Less than two months after finishing up my Chinese tea trip I find myself sitting here behind my laptop trying to recover what I experienced during those three weeks in the tea fields. It’s still too overwhelming, all what happened and all I’ve learned. But now things have settled down a bit I can say I am looking at tea with new eyes, eyes that didn’t just read what other people wrote about tea and their origins, but eyes that experienced on their own (although still very little) what Chinese tea culture means, and in what surroundings and by what people tea is grown. It is a deeper understanding that gives my tea sessions so much energy and appreciation.
This piece is part of an Instagram Giveaway that runs until July 5th 2017. Please check out my Instagram on how to win a Wuyi Origin 25 gram pack of Zhengyan (real rock) Rou Gui from Matou yan, within the national park.
I am thankful to a lot of people who I met on the road and did everything they could to teach me about tea, and asked for nothing in return. One of these people is Cindy Chen. Some of you may know her already – either by name or in person – because of her online presence and her attempts to reach out to the western tea drinkers, sharing her knowledge on teas from the Wuyishan area.
I myself have come to know Cindy through Facebook. I reached out to her asking if she would be around in the area by the time I was expecting to visit Wuyishan, and she opened her doors for me. Not only to her warehouse and home where we drank an uncountable number of teas made by her family, but also to an incredible amount of knowledge she has on yancha and Wuyi hongcha. Looking back at those days in the Bohea mountains, I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to listen to her and her husband and learn so much. And I still learn from her in our WeChat conversations every week.
Cindy is part of a yancha-making family in Wuyishan and is married to Zhou Shi Wu, whose family is producing dancong in Chaozhou, in southeast China. Together they recently launched a webshop called Wuyi Origin, where they sell both Wuyi teas (hongcha and yancha) made by Cindy’s family, and dancong made by the family of Zhou. Talking with Cindy for days around the tea table, she laid out a clear vision for Wuyi Origin: introducing the west to high quality Wuyi tea. Standing out from the crowd with direct trading of some of the best teas her family makes. Of course the best-best-best teas, as with all super high quality teas, will (almost) never leave China and will be bought by loyal clients who trade with her family for years, but the ones she offers on Wuyi Origin are still far above the level that most sellers can and will offer you.
When I started drinking yancha, I thought the charcoal taste was a trademark for Wuyi teas. Eventually discovering that an overwhelming charcoal taste is a sign of bad roasting. Real yancha is much subtler in its charcoal taste, and has many other pleasant layers that give either a very deep taste, or a high floral taste, depending on the type of cultivar and the way it is roasted. I will publish more articles these days where I try to lay out these huge differences in yancha.
Not a paid endorsement but just a recommendation from one tea lover to the other: check out the website of Wuyi Origin (with the first 2017 Wuyi and Dancong teas in store).
Pretty much every single yancha I tried at Cindy from last year’s batch was a delight for me. And these are the batches that were still available at the end of April, a year after harvest. The even better teas from 2016 were sold out already long before I arrived in Wuyishan. Which makes me even more excited about this year’s harvest, that should be finished roasting within a matter of weeks or months, depending on the number of bakings the teas will go through. And when there is a fresh tea (hongcha’s during my visit) rolling in that isn’t up to the standard, or when there is an old tea that didn’t age well, she almost forbade me to take it with me back to Holland. Eventually Cindy sent me almost a kilo of yancha, mostly from within the Wuyi reserve (Zhengyan), some from just outside the reserve (Banyan) for comparisons.
I ended up spending about four days in Wuyishan. As I arrived in the fourth week of April I was there well before harvest season began. This year’s harvest was delayed with almost a week, but turned out great because of the perfect weather. I was disappointed to miss harvest season but felt lucky as well, because this way I had a chance to talk and drink a lot of tea with Cindy and her husband. During harvest season, the family works the whole day, only to sleep a few hours in the morning before a new harvest day starts again. No time for curious tea drinkers like me passing by.
The day I arrived in Wuyishan, two other guests of Cindy arrived as well. These gentleman were from the famous Indian tea estate Glenburn (with fields in both Assam and Darjeeling) and turned out to be very nice companions. They were in China to learn more about green tea processing and stopped by Cindy for a visit. Together we had a very nice meal and visited the Wuyishan national park, the reserve where the ‘real’ yancha is made. Cindy guided us in the morning through the fields and valleys.
The Wuyishan national park is such a beautiful area. Think away the heaps the Chinese tourist crowds and it’s just jaw-dropping. Absolutely fascinating that tea can grow in an area like this. It is, hence the name ‘Rock Tea’, a park full of rocks, big stones and peaks everywhere. Paths and creeks circle through the valleys that are full of tea bushes. No carefully organized tea plantations here. It’s a random bush in that corner, a few trees over there on that little rocky ground, six old bushes tucked away on that little piece of land between the creek and the path. They all grow wherever they can grow, and I have no idea how the farmers know which trees are theirs and which ones belong to their fellow-tea growers. The land of the Chen family is not in one place, but spreads around the national park.
After visiting the national park we went to see a baking room, where the Wuyi teas get their famous charcoal roast for hours and hours in rooms that makes you sweat the moment you enter. The smell however… the smell was amazing. Aromas of tea being processed, whatever type it is, are just insane, and leave you mouthwatering. You really have to experience that aroma once in your life.
The rest of the days in Wuyishan pretty much went like this: I was hiking or taking a look in the town (with A LOT of tea shops, but haven’t had a single good yancha), when I got a message from Cindy asking me to join her on a cupping of freshly arrived Jin Jun Mei, or Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, and then I took a seat at the tea table and tasted, tasted, tasted. I must have tasted far over 60 teas during my visit there, comparing Wild Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong with a plantation one, or with a wild one from the year before (exact same spot, HUGE difference). Tie Luo Han cuppings, Rou Gui cuppings, all that Cindy had in her warehouse found its way to the tea table.
To be able to compare teas grown in different areas or produced in different ways lets you realize the huge effects every step in the process has on the taste. Even two trees from the same area, growing close beside each other, processed in the same way, but grown maybe a few meters apart, can give a completely different taste. Really, no single tea is the same. I learned a lot sitting at the tea table of Cindy and her husband, but I also realized that there was much more to learn than I ever would have thought.
I will publish two or three more articles on Wuyishan and yancha during this Giveaway-week on Instagram, including articles on cultivars and the baking (roasting) of yancha. If you want to compete in the Instagram-competition, please check out this post. Cindy has kindly provided 25 gram of Zhengyan Rou Gui from within the national park (Matou yan to be exact), four times baked and currently sold for 14 dollars but totally free for you if you win it. I am currently drinking the exact same tea, yummeh. It is almost sold out, so a great chance to grab this tea before it’s gone.
Also if you’re interested, check out the website of Wuyi Origin for the first Wuyi teas of 2017 that finished baking and are available in store!