China – The Land of Tea
Here at Valley of Tea, we love all teas from all over the world. But one tea producing region stands head and shoulders above all others as my ultimate tea country.
Of course, I could only be speaking of the homeland of tea. China.
We’ll start with the history of tea in China then move on to legendary tea regions and finally the famous teas itself.
The History of Chinese Tea
China’s rich tea-producing history stretches back close to 5000 years, and our favourite drink’s story is intertwined with the rise and fall of great dynasties, the wisdom of great philosophers and the spread of Chinese culture.
In the early days of Chinese tea drinking, tea was used as a medicine and stimulant by the monks of China’s first monasteries. Important officials would add tea leaves to their food to add nutrients and stave off the effects of their enemy’s poisons. Writers and scholars praised this miraculous plant for enhancing the mind, promoting wakefulness, and providing various medicinal qualities.
But it wasn’t until the rise of the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) that tea preparation became more standardised and China’s varieties of tea (more on those later) developed the distinct qualities and flavours that allowed them to rival even wine as a complex, rewarding drink.
Under the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD), a cultural and culinary tea revolution began to take root. Chinese notables embraced tea drinking as a daily habit – one which demonstrated their refinement and cultured character. The world’s very first tea houses opened their doors, and artisans, painters and poets flocked to their doors to find inspiration.
It’s no wonder that so much of their work turned into tributes to this wonderful drink!
At this time, tea was first pressed into cakes for storage and distribution. These cakes would then be ground into powder and served with boiling water, which drinkers would use to steep the tea and create the familiar drink we know and love.
Buddhist monks, noblemen and Zen Masters began to champion tea as a drink which increased their awareness, but they also began to extol the virtues of the tea brewing and drinking process. Great tea takes time. Time, which the Zen Master say, gave the drinker a chance to become mindful and aware, and enhance their appreciation of their existence in relationship to the natural and social environments.
Tea drinking became a way to boost one’s spiritual wellbeing and cultivation, especially when medicinal flavourings such as ginger, spices, orange and even onion were added to the gently steeping tea.
By the time of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279AD) the “Song Way of Tea” had become a spiritual predecessor to the Japanese tea ceremony. This cultural and poetic practice placed a strong emphasis on the rules of tea preparation which, along with the tea itself, had become more and more refined over the hundreds of years since the Han and the Tang.
During the Song period, tea would mostly be green tea leaves, ground to a fine powder and whipped until frothy with a purpose-made bamboo whisk. Centuries would pass before we would see the beginnings of the loose leaf tea which is so prevalent today.
But with the rise of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644AD) came the rise of loose leaf. Tea would be shipped and steeped in its leaf form, a development which leads to the creation of the teapot and the earliest versions of the gaiwan.
Tea would also become more widespread throughout China. A drink formerly reserved for Emperors, noblemen and Zen Masters was now a drink for the whole nation, and demand for both tea and teaware rose not just in China, but beyond her borders too.
During the Ming Dynasty, tea finally came to be the drink we recognise today, with the first versions of black tea, oolong tea and green tea rising to prominence during this time. Tea had become China’s secret strength, and one which she jealously guarded from the world. Ships from all over the globe would seek out Chinese ports, load up on tea, and spread the drink around the world.
This couldn’t last forever. Following the Opium Wars with Great Britain, China’s tea monopoly smashed. Tea would be planted by the British in Sri Lanka (now Ceylon) and elsewhere, sending China’s tea economy into a recession. And so it would last for over a century.
But times have moved on again. Over the past twenty years or so, China’s tea making industry has reawakened. The former glory of the ultimate tea country has been reclaimed, and a boom in Chinese tea has meant one thing.
We are once again living in a golden age of Chinese tea.
China’s Legendary Tea Growing Regions
Fujian: The world’s most famous and large tea growing region makes the world’s largest variety of tea. Within the Fujian province are the famed tea-growing areas of Fuding, Wuyi and Anxi.
Fuding - birthplace of white tea and has amazing jasmine and green teas
Wuyi Mountains – a mineral rich, mountainous area renowned for heavy roasted oolong and smoked lapsang souchong teas
Anxi – home of the best Tie Guan Yin oolong teas
Yunnan: A very mountainous and secluded province, Yunnan is believed to be the location of the earliest tea plants and the birthplace of tea.
Yunnan is most famous for its ancient tea trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. These trees produce a special tea - pu-erh - which is often pressed into cakes, bricks or tuocha and can be aged for decades.
Yunnan is also home to three famed black teas; golden needle, golden monkey and Yunnan black tea.
Anhui: Home of the famous Yellow Mountains (Huang Shang), Anhui produces some of the world’s most prized green teas; Taiping Houkui and Mao Feng, along with the black tea Keemun (or Qimen).
Zhejiang: This province is famed for variety. China’s favourite Dragon Well (Longjing) is cultivated in the Hangzhou Westlake (Xihu) area, while Zheijiang produces legendary gunpowder tea (Zhu Cha).
Guangdong: Phoenix Oolong Tea or Dan Cong is carefully cultivated in Fenghuang – the famed tea producing area of China’s Guangdong province. Fenghuang, the Phoenix Mountain, gives this oolong its name.
Guangxi: White, green and black teas thrive in Guangxi, all of which can be flavoured with Guangxi’s famous sweet osmanthus flowers.
Jiangxi: From scented teas and floral green teas to Keemun style black teas, Jiangxi is home to a variety of tea styles. However, the region’s most famous produce is Lushan Yunwu, the Cloud Wind Tea.
Jiangsu: The home province of Bi Luo Chun, a famous green tea, Jiangsu is also famed for other styles of green tea.
Jiangsu is home to the Dong Ting region (where Bi Luo Chun is grown) and Yixing, the source of the famed purple clay used in the Yixing teapots which form a staple in gongfu brewing.
China’s Most Famous Teas
Longjing: Also known as Dragon Well Green Tea, this smooth and mellow tea is grown in the mountain areas around Hangzhou, Zhejiang. This tea is light yellow-green, with lighter leaves indicating a higher quality. This tea offers a strong, sweet aroma and a mellow, grassy flavour, with beautiful long, flat leaves.
Keemun Black: Strong and malty, this black tea is beloved by drinkers throughout the UK. In Western markets, two quality categories are available, while Chinese consumers have access to a variety specially tailored to the Gongfu tea ceremony.
Bi Luo Chun: Green Snail Spring Tea is picked early in the mornings from the slopes of the Dong Ting region. Made from the bud and first leaf of the tea plant, this fruity green tea is light in colour and rolled into a tight twist like the shell of a snail.
Da Hong Pao: Great Red Robe Tea is a famous Rock Wuyi Oolong Tea, which are known as Yan Cha. Ful bodied with twisted leaves, this mountain tea has a deep mineral richness with complex floral flavours and warm roasted notes. Intimidating to novices and beloved by those in the know, this is a tea to try.
Tie Guan Yin: Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea is an oolong named for the Chinese goddess of compassion. Sweet, with touches of honey and peaches this tea ranges from soft and floral to warm and roasted. Available in any bar or restaurant in China, this tea is beloved for its floral fragrance and lasting sweet aftertaste.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen: Silver Needle Tea is the finest white tea in the world. Made only from buds of tea grown in one small part of Fujian, this pale yellow tea offers a subtle, creamy flavour.
Sheng Pu-erh:A raw tea which is highly sought after by tea lovers all over the world. This green pu-erh offers a sweeter, more fragrant tea than the more widespread cooked pu-erh tea.
Pu-erh is the product of older tea trees, which are believed to imbue the tea with a wide range of health-giving properties. That’s why practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine value this tea so highly. Sheng Pu-erh, made from the leaves of the old trees known as Gushu, is particularly prized.
Shou pu-erh:A tea that brews a deep red infusion with a hearty sweet aroma, balanced by fragrant woods and mild earthy depths. When you put a cup to your lips, this aroma gives way to a full-bodied tea with complex floral notes and the lingering hint of honeysuckle.
Mi Lan Dan Cong: APhoenix Oolong is carefully cultivated in Fenghuang - the Phoenix mountain, which gives this oolong its name. Grown since the age of the Ming Dynasty. These leaves brew a sweet, vivid tea with a delicious fruity taste. Boasting notes of peach and lychee, Mi Lan Dan Cong is a rewarding drink for any connoisseur.
Huang Shang:A famous green tea grown and picked by artisan farmers near the peak of the Huang Shan mountain. When you lift this tea to your nose, you’ll smell a rich floral aroma. As you sip, you’ll experience a sweet, soft and smooth taste.
Jun Jun Mei:The Golden Beautiful Eyebrow is rapidly becoming one of the most highly sought-after black teas in the world. It has a high-grade black tea mouthfeel and aroma, chocolate and other mature high notes, combined with the unmistakable minerality of the Wuyi region.
Jin Jun Mei is a high-grade tea style from Tongmu village made solely of buds. The use of buds alone gives the tea its distinct golden sheen.
Made from small buds, this tea is picked in early spring to ensure a sweeter flavour.
Taiping Houkui: Also known as Monkey Chief, this tea is famous for its sheer size. The leaves used to create Taiping Houkui are much larger than you might expect and grow only in Anhui.
This loose leaf tea offers a uniquely smooth floral scent and flavour with a distinct toastiness.
Yunnan Golden Needle:Golden Monkey is a special grade of Yunnan Dian Hong. This black tea is made solely of golden buds produced in China’s Yunnan province. The oxidized buds turn to gold, hence the name “golden shoot.” It is a strong and complex black tea which is prized by connoisseurs looking for bold new flavours. Boasting a strong smoky chocolate and cocoa flavour, these golden buds brew a silky smooth black tea which carries subtle hints of honey and pepper.
Lapsang Souchong:Rich, smoky and tarry, this is a tea that carries a strong reputation. Lapsang Souchong is grown on the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian, and is available in a range of varieties stretching from unsmoked to completely smoked. Smoky and sweet, this black tea carries malty campfire notes.
Gunpowder Green Tea: Despite its fiery name, Gunpowder tea is famed for its smooth, rich flavours and the hint of smoke that make it so highly sought after. This tea brews a soft yellow drink with a long, sweet aftertaste. Gunpowder tea comes from Fuding, Fujian and has benefitted from high rainfall and hot temperatures.
Jasmine Pearls:Jasmine Dragon Pearls are made from a wonderful selection of young green tea leaves which have been scented with jasmine blossoms. The silver tips and small leaves are hand-rolled into a unique pearl shape. This tea is picked and hand-rolled in Fujian, China.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen:This tea style is defined by the tiny trichomes (hairs) on the buds that give this tea a silvery white appearance. This tea originated in Fujian province in the counties of Fuding and Zhenghe.
Silver needle white tea offers a wide range of flavours for the connoisseur to enjoy, boasting a soft herbaceous aroma with notes of cut hay, berries and a rich hint of caramel and dark chocolate. This is a pure bud tea and widely regarded as the pinnacle of white tea.
Lushan Yunwu:Clouds and Mist Tea is from Lu Shan in Jiangxi Province. The name refers to the mountains shrouded in clouds and mist where this tea is grown. The finished tea is made up of leaves that are picked individually, withered, pan-fired, rolled into uniform dark green curls and dried.
Bailin Gongfu:This tea is arguably the most famous of Fujian province’s three famous gongfu style teas. Produced in Bailin village in Fuding County from the ‘Da Bai’ or big white cultivar, this tea is withered, rolled, oxidized and then bake dried. The finished tea is strip-shaped, long and wiry with black and fuzzy gold leaves.
Bailin Gongfu has been enjoyed in its native China for hundreds of years, thanks to its unique character. This tea is fully oxidized, allowing the flavour to develop and soften.