Some of the finest teas available, and some of the priciest, come from China. It is also considered by many to be the birthplace of tea drinking. And small wonder that tea aficionados get all excited at the mere mention of Chinese teas. This little teapot presents this guide so that you, too, can enjoy many of the finer teas. TOOOT!
Black tea is called red tea (Hong Cha紅茶) in China and many other parts of Asia (see details in our article Red Tea vs Black Tea – More Tea Nomenclature Debacles). It is not very commonly consumed in China, but here in the U.S. you humans drink a lot of it from various tea growing countries. Black tea also tends to store longer than green and white teas, so you can have them around for two years or more if properly stored (see details in our guide to tea storage). Explore some of these to expand your black tea horizons!
Xiao Zhong Black Tea (小种红茶)
One of the three main types of Chinese black tea. The oldest black tea of China. Records show it dates back to the early 17th century when trade with the Dutch began. The first teas were from an area known today as Tongmuguan, Wuyishan City, Fujian Province in China. The tea is also known as Souchong and is often sold based on the specific area where the tea leaves are grown.
Category 1: Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong, 正山小种) – Planted in Tong Mu Guan, Wuyi Mountain, Fujian Province, and divided into an oriental flavor and a Western flavor. Said to be the better Souchong category.
Category 1: Waishan Xiao Zhong (外山小种) – Planted in the counties of Zhenghe, Tanyang, Gutian, and Shan, in Fujian Province. The lower of the two categories but still has a number of outstanding teas available.
These teas feature large leaves rolled lengthwise and a pine-smoked aroma that really comes through in the tea liquid. The original versions came from the Wu Yi Mountains. Higher grades are made of broad, open leaves that are roasted and dried by an earthen wood burning oven. The method is similar to the way that tobacco leaves were originally processed before the machine age. Wood from the horse tail pine tree is the traditional type now used to impart that well-known aroma and flavor.
The tea varietal used is Wuyi caicha (武夷菜茶), one of the few that can endure the high elevation and relatively low temperatures. The first flush is harvested around the second week of May. While other teas are often made using leaf buds and leaf-bud sets, lapsang Souchong uses more mature first two or three leaves off the stem.
Congou Black Tea (Gongfu, Kongfu, Kungfu, 功夫红茶)
NOTE: For the purposes of this article and save my humans’ sanity (they help me type), we are using the term “congou” from this point forward for these teas.
One of the three main types of Chinese black tea. There are many varieties of congou black teas, often named after the regions where they are produced. A lot of time-consuming patience and effort led by knowledge and skill is used to process the leaves. Quality varies depending on the tea plant varietal and the area in which they grow.
The plants are in one of these general classes:
- Large-leaf Congou (Dianhong Congou, Zhenghe Congou)
- Small-leaf Congou (Keemun Congou, Yihong Congou)
Broken Black Tea (Hong Sui Cha, Graded Black Tea, 红碎茶)
One of the three main types of Chinese black tea. Broken black tea is widely planted in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi, and is mainly grown for export. Broken black tea is classified into types according to shape, including tablet tea, fanning tea, and dust tea. It is made for foreign markets.
The size of tea leaf pieces determines the tea quality:
- Whole Leaf – best
- Broken Leaf – second best
- Fannings –third best (small broken pieces that are ideal for quick brewing)
- Dust – lowest (tiny bits of leaf that are typically used in standard tea bags)
These teas are almost always processed by machine and, contrary to myth, the dust is not stuff swept up off the factory floor. The machines have settings to cut leaf pieces to the desired size. Big-leaf tea plant varietals are normally used and come from Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan provinces.
More Info on Keemun Black Teas (祁门红茶)
Keemun tea was first made in 1875 in Qimen County (祁门县) of Anhui Province (安徽省). Prior to that, Qimen county produced only green tea until the mid 1870’s. At that time a young man in the civil service lost his job. Being totally heartbroken and completely embarrassed, he traveled to Fujian province to learn the secrets of processing black tea. He returned to Qimen in 1875 and set up three factories to produce black tea. The tea leaves grown there were perfect for making this black tea, which soon became popular worldwide. In 1915, the tea won the Gold Prize at the International Exposition (万国博览会) in Panama.
This popularity led to imitators. So you need to be diligent, dear humans, when buying this tea to get the authentic versions. The first key is where the tea leaves are from. Terroir (soil, water, air, and light) makes all the difference. Be sure the teas are made, therefore, with tea leaves grown in Qimen County. The area is mountainous and covered by forests with tea gardens scattered through them. There is plenty of rain, a lower average temperature, and higher humidity. This produces leaves with the essential ingredients for a good black tea:
- mellow taste (comes from the amino acid theanine in the tea leaves) that has no astringency
- long-lasting aroma
- low conversion of theanine to polyphenols such as catechins due to shading by fog
- made from the Zhu-ye-zhong (槠叶种) tea plant which is the only one containing an essential oil called myrcenal but which also contains geraniol, an aromatic element in the tea leaves (40-100 times higher than ordinary tea plants) – both give the tea a sweetness and aroma like dried black roses (or some say of a hot slice of toast from the toaster)
The final ingredient, though, is the skilled tea people processing the leaves.
Obviously, the large amounts of Keemun teas on the market are not all genuine. You will have to check with various sources to be sure you are getting the real thing.
Keemun Tea Grading
It will be helpful to you to know the various grades of Keemun teas. This will be a sign of fake Keemuns on the market.
Click on each photo for details:
See also: Not Too Keen on the Keemun 1110
More Info on Lapsang Souchong (正山小种) Black Teas
They say some of the best things happen by accident. This tea is supposedly no exception. The story goes that some tea farmers had harvested leaves and were starting to process them when an army showed up on their way to a battle. They took over the tea factory to house the soldiers for a short time until they got the command to move on. The leaves sat. Once the soldiers left, the tea farmers had to hurry to dry the leaves to get them to market on time. So they lit pinewood fires. The smoke was absorbed into the leaves and flavored them so well that the tea became very popular.
That’s the romantic tale that grew up around this tea.
In reality, the teas were smoked to preserve them for export to Europe and America in the early 17th century. The journey across the oceans took 15-18 months long. The leaves were rolled, oxidized, and dried to help them stay good during that whole time. A quicker method of drying was devised also. The oxidized leaves were spread on bamboo baskets that were then placed on racks in a drying room that was built over ovens. They were stoked with local pinewood from the forests in the area around the factories, the wood burned slowly and gave off smoke, which wafted up into the drying room and got absorbed by the leaves.
Originally, this tea came from Tongmu village in Xingcun township of Wuyishan City in Fujian Province. The tea gardens are scattered around Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountain). The deciduous trees drop their leaves in autumn, and the tree leaves become natural fertilizer for the tea plants. That plus the cooler temperatures and substantial rain help the tea plants grow just right. The tea plants grow tall, more like trees. The highest leaves are usually plucked and produce the best quality of finished tea.
- Withering (Wei diao, 萎凋) – Done over pinewood fires due to the sunny days being rather few. The leaves are piled about 3-7cm thick on bamboo mats that go onto wooden racks. The pinewood burns below, and attendants check that the drying room temperatures stay at about 30°C, turning the leaves over and mixing them around about every 20 minutes. The leaves are ready for the next step when they are soft and not shiny.
- Oxidation (Fa xiao, 发酵) – The leaves are rolled and then placed into wooden barrels which are covered with cloth. The oxidation takes place in them. The barrels help to keep up the temperature of the leaves and facilitate the process. The leaves are checked regularly and moved near a hot stove when the temperature drops too much. When the leaves have turned a coppery color and emit a pleasant fragrance, they are ready for the next step.
- Pan frying (Guo hong guo – chao, 过红锅) – The leaves are pan fried about 2-3 minutes before the final drying. The high temperature (200°C) stops the enzymatic process and stabilizes the quality and characteristic of fermented tea leaves. Then the leaves are dried 8-10 hours.
- Second Rolling (Fu rou, 复揉) – The hot leaves are rolled again to tighten them and squeeze out more moisture. This not only adds to the tea flavor but also helps the leaves absorb the smoke better.
- Drying with Small Fire (Xun bei, 熏焙) – Pinewood is the only wood used. The heat is less than the initial drying and continues until moisture in the leaves is less than 5%. The low burn temperature of the wood causes it to generate a considerable amount of smoke. The full process for drying takes 8-10 hours.
More Info on Anhui and Its Teas
Tea has been produced in the Anhui Province for hundreds or even thousands of years. By the 7th century AD, they were exporting tea to other parts of China as well as to other countries. In the late 19th century they began exporting Keemun black tea to Western countries where it was used in blends.
Of the Top Ten Famous Teas of China, five come from Anhui: Huangshan Mao Feng, Taiping Houkui, Liu’an Gua Pian, Dinggu Da Fang and Keemun Black Tea.
Teas from Anhui are called “Hui cha”(徽茶) in China. Most originates from Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and Da Bie Shan in the southern and western areas of the province.
More Info on the Teas of Yunnan Province (云南省)
The Yunnan Province of China is home to some of the finest teas from China. A few years ago the Chinese government even went so far as to give approval to a proposal that limits the labeling of any Chinese tea as “pu-erh” to only those grown and processed in this province. This was in part to protect their reputation in the tea market (success breeds imitators) where their popularity is growing. But aside from these teas, other very fine ones are produced. They are categorized as “Black” (called “Dian Hong” or “red tea” in other countries) and “Golden.”
Fengqing is in one of the four famous Pu-erh production areas (Xishuangbanna, Pu’er, Lincang, and Baoshan). That’s in the northwest of Lincang, about 580 kilometers from Kunming, and ranges from 919 to 3,098 meters elevation. Rainfall is plentiful (about 1,200 mm per year) and the average humidity is 70%. The world famous Dian Hong style tea originated here, and it was an important part of the Ancient Tea Route used by tea traders. Also, tea plants from this area have been spread to other planting areas by seeds and cuttings. There is a big (1.84 meters in diameter) and old (about 3,200 years in the claim) tea tree there that is called “Jing Xiu Cha Wang” in Fengqing village. The climate helps produce a liquid that feels light in the mouth and gives off a rich and complex aroma. The tea also has one of the most powerful Chaqis, a relative lack of bitterness, and a general character that makes you feel both overjoyed and relaxed.
Yunnan Black Tea (Dian Hong, 滇红)
Dian Hong means “Yunnan Red.” While we call this tea a “black tea,” most Asians go by the liquid color and call it a red tea. “Dian” is the old name for Yunnan.
This tea style was first produced in 1938 when Shao Qiufeng, who was working in the tea improvement station of Qimen County in Anhui Province, traveled to Fengqing County in Yunnan Province. He managed to produce about 66,700 pounds of Yunnan Dian Hong; it was sold to the British via the Fuhua Company of Hong Kong at 800 pence per pound. The tea was well-received in Britain and became quite popular. In 1985, a gift of this tea was presented to Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Yunnan. By 1987 this teas made up 20% of the province’s total annual tea production.
What separates Yunnan dian hong from other Chinese black teas is the leaves (from big-leaf tea plants), which are mostly fine leaf buds (“golden tips”) that are soft and have a unique peppery taste. The color is usually a brassy golden orange and the aroma is sweet and gentle in the higher quality versions. Cheaper versions can be brownish in color with noticeable bitterness. The leaves have higher levels of polyphenol than other black teas, giving these Yunnan black teas an impressively strong taste. Production started in Fengqing County and is now done throughout the province. The versions from Fengqing, Yunxian and Changning have the best aromas. Teas from the western part of the province have a thick and mellow flavor with a crisp aftertaste, while teas from the southern part of the province are strong and pungent.
The list is long, so we present a few representative samples.
Click on each photo to see details:
More Information & Articles from Our Site
For information on the provinces and tea mountains of China, see The Tea Provinces of China.
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