September 30, 2013
The path to China had been treated, and with our Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea from the Donquin family in Anxi we had opened our line of selected Chinese teas in Siam Tea Shop. However, it sat there quite lonely now, our Tie Guan Yin, in the newly created shop category “Teas from China”, and not only did we think it would do the shop’s visual appearance good, if it would get some company, but also a new, very promising contact had emerged, a supplier, who had specialized on wild teas and had been on the road exploring China’s most remote and hard to access wild tea tree reservoirs in this mission for years already, in his bid to source unprecendeted qualities of individual teas in their most genuine, wild form and make them accessible for tea lovers around the globe. As usual, though, we wanted to know things in greater detail, so there where a few questions on the topic of “wild tea” to find answers on first:
In the most genuine sense, we could define “wild” in the context of tea in such way that tea will be wild, if it is … hmm, what… plucked (?) free of any human intervention in its growth and natural environment. In the strict sense, according to the above definition, such tea would no longer be wild after being plucked even only once, as the plucking would ultimately mean a quite intrusive human intervention already. Apart from this, there are a few human interventions that usually will be unavoidable in even the wildest tended tea garden. So, for example, the creation of access ways means a significant modification of the tea trees’ natural environment. Another example: the annual cutting back of the tea trees in order to promote the development new branches and shoots can also be considered a negligible human interference with the work of nature. However, we must not forget that without such human intervention, a tea would not be available for being savored and/or wild teas would most likely be a rarity that hardly anybody could afford. Therefore, when speaking of wild tea, what is rather meant is a tea’s compliance with a set of conditions that will get as close to the above definition as the practical requirements of making that tea available will allow for. These conditions can be outlined as follows:
Wild origin of the tea tree: in order to be legitimately called wild, a tea must come from tea trees that were either never be planted by human hand in the first place or were planted so long ago that the exact time and circumstances of their planting are not know anymore today. In the latter case, such tea trees will usually have been left untended for extended periods in the past or had been tended by humans only on an insignificant scale, such as for covering the tea needs of an indigenous village nearby. Therefore, wild tea trees are also often referred to as “ancient” tea trees. Today, people have become more aware of the value of such wild tea tree reserves, and given the continual growth of the earth’s population, the ever progressing human exploitation of the planet’s natural resources right into its most remote corners and the accompanying shrinking of natural habitats, new sources for such tea are becoming ever rarer and will probably soon be mere legends from the past.
Natural purity of the tea tree’s immediate environment: even the oldest tea tree cannot be called wild anymore, if its natural habitat, i.e. the condition of the terrain the composition of the flora and fauna dwelling there has been altered beyond a certain degree.
At a closer look, it soon becomes obvious that the term “wild” in its real life embodiment shows strong parallels and overlappings with the terms “sustainable” and “environment- or eco-friendly”. However, we are able to draw a clear boundary line here, in particular when applying the the first above-mentioned requirement for the wild character of a tea. So, for example, there are tea gardens today that are imitating nature in terms of their flora and fauna composition and regarding their layout as far as practicable and that can absolutely be referred to as sustainable and eco-friendly, without being “wild”, for obvious reasons.
A good question, isn’t it? Of course, “wild” sounds good, but why really IS wild good? We’ve asked our contact, the man, who has made the search for wild tea, and therewith also the making available of the same to a true tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs his mission in life, and the answer was ‘It is a tea’s Qi that makes the difference, and you can actually taste it’. Now, who thinks that we are drifting off to a world of ghosts and the metaphysical, be reassured we are not. The Chinese concept of ‘Qi’ (pronounced: “Chi”) is nothing else than the terminological summary of a cloud of correlations and interdependencies that are cannot easily be captured at once by the human mind, but ultimately are still verifiable by the laws of mathematics and natural science, at least in theory. The ‘Qi’ of an object is is often described as the “flow” within and in the sphere of an object, which might be responsible for the esoteric connotations people might have with this term. Instead, we would rather prefer to describe it as the sum of all things representing and/or influencing an object. For a tea tree, e.g. this means which plants are growing around it and since when and in which distance to it, which climate it is or has been exposed to and for how long, which water it has been getting off the soil, and which nutrients were coming along with that, etc. It is easy to see that the list of such factors is “endless”, especially when considering that also the Qi of the objects influencing our tea tree’s Qi, and the the Qi of the objects influencing their Qi again, etc. will inevitably be part of the play. It soon becomes clear, why said Qi is so hard to be captured by human ratio, but at the same time is of scientific nature indeed: because the number of factors influencing an object’s Qi is tendentiously infinite, while on the other hand each individual part of it is absolutely accessible for scientific investigation and mathematical determination.
Now, let’s go back to our tea tree. If we believe our wild tea collector, it will be possible the taste the wild Qi of our tea tree. And if that is really true, then any further philosophical exploration of the concept of Qi will actually be redundant, as we will be able to establish the proof of its relevance simply by means of our taste buds. And there we were, really curious now. All nothing but hot air, or is (i.e. tastes) wild tea really “better”? Of course, as taste is always a question of taste, there won’t be an absolute answer to this. However, we’ve tried quite some of our source’s wild teas (the rather affordable ones), compared them with teas of the same designation, comparable quality degree and similar price category, and the result was a clear as water in a high mountain spring: tastewise, the wild teas showed oservably greater depth, potential and range than their non-wild siblings from conventional tea gardens. In the long run, we also realized that – despite a rich fundus of the diverse tea samples to try and choose from – we would always feel a preferential attraction to our wild tea samples. Yes, we even started rationing them and save or plan them for certain occasions, which is usually not exactly our typical behavior. Soon, we started developing a special inner relationship to these teas and treating the existing storage virtually like a little treasure, whereas any nearing an end proved to be accompanied by an otherwise unfamiliar sadness and a sense of significant loss.
So, what was more obvious but ensuring we would not have to miss wild tea in the future anymore by adding some of these wild teas to our assortment? And here we are, proudly presenting our first results: To start with, we have selected the Artisan Black Yunnan Golden Needle, simply because this tea had managed to conquer our hearts even quicker than other wild teas, and the Pai Mu Tan (White Peony), the latter because we had received quite a number of inquiries about white tea from customers in the past, but there was (and is) no white tea in north Thailand.
Though you will find more detailed descriptions of these teas on their dedicated product pages in Siam Tea Shop, we still like to lose a few words here again on each of these teas, just to emphasize once that both these teas are among the best their kind has to offer.
Artisan Yunnan Black & Golden Needle
The „Dian Hong Cha“, verbally translated: “Yunnan Black Tea”posseses an outright proverbial addictive potential. Every black tea enthusiast, who will try this Yunnan Black and Golden Needle, will not want to miss the same anymore and will moreover face the risk of being tendentiously disappointed by other representatives of their type in the future. A true climax of the old Chinese art of black tea (or “red” tea, as the Chinese would say) plucking and processing, this tea comes from a very remote hard to access part of Yunnan, from the Yang Ta mountain in Ying Gu county, located only about 100-200 km north of the famous tea cultivation areas Pu Er and Xishuanbanna. There, the art of harvesting and processing of this special tea plucked from ancient tea trees has been passed on in the family of tea master Wang Feng from generation to generation since more than 2000 years.
Artisan Yunnan Black & Golden Needle Tea is picked by hand in the traditional way, always one young shoot along with its pertaining uppermost one leave, and just like more than 2000 year ago is roasted – also by hand – in a Wok on the wood fire. At this, the buds and leaves are skillfully rolled in such way that they take on the shape of “needles”: the buds in a shiny golden color and the leaves in dark shades ranging from grey and brown to black. The taste of the ready processed tea is a miracle of perfect balance and harmony: sated, but not obtrusive, strong, but not bitter, fruity and sweet, but without being superficial, but rather with an outright unfathomable depth, and with a body of cocoa and chocolate that puts the donors of this metaphors themselves into the shadow of oblivion. Got curious? You will find more information and illustrations on our dedicated shop page:
Why there is no white tea in north Thailand? Very simple: because only a particular tea plant sub-variety will produce the silver-white buds that are characteristic for genuine white tea, and the Oolong tea cultivars typical for north Thailand don’t belong to that one. These are not, as often claimed, an early stage of any tea plant’s buds’ development, but the shoots of a particular sub-variety of camellia sinensis called “Da Bai”, which genuinely occurs in 2 countys of the Chinese province of Fujian,namely Fuding and Zhenhe, the cradle of white tea, which was developed only relatively late in the history of tea, namely in the second half of the 19th century. Our Pai Mu Tan is harvested of tea trees in Fuding, the origin spot of the worldwide most popular and tastiest white teas.
For a high grade Pai Mu Tan, or Bai Mu Dan (English: White Peony) only the said silvery white buds are harvested along with their pertaining two uppermost leaves. The accurate, balanced ratio between buds and leaves as well as the precise determination of the reaching of a certain degree of maturity of the picked parts are crucial factors for the quality of the final tea. The harvest is withered mainly in the sun (“sunned”) in a several days lasting process, where the weather conditions easily become a spanner in the works, followed by a relatively short period of only several hours of indoors withering. At this, the leaves and buds material is treated very gentle and with greatest care throughout the whole process, as a breaking-up of the leaf surfaces, as it would be desirable and is often enforced by brute physical strength for many other types of tea, will lead to undesirable changes of taste with white tea. During the withering, the enzymes in the tea leaves and buds interact with the remaining components in the tea juices, thereby producing the white tea’s characteristic taste. A similarly gentle roasting of the withered material is rounding up the processing procedure in order to stop the further oxidation.
To be honest, until just recently we had always had the impression that we did not miss all too much by having not white tea in north Thailand. The white teas we had tried one the one hand had been quite exceptional in taste due to the dominant floral note that is typical for this, reminding of Jasmine blossoms and spring flowers, but somehow we had been always been missing something with white tea: the body, the earth, a center that would carry the described taste notes.
Now, also here our wild tea hunter managed to surprise us in a highly pleasant way. Not only has our Pai Mu Tan everything that a white tea needs to have to be a great white tea, but above this it also has everything that we had ever been missing, or could have ever been missing, with a white tea: the still bodiless, skywards pointing touch of spring flowers and freshly plucked fruit develops virtually immediately in the infusion, and already after one minute starts being supported in a pleasant way by a fine grassy body reminiscent of wet flower soil, while the combination reaches the point of perfect harmony and gravitational balance between a fixed mass center and a periphery that strives for sensual disintegration.
We strongly believe that this Bai Mu Dan will not only evoke the applause of every declared friend of white teas, but also has the potential to convert tea lovers, who -just like ourselves – had always been “missing something” with white tea before.
As usual, you will find more information and illustrations on our Pai Mu Tan on its dedicated product page in Siam Tea Shop:
Sourcing Tea in China – Chapter I : The Plan + Tie Guan Yin
The Project: Identifying a range of fine Chinese teas, locate producers of very high qualities of these teas, and then offer the same to our small, but exquisite tea drinker community at affordable prices in Siam Tea Shop. Of course, there are wholsalers in Germany, where I could buy a certain standard of virtually every Chinese tea at prices that might be even below those I am paying for Chinese tea specialties when buying from selected producers directly in China. No news. However, it was important for me to stay in line with my policies in Siam Tea Shop so far and offer only true specialties, something really distinguished, namely handpicked and manually processed top grade teas from identifiable smaller producers and tea gardens. Obviously, however, this would take time and probably some money, too, but I was ready to face the challenge.
The Plan: the classical win-win situation… we would extend our offer and maybe even manage to reach a broader audience this way, would have even more tea at home to pleasure ourselves with on the common daily basis, and at the same time our customers would get to enjoy popular teas from China at highest quality but moderate price levels, teas as are hardly offered by any wholesaler in Germany like this and as therefore will only be available in very few exquisite tea specialty shops there. So much for the plan…
The Preparation: a list of the qualified great teas of China was soon determined: crossbread the Wikipedia list of the official Great Teas of Chan with the results of a Facebook/Google+/LinkedIn survey on the topic of Chinese favorite teas and filter the outcome through the sieve of personal preferences, and receive as a derivate a list that reads like the absolute who is who of Chinese teas. I don’t want to anticipate the story by reciting the resulting SiamTeas Chinese Top Ten, but it might be told that said Top 10 quickly became a Top 20, so I will now in principle leave it to the course of fate, which teas will finally really make it into Siam Tea Shop in the progressing of this rather long-term project.
The Theory: one thing that stands out with ranking lists of Chinese teas is that despite of other omnipresent names such as the famous Long Jing green tea, the much-praised Lapsang Souchong black tea, and the currently apparently highly popular Bai Mu Dan (a white tea), the lists in virtually all cases are topped by Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea. Therefore, I considered it to be a welcome twist of said fate that I should soon encounter the Xiamen-based daughter of an Anxi tea farmer family that not only seemed to produce just the right Tie Guan Yin for me, but moreover was happy to impart a certain basic knowledge about this tea on me.
Ti Guan Yin is the designation of the particular sub-species of the camellia sinensis tea plant, from which this tea is harvested. The name has been derived from Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and an old legend involving an iron statue of the same, telling the story of the origin of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant. Originally, Tie Guan Yin was only growing in one single place in China, namely the highlands of Anxi county in the province of Fujian, the cradle of Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea. Today, however, Tie Guan Yin is also cultivated in parts of neighboring counties.
Other than with the Oolong teas that we know from Thailand (and many Chinese Oolong teas, for that matter), the leaves of the Tie Guan Yin plant are not harvested as a bud plus two leaves, but instead only the grown leaves below the tip are picked, as the young, still unopened shoots of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant are particularly high in bitter constituents, which is considered as undesirable with this generally rather sweet tea. On the other hand, just like with our Thai Oolong teas, also the Tie Guan Yin plant will produce its best tea with the spring harvest, while the quality gradient to the two summer harvests seems to be much more drastic as it is the case with our teas here in north Thailand. Another particularity of the Tie Guan Yin: the autumn harvest is deemed the second best and is considered to be only slightly inferior to the tea of the spring harvest.
Also, just like with most handpicked teas, there are several quality grades depending on harvesting quality. And: there are two basic processing styles for Tie Guan Yin, once the traditional, rather dark roasted and high fermended Ti Guan Yin, and then the only lightly roasted, near-green Ti Guan Yin, altogether enjoying significantly higher popularity today due to its bewitching floral and at the same time honey-sweet aroma and taste, creating a “Wow” experience even with non-teadrinkers, and for the same reason claiming its very own place in the heart of every tea lover.
The Degustation: my producer family in Anxi produces only the latter, this somewhat reducing the reducing the agony of choice. Curious, I asked for samples. They sent me 4 samples of the quality grades A+, A, B, and B+ plus two samples of the grades also-ran 1 and also-ran 2, and also-ran 2, which is where the great grading of grades had its beginning. I took on the big happy sipping, a major parallel tasting event, resulting in the big surprise that the grading indeed clearly reflected in both aroma and taste of the different quality grades. Predestined for our offer at Siam Tea Shop were the two A qualities, for which the tea farmers in Anxi (other than for the B and also-ran grades) per standard have reserved a terminology of its own: “Qingxiang” Delicate Fragrance (A) and “Chunxiang” Mellow Tea Class (A+).
The (preliminary) Result: when I finally had reached the point where I was ready to order a few kilos of each A grade for the Siam Tea Shop, the spring harvest of the current year’s Chunxiang Tie Guan Yin was already sold out, so that I contented myself with the introduction of the Qingxiang Tie Guan Yin in Siam Tea Shop first and am now looking forward to the autumn harvest of the Dongquin family in Anxi, Fujian, China.
Now, this actually quite satisfactory result should not keep me from further trials of other Chinese suppliers’ and reputed wholesalers’ Tie Guan Yin’s, but this is the story to be told in part 2 of this article, to be read soon at SIAM TEABLOID!
In the meantime, read the legend of the origin and more information about the particularites of the Tie Guan Yin tea plant, details of its special processing method and more on our dedicated page in Siam Tea Shop: