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 a black tea, red tea and wulong tea, namely:
- 2017 Bangdong raw black loose leaf tea (勐库镇邦东基地生普洱散茶), 6 gm [Awaiting release]
- 2019 Tong Mu Guan Xiao Chi Gan red tea (桐木关小赤甘), 6 gm [Awaiting release]
As the weather turns cold, we will be drinking some warming and deeper teas. Lincang City (临沧）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 Jiang (怒江), which flows out of Tibet. West of Lincang is Bangma region (邦马), where Bingdao (冰岛/丙岛/扁岛) tea is produced. We featured Mo Lie (磨烈) from this region during our October series. Bangdong region (邦东) on the east is famous for Xi Gui tea (昔归) and today’s tea is from here.
In the sub-tropical climate of Yunnan, mangoes and other tropical fruits grow amongst snow mountains. Sandwiched between these 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 the slow growing conditions in the thick forests of the high mountains, Chinese scientists concluded that this is Ground Zero for tea. The tea trees are in their original wild state, or 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.
Our Bangdong puer tea today has a spectrum of flavours which invite quiet contemplation. 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 a century 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 century old wild trees imbue the tea with bold and strong (read: bitter and astringent) characters, but five years of aging has tamed it to quickly invite a pleasantly sweet aftertaste.
You can choose to brew it in the Parchmen Tea Evaluator set or the "Chrysanthemum" zisha tea pot. We use 3 gm tea to 100 ml of water, at 90°C filtered water for 45 seconds for the first brew and 60 seconds for the second brew and back to 45 seconds subsequently. Colour is golden yellow. In the first brew, it presents strong aroma of forest rain, boiled melon, rose and brown sugar, turning into rock sugar in the second brew. Mouthfeel is soft and smooth, accompanied by a gentle bitterness. Astringency is almost absent and throat resonance is obvious. There is a pleasant rose scent in the cup immediately after drinking the tea. Using the time guide above, one can brew up to five times. If you choose to adopt short brew time, you can do 20 second brews for eight times, with the flavour and sweetness slowly building up as you brew, peaking during the third and fourth brews.
The next two teas are from Wuyi Mountain protected areas – Tong Mu Guan where Xiao Chi Gan is from, and Xing Chun where Que She is from.
First, the Xiao Chi Gan. 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. 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. No matter which version, the farmers found a desperate means to quickly dry the ruined tea leaves on 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 Xing Chun 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 developed the techniques of making the tea.
The first European contact with Chinese teas was in 1516, 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 business benefits of the 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 mark of differentiation for the original 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 name of the tea slowly developed with history. 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 the foreigners, a different name was adopted, to differentiate the pine-smoked and unsmoked teas, with the smoked version being historical and referred to as lapsang souchong, where ‘la’ is the local dialect for pine and ‘sang’ is the same 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, and 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’ has 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 look broad. Being “authentic mountain”, it 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 3 years and has become mellower and fruitier. We are drinking this tea 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, or use Parchmen Tea Evaluator set at 85°C, brewed for 60 seconds for 4 brews. Colour should be glossy orange. are using the ‘Hexagon’ zisha teapot for this tea. Note the clear longan and honey notes as the brews develop. Overall flavour is rounder from the zisha teapot while the tea evaluator set produces more transparent aroma when the tea cools.
The next tea is Sparrow’s Tongue from Xing Chun. We first have to relate the story of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty bestowing the name of Scarlet Robe (Da Hong Pao, 大红袍) on a tea tree of Yong Le Tian Xin Monastery (天心永乐禅寺) in Wuyi mountain, at Jiu Long Ke (九龙窠) and designating it as royal tribute tea. 600 years later, the most famous tourist site in the Wuyi mountain is the six stocks of tea planted beside the cravings of Da Hong Pao painted boldly in red ink at Tian Xin Cliff (天心岩). Whether the six stocks there are really the historical Scarlet Robe is a story for another day, but our tea today is the second-generation descendant of Tian Xin Cliff #1 stock through sexual reproduction done in 1980s. Because of this association, the Sparrow’s Tongue is often mistakenly regarded as one of the “varieties” of Scarlet Robe. Because sexual reproduction is dependent on the wild pollen available in the vicinity, the genes have departed from the original stock.
Wuyi Sparrow’s Tongue should not be confused with green tea of the same name from Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. Being different teas, they are called similarly because the shapes of their leaves are fat and pointed, just like a sparrow’s tongue. Wuyi Sparrow’s Tongue is a late harvesting variety at the end of Wuyi harvesting session, starting around 21st May each year. As if the confusion from Scarlet Robe is not enough, Sparrow's Tongue is widely regarded as the same as another famous variety Bu Zhi Chun (不知春), although there are considered different varieties in older times.
This tea was grown and processed in Wuyi Mountains Xing Cun where it is said that "tea can only be aromatic after passing through Xing Cun" (茶不到星村不香). Its characteristic aroma is gardenia and reed leaves (leaves for dumpling wrapping), elegantly present against a dark roast backdrop of at least two stages of roasting – the first for 2-3 hours and the second for 6-7 hours. Even though the dark roast, its small leaves would not produce a deep tone in the brew, which is dark orange and not the usual dark amber. There is a tinkling sourness in the brew. Known as Wuyi acidity (武夷酸), this is a feature of wulong teas from Wuyi mountain.
We are brewing this tea in our “Compass” zisha tea pot, at 95°C for 60 sec, at 6 gm to 120 ml filtered water for the first and second brews. For subsequent brews, brew time should be extended to 75 sec with lesser water at 100 ml. Tea can be discarded when it taste diluted and showing greenness at the fifth brew. Even though the saying, experienced Wuyi tea masters often say Wuyi wulong tea is to drink and not to smell, so the focus of the processing technique is to lead to a strong flavour rather than mere intense aroma. In all our brews, we focus on a strong flavour and throat resonance with little astringency, while we enjoy its accompanying floral aroma without obvious roastiness. The brew should be in balance without being overly bitter, acidic or sweet. When smelling the brewed leaves, we noted aromas of roasted coconut, roasted walnut and toffee. Aromas of gardenia, caramel and roasted seaweed are forward, turning into reed leaves with mote brews, while creaminess and a hint of pineapple reveal when the brew is slightly cooler.
Thank you for drinking tea with us!