it to you via our network of sourcing direct from the farms and our friendship with the producers.
The three teas on feature are a green tea, white tea and wulong tea, namely:
- 2021 Man Gang Dragon Ball Raw Pu'er (曼岗龙珠), 6g
- 2019 Xiao Chi Gan Red Tea (桐木关小赤甘), 6g
- 2023 First Flush Doke Black Fusion Tippy, 6g
We start this month's tea appreciation with a raw pu'er tea from Lincang City (临沧市). Pu'er teas from more southern parts of Yunnan are more often talked about, particularly from Mengla and Menghai counties south of Pu'er City (普洱市), where the six ancient tea mountains (古六大茶山) and six new tea mountains (新六大茶山) are located. Today's pu'er tea is further north, at Lincang City (临沧市) which earns its name from the famous Lancang River (澜沧江) on its east border, with the word ‘lin’ (临) denoting proximity. At 4,900 km, Lancang River flows out of Qinghai and empties into the South China Sea at Vietnam as the famous Mekong River. Northwest of Lincang City is another river – 3,300 km Nu River (怒江), which flows out of Tibet. West of Lincang City is Bangma region (邦马) where the Great Snow Mountain (邦马大雪山) is the watershed of Lancang River and Nu River. Bing Dao (冰岛), the darling of pu'er teas, is in Bangma region, on the west of Lincang City. Our tea today is from the east of the city, from a region known as Bangdong, meaning east of Bangma. Here, Man Gang Village of Bangdong Township (邦东乡曼岗村) lies just west of Lancang River. It is near to the other famous tea village of Na Han (娜罕), both of which are near the national highway G323 leading to Lincang City, and both on the west of the famous tea region of Xi Gui (昔归·). In Bangdong, these three villages are the shining examples of excellent teas (邦东三杰), with Xi Gui dominating most of the limelight.
Sandwiched between the two mighty rivers is a vast land of unexplored primary forests blanketing the undulating mountain terrain formed from ancient geological movements. Where rocky terrain is preferred in tea cultivation, it also carries a thick and rich layer of organic soil formed by the climate and forests. The dual terrain feature is unique amongst the tea regions of China. Wild tea trees enjoy the warmth of tropical sunlight coupled with slow growing conditions under thick pristine mountainous forests. Chinese scientists concluded that this is Ground Zero for tea. The tea trees are in their original wild state, or are domesticated trees slowly turning wild from long period of abandonment by ancient tribes. The ancient Qiang people first came to this area from Qinghai about 3000 years ago, becoming the Lahu, Bulang and other tea cultivating hill tribes in Yunnan as well as in the forests of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Supporting the claim of tea Ground Zero, the oldest tea tree being discovered today is 3,200 years old and alive in Fengqing county where the famous red tea ‘Dian Hong’ is widely produced. In 2017, 100 gm of pu’er tea made from this tree was auctioned off at 1.5 million RMB.
In the local tribal language, Man Gang means a village ('man') on rocks ('gang'), reflecting its rocky terrain and where tea trees grow amongst cracked rocks. The area has ancient trees of around 250 years old, and they have deep strong roots to penetrate the mineral-rich soils formed from oxidised granite. Climbing to 1,500m, Man Gang is cool at around 16°C with about half of Singapore's rainfall, and it is often shrouded in mist which allow the ancient trees to grow buds slowly in defused sunlight. Given this terroir, one can expect a Bangdong tea to have a spectrum of flavours. Born from rocky terroir, it displays the ‘rock rhythm’ (岩韵) which is also the defining feature of Wuyi rock teas. The ‘old tree flavour’ (丛味) are also distinct from centuries of growing in the wild and the moss growing on them. The biodiversity of the primary tropical forest further adds complexity and excitement to it, endowing it with floral aromas. Intense amounts of polyphenol from the age of the trees imbue the tea with bold and strong (read: bitter and astringent) characters. This tea is made into a 6g 'dragon ball' to allow a slow release of flavour for continuous brewing and adding of water. The leaves are from the 2021 spring harvest.
With this understanding of the terroir, we are brewing this tea in our "Chrysanthemum" zisha tea pot. We use 3 gm tea to 120 ml of water, at 95°C filtered water for 75 seconds for the first and second brews. The amount of water should allow the ball to be fully infused in it. You can shorten the brew time to 20-30 seconds when the ball starts to unravel, at the fourth brew onwards. Colour is light yellow turning to golden yellow with more brews. In the first two brews, it presents aromas of red dates, kelp, melon, rose, brown sugar and rock sugar, with the latter fading with more brews. Mouthfeel is soft and smooth, accompanied by a gentle bitterness. There is the characteristic throat resonance, getting obvious as the brew colour deepens. Astringency is almost absent and throat resonance is obvious. There is a pleasant rosy minerality in the cup immediately after drinking the tea. Using the time guide above, one can brew onwards of 10 times. If you choose to adopt short brew time from the start, you can do 20-second brews for more than 20 times, with the flavour and sweetness slowly building up as you brew, peaking from the third and fourth brews onwards.
The next tea is from Wuyi Mountain protected areas – Tong Mu Guan where Xiao Chi Gan is from. Story goes back more than 450 years (around 1568) in the late Ming dynasty, when the technique of red tea was accidentally discovered. During that time, Tong Mu Guan (“Tong Mu Pass”) was a major gateway into Fujian, positioning itself as a critical military terrain. Military activities and curfew disrupted the drying of tea leaves on one such occasion in the village of the pass (known as Tong Mu Chun), turning leaves meant for making green tea into a reddish tone resulting from uncontrolled oxidation. (Curiously, this is the current technique of making Darjeeling teas today.) Another version recounts the same story but a different period in 1646, when Tong Mu farmers were disrupted by Qing dynasty troops who were advancing through the area on their campaign against the Ming dynasty. Nevermind which version, the farmers found a desperate means to quickly dry the ruined tea leaves using fire fed by fresh pine wood logged from the vicinity. Surely, this imparted an undesirable smoky note to the tea. A complete departure from the usual green and fresh style, the farmers could only transport the leaves 45 km southeast to the new location of Xing Chun (星村) to sell. The teas did sell, and some were bought by European traders, perhaps Portuguese or Dutch. In a complete surprise, the tea was well sought after locally and abroad in subsequent years. This changed the tea style of that area and the techniques of making it was further refined.
The first European contact with Chinese teas was in 1516 during the Ming Dynasty, when the first Portuguese ships reached China. By 1600s, the Dutch had established a strong presence in the South China Seas and ultimately won the lucrative tea trade from the Portuguese to become the main importer of tea into Europe. It was recorded that the first red teas were imported to Europe from Indonesia by the Dutch in 1610. The popularity and profitability of red tea peaked and encouraged production further from the core production area centering around Tong Mu Village. Around 1640s, the label of ‘Authentic Mountain’ (zheng shan, 正山) was used as a form of Geographical Indicator to denote the original production area.
A common drink in her diet, Princess Catherine of Braganza (daughter of King John IV of Portugal who established the House of Braganza) had drunk tea from a young age and had made her into a tea addict. The legend of the red tea continues, that in 1662 during her royal wedding to English King Charles II, she raised a toast which was not red wine in her glass but a mysterious red coloured “chá” (tea) from China. It was thought that this tea came from Tong Mu Guan, since this was where “red” tea was produced during that time. Although hated politically for being Roman Catholic in a Protestant country such that she was a constant subject of political plots, Catherine of Braganza was trendsetter in popularising tea drinking. It was said that her dowry included a chest of tea, which reached her one year after the royal wedding. Uncrowned as Queen of England because of her faith, she was ironically crowned “Queen of Red Tea”.
The fame of the tea slowly grew. Recalling the discovery story, the leaves to make into red tea were originally picked for green tea, which was delicate and small. The word ‘souchong’ was an Anglicized pronunciation of the local dialect for small-leaf variety (xiao zhong, 小种). Combined with the location marker of ‘Authentic Mountain’, the tea was known as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong since the mid-1700s. To differentiate the pine-smoked and unsmoked teas, the smoked version was referred to as lapsang souchong, where ‘la’ is the local dialect for pine and ‘sang’ is for wood. Records showed that 85% of all red teas exported during the mid of the Qing dynasty was lapsang souchong.
The term ‘Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong’ has taken on broader meaning today. ‘Xiao Zhong’ refers to the wild (uncultivated) small-leaf variety in the core production area of Tong Mu Guan, plus its unique processing technique as versus the other two red tea techniques of gongfu red tea and CTC (“Cut-Tear-Curl“) red tea. ‘Zheng Shan’ now takes a legal geographical boundary. This tea is the forerunner of gongfu red tea, which evolved from its techniques to include tight rolling and size sorting, while Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong does not undergo size sorting but includes a process of “Red Wok” (Guo Hong Guo, 过红锅) - essentially Kill Green to stop oxidation by frying and tumbling the tea at 150°C over 3-5 min to reduce the raw greenness and highlight the aromatic compounds of fruits and flowers. Within Tong Mu Village, the same tea is rarely called Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, but rather as Xiao Chi Gan (小赤甘) or Da Chi Gan (大赤甘). Literally, it means small (‘xiao‘) or big (‘da’) red sweetness, referring to its red brew and sweet characteristics. To make both these teas, the leaves are picked as 1 bud 2 leaves, with Xiao Chi Gan picked earlier in spring so the leaves are smaller and more delicate. Being unsorted, the dry leaves appear puffy. An “authentic mountain” red tea processes a clear longan aroma - a clear identifier, and absence of it means the tea is outside of the “authentic area”.
We bought this tea from the tea producer inside Tong Mu Village when we visited Wuyi mountain in 2019. This tea is unsmoked, has been aged for 4 years and has become mellower and fruitier. We are drinking this tea with ‘Hexagon’ zisha teapot using gongfu style, at 3 gm to 100 ml filtered water, with 85°C, brewed for 30 seconds (essentially immediately pouring out after filling the water) to allow up to 4 brews. Brew colour should be light amber. Clear longan and honey notes develop with the brews. Tea remains smooth and sweet after multiple brews. If one over-steeps the tea, the classic red tea sourness and muskiness show. The leaves are wiry and unbroken, and appear dark green in the infusion. This means that the leaves were not very heavily oxidised, giving it the characteristic longan note instead of stonefruit notes from heavier oxidation.
The last tea this month is from Doke Tea Estate from Bihar state in India, famed for the ancient Nalanda Monastery that the Tang dynasty Chinese monk travelled to (albeit without the monkey, the pig, the shark and the dragon). The estate is named after the Doke River which is a tributary of the great Teesta River that flows through Darjeeling and onwards south to the state of Bihar. Doke is located at the militarily important 'Chicken's Neck' (Kishanganj) which until 1840 is part of Nepal and remains home to many native tribes. Although it is closer to Darjeeling (200 km), its soil and climate are closer to Assam.
Where Doke Tea Estate is has been designated by the Indian government to be a “non-traditional” tea-growing area. Tea cultivation there only began in the 1990 and this estate is a shining example, having established an international name for producing the award winning red (western black), white and green teas. Starting as a small estate that sold leaves to nearby factories, the estate took 10 years to grow to its current size and is now also certified organic. Doke Tea Estate is owned by Rajiv Lochan, an internationally renowned tea figure, who has 15 years learning his craft in Darjeeling at numerous tea gardens, including Ambootia, Phuguri, and Longview. His success in expansion stemmed from an early decision to produce hand-rolled teas, drawing inspiration from his extensive travel to tea factories in China. Over years of experimentation and experience led by his daughter Neha, the roll rolling is producing a tea that is malty like an Assam and yet sweet and floral like a Darjeeling. In an area dominated by CTC leaves, Doke Tea Estate stands tall in producing hand-crafted small batch teas that are award winning. The estate flagship tea, Doke Black Fusion is Gold Star Winner at the Great Taste Awards in the UK and at the AVPA Festival in Paris. It is hand rolled tightly and heavily oxidised, as seen from the full black leaves and the bright copper infusion. Picking is 1 bud 1 leaf and leaf size is neat. 'Tippy' in the name of the tea denotes there is a good amount of visible tips, as seen from the lighter colour strands of leaves.
We are using the Parchmen Glass Gaiwan, at a ratio of 3 gm to 100 ml of 85°C filtered water for 1 min 30 sec. It develops a beautiful bright copper colour, with notes of rose, malt and sandalwood on a smooth body. It has some sweetness, is brisk and bright but no astringency even at the third brew at the same parameters. It is best at the second brew. Lifting the cup to the nose gives a hint of stonefruits, like Chinese red teas. The infusion shows the picking standard of 1 bud 1 leaf, but there is a some amount of broken leaves. Being hand-rolled, the broken bits are not likely from heavy rolling as seen in machine-rolled Darjeelings but rather from shipment damage.
Thank you for coming onboard with us to travel and savour our world in a cup!