November 2022 Tea Subscription - Royal Banquet
Thank you for drinking tea with us.
"Royal Banquet" aims 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 two wulong teas and a black tea, namely:
- 2016 An Hua Black Tea (安华黑茶), 6 gm [Unlisted]
- 2021 Spring Feng Huang Dancong Ju Duo Zai wulong tea (凤凰单丛锯剁仔), 6 gm
- 2011 Wang Family "Old Metal" Aged Tie Guan Yin wulong tea (王说"老铁), 6 gm
We start this month’s tea drinking with An Hua black tea. This indeed is the forefather of all black teas in China, with a long history extending back to Qin dynasty (BC 221), reaching its peak in the Tang dynasty. Known as the Qu River Thin Slices (渠江薄片) then after the Qu River in An Hua, it took its current name in the Ming dynasty, when it was listed as a registered tea product for export overseas. With a long history of more than 2000 years, it was widely popular and survived the tides of time to become a royal tribute tea in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Tea was an exclusive and luxurious product in olden times, and it is no doubt this tea filled the teacups of foreign royalties and nobles. For sure, it filled the teacup of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yuan Zhang (朱元璋), who saw the economic and social benefits in this tea and established the barter trade market for tea and horses in the northwest of China. Soon after this tea became a highly traded item on the Tea Horse Route (茶马古道). Profits were so high that the emperor’s son-in-law profiteered from it while performing official duties in managing the tea trade. He forced a low price from the farmers and sold high and pocketed the sale. His windfall alerted the emperor and he was subsequently beheaded. A tea which has retained its popularity in China because of its health benefits and long history, this tea is difficult to find in the Singapore market. To think that this tea had such a rich history – literally and figuratively, we have been missing out much.
The tea has a characteristic medicinal aroma, like the Golden Flower Brick Tea - fine, light and not overpowering. This smell comes from the yellow mould found in the tea, grown naturally under the right outdoor environment of humidity and sunlight. Known to have medical benefits to the guts, it is commonly called golden flowers in tea terms. Modern production standards dictate the intensity of the golden flowers before it can pass quality inspection.
It is lightly oxidised and presents a light amber colour in the brew. Importantly, it is clean tasting and is devoid of the earthiness of lower grade ripe pu’er tea. We brewed all 6 gm of this tea in our Parchmen Tea Evaluator Cup, with 100 ml water for 60 sec. It smelled of sour plum, turning into plum jam and kombu when the tea cools. Aged for 6 years, it is round, smooth, sweet and juicy, and gives a throat resonance. We brewed it for three times and noted that the fruitiness gave way to kombu at the third brew. Smoothness and cleanliness maintained throughout, and we enjoyed its stable and matured profile.
Next, we drink two colourful wulong teas. The three main areas of wulong tea production are Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan. In Guangdong, the main production area is Chaozhou, which has Fujian province as its immediate neighbour to its east. North of Chaozhou is the Phoenix Mountain range, with the highest peak at 1,500 m. It is so named because the mountain range looks like a wide base diamond shape, resembling a soaring phoenix with its wings extended. There are numerous peaks within the range, one of it is Wudong Mountain (乌岽山) which is the second highest peak at 1,400 m. At the peak of Wudong Mountain is the Heavenly Lake (天池), which is a crater lake of a dormant volcano. Volcanic soils are usually nitrogen rich, and teas grown from such soils are usually thick and syrupy.
Tea from Guangdong was always in the shadow of its more famous neighbour Fujian. In the 19th century when the British were importing loads of tea from China, export records listed a tea called Canton Bohea (广东武夷), literally meaning Bohea-style tea made in Canton, Bohea referring to Wuyi Mountain north of Fujian province and Canton referring to Guangdong province. Purchase of Chinese teas were the exclusive rights of the British East India Company during that time, and part of that was supplied to the British court and other royalties. Guangdong tea in its own name became more widely known only during the Qing dynasty, with the main tea cultivation areas taking shape to what we see today. After the 2nd Opium War in the mid 19th century, the term Dancong (单丛) - translated as single bush - was first used to refer to teas from Guangdong. This is probably to the credit of the chief general of the area in 1662 when he saw wild tea trees in the area and ordered organised tea cultivation on Wudong Mountain and harvesting from single bushes that bore specific aromas.
The oldest tea tree in that area is named Song Cha (宋茶). Located in Wudong Mountain, it is around 700 years, going back in time to the end of the Song dynasty. There is a tragical story of this Song dynasty association. The last Song emperor Zhao Bing was 7 years old when he was on the run from the pursuit of the Yuan dynasty army. Legend says that when he reached Phoenix Mountain, he was very thirsty but water supply has dried out. His minister picked him some wild tea leaves to chew and brought him temporary relief. The indigenous tea trees of the area were christened “Song Zhong” (宋种) because of this legend. They were believed to be descendants of Song Cha and the other bushes of the same era. Aside from the romance of this legend, historical records in fact showed that the young emperor was in the sea with his remaining navy when the Yuan dynasty troops choked their landing point. Battle ensued and Song dynasty troops were decimated. Knowing that there was no escape, the prime minister piggybacked the young emperor and jumped into the sea. The empress dowager followed suit. Song dynasty was officially ended.
Teas from Phoenix Mountain is now known as Fenghuang Dancong tea, literally Phoenix (Mountain) single bush teas. The biodiversity of the mountains and the micro-regions created by the different spurs of the range have allowed the wild tea trees to crossbreed with other plants, developing differences in physical appearances as well as flavour characteristics. Through selection in the last few decades and supported by the maturity of cloning techniques, cultivars with differentiated aroma types were identified and mother trees were isolated. Cloning was done repeatedly to achieve stability in the cultivar, which formed the spectrum of aroma types in the Phoenix teas we know today. Since the cultivars were all cloned from selected single mother bushes, the term Dancong continue to apply.
Today’s tea is Ju Duo Zai, which is Cantonese for a little saw, referring to the finely serrated edges of the leaves like the teeth of a little saw. The aroma type is Chinese almond. This is one of the top 10 aroma types in Fenghuang Dancong teas. It is harvested from 80-year-old trees grown at Guan Mu Shi (官目石) on the spur of Wudong Mountain, at 400 m. Such old trees grown at an elevation will exhibit ‘mountain rhythm' (山韵), experienced as pervasive and persistent aroma both on the nose and in the mouth, with a deep and lingering aftertaste that resonates the age and terroir of the bushes. The warm environment and high humidity promote the growth of moss on the stems, imparting a moist woody note (丛味) in the tea.
We are brewing the tea using gongfu style in an Authority zisha teapot. With the full 6 gm of tea, we are using 90°C water and keeping each steep at 10 sec. Such a brewing method prevents bitterness and astringency, both which are inherent characteristics of Fenghuang Dancong tea cultivars. As compared to a longer steep which presents the full representative profile from the tea in one to two brews, the gongfu style brewing method allows the changing flavour of the tea for up to 10 brews, with sweetness dominating the first brew, strong aromas from the second brew, and fading off to the basic tea flavours towards the end. We enjoy its complex aromas of Chinese almond, brown sugar, sugar cane, honeysuckle and chrysanthemum, harmonised by the round, thick and sweet body. The tea is energetic and vibrant, still retaining its integrity and posture after numerous brews. This is referred to as Cha Qi (tea energy) in Chinese tea.
Fujian is undoubtedly the origin of wulong tea. While the dark roasted Wuyi wulong teas are what comes to mind for wulong teas, the south of Fujian is really the origin. The story goes back to about 550 years during the Ming dynasty. Ancient chronicles recorded a hunter by the name of Su Liang (苏良) who lived in the part of south Fujian which is now Anxi county. Aside from hunting and enjoying his hunt with his friends, he often made tea from wild tea plants to balance his meaty diet. One day with his rattan basket on his back full of the morning’s tea pickings, he saw a deer appeared in his path. He gave pursuit without delay and hunted down the deer to bring it home for a dinner feast with his friends. The full dinner made him retire early, only to be woken up the next morning to the perfumed smell of the tea leaves which had been left in the basket overnight. Upon inspection, the leaves had turned a reddish rim. His tea making experience prompted him to quickly fry the tea, which quickly filled his house with a more intense floral aroma. When the tea was done and he shared it with his neighbours, they were quick to praise the unusual aroma of his tea. A technique discovered by mistake, Su Liang realised the tumbling and shaking of the leaves in a coarsely weaved rattan basket was key – the tea processing step unique to wulong tea making amongst the six classes of tea. He was the inventor of the wulong tea process, and he has been venerated with an incense wood statue in a temple dedicated to him in Anxi county, the Ground Zero of wulong tea.
Su Liang had a tall and toned physique, so his neighbours called him Black Liang, which in the local Minnan dialect sounded as “Aul Long”. This tea then took his name of “Aul Long”, which in the dialect could also mean Black Dragon (乌龙), pronounced as wulong in Chinese – the current name of this class of tea. Of course, this version in the literature compliments more romantic stories about the name's origin, like the black dragon that appeared in the tea field, and the twisted shape of dark roasted wulong tea resembling a dragon flying in the skies. The tea that Su Liang made was definitely a wild tea variety and not Tieguanyin. But it could be one of its parents, which created it about 300 years ago.
Metrological records showed that there were less than 10 times Anxi encountered snow during winter. Of these times, five were in a span of eight years from 1720 to 1728. It was during this same period that studies in tea evolution revealed that Tieguanyin was born from a natural mutation. A product from a challenged environment, it displays not a harsh character but yet exudes an air of elegance with perfumed notes of magnolia on a sweet and creamy base. Who first discovered this variety and cultivated it again has two version. The Wang family version mentioned it was presented to Qianlong emperor who gave the tea its name. We discussed this story in the June 2022 subscription box. The second version revolved around the Wei family, telling a story of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy instructing Wei Yin (魏荫) in a dream to look for a tea plant in a particular place, which indeed he found the next day after recalling the path he took in the dream. He took the plant back home and cultivated it in an old metal pot, hence the subsequent naming of this tea as Tieguanyin, literally the Metal Goddess of Mercy.
Affectionately known as "Old Metal" (老铁), this tea is aged since 2011 from Tieguanyin tea leaves from Quan Zhou, Fujian province. It is produced by Eight Horses Tea Enterprise (八马茶业) which is helmed by Wang Wen Li (王文礼), appointed by the Chinese government as the custodian for the intangible cultural heritage of producing Tieguanyin tea. During the Qing dynasty, Kang Xi emperor chose it to be a royal tribute tea.
Like how the sands of time tames down a boisterous character, this "old metal" expectedly exudes an air of maturity and control. It is sweet in taste with intense fruitiness on the nose. The signature orchid and magnolia aroma stand against the charcoal-roastiness which is quiet but authoritative, underscoring the strength of the Tieguanyin cultivar and high level of craftsmanship in tea making.
Like all wulong teas, we are brewing the tea using gongfu style in an Authority zisha teapot. We use all 6 gm of tea, brewed with 100 ml of 95 °C water, steeped for 20 sec in the first brew. The zisha teapot gave it a savoury aroma as well as some notes of “iron” that always accompanies dark roasted teas grown in rocky environment. This note is tamed and deep, without the aggressive punch in a freshly made tea. The tea tasted round, syrupy and sweet like sugar cane. Years of aging has shed its characteristic spinach notes and toned down its creaminess but gave more clarity to the signature magnolia/orchid aroma – first showing itself in the background of the first brew. The second brew steeped for 10 sec developed throat resonance which rang a palpable magnolia aroma extending upwards to perfume the entire mouth. From this point, the signature aroma shifted centre stage together with a fuller mouthfeel and the emergence of throat resonance, and the tea flavour maintained its integrity with every sip with a lingering and affirmative aftertaste. This deep, full and harmonious experience is known as the ‘Guan Yin Rhythm’ (观音韵), accentuated with good Cha Qi from a good terroir and tea processing craftmanship. Even when the tea feels full and round, its touch was soft and fluffy. Good for numerous brews of 10 sec each, it brings to mind the saying that Tieguanyin retains its aroma even after seven brews (七泡有余香).
Thank you for drinking tea with us!