Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tea Drinking in the Tang Dynasty

The painting of a Tea Banquet at the Qingming Festival (the Tang Dynasty 618-907)

In the Tang Dynasty, the imperial court often held tea banquet at the Qingming Festival (Pure Brightness/Tomb-Sweeping). Every year in early April, emperors received tribute teas from various places. First, some would be offered as a sacrifice to their ancestors. Then, some would be given to their favorite officials and servants as rewards. And held Royal Qingming Tea Banquets to entertain high rank officials.

According to Chinese historical records, tea began to gain fame in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Tang Dynasty is regarded as the golden era for tea.

Before the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people in south China loved drinking tea while people in the north hated tea and regarded tea drinking as a strange custom or even a shameful practice. By the Tang Dynasty, tribute tea promoted the rise of tea. The famous tribute teas included the Zisun Tea produced in Guzhu of Changxing, Zhejiang Province and the Yangxian Tea produced in Yixing, Jiangsu Province. The imperial government moved the tea manufacturing center from Sichuan to the area south of the Yangtze River, which promoted the tea-making techniques in the new center and brought along the tea production and development in the whole country. Since then, tea drinking has become popular in the whole country.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea was divided into raw tea, loose tea, dust tea, and caky tea. Of them, caky tea was the main type. Tang people made tea by by cooking it. First, they dried the caky tea by baking. Then, they bagged the tea to keep its aroma. Later, after the tea had cooled, they ground it into fine powder for cooking, during which, they added salt or other spices.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Zhengyan, Zhengshan and Bohea

Bohea is the name used by people in the West for tea produced in the Wuyi Mountain during the ancient time. Wuyi Mountain is amazing. It produces two kinds of famous teas: Wuyi Rock Tea (Wuyi Yancha) and Lapsang Souchong. Questions about them are often raised. Are they produced in the same area in Wuyi Mountains? Are they made from the same raw material? Are they different just because of the production methods?

When tea professionals talk about Wuyi Yancha and Lapsang Souchong, they often ask whether they are produced in the core producing areas. Teas from the core producing areas are called Zhengshan or Neishan teas in Chinese, otherwise called Waishan (not from core areas) teas. For Yancha, they say Zhengyan instead of Zhengshan while Zhengyan has the same meaning as Zhengshan. Yan means rock in Chinese. The word Zhengyan makes it more prominent as for the character of Yancha than Zhengshan.

The Zhengyan Yancha and the Zhengshan Lapsang Souchong both grow in Wuyi Mountain but they are not from the same place. Quite a lot of people arent clear about their relations even for Chinese. Here I give you the following drawing and explanations. 

The Zhengyan of Wuyi Yancha often called Mingyan is the scenic spots of the Wuyishan City covering an area of about 70 square kilometers with the east to Chongyang Stream, south to Nanxing Road, west to Gaoxing Road and north to Huangbai Stream. The most famous areas of Zhengyan are the "Three Pits and Two Gullies, namely Huiyuan Pit, Niulan Pit, Daoshui Pit, Liuxiang Gully and Wuyuan Gully, which are symbolic places of Zhengyan areas.

The Zhengshan of Lapsang Souchong with the Tong Mu Guan at the center, is a part of the national nature reserve covering an area of about 50 square kilometers with the east to Mashu, south to Pikeng, west to Guadun and north to Tongmuguan. The most famous places of the Zhengshan is Mashu, Guadun, Miaowan.

Zhengyan and Zhengshan are both located in Wuyi Mountains with a distance about 50 kilometers between them. It takes 1.5 to 2 hours from the Zhengyan area to the Tong Mu Guan by car.

As the areas of Zhengyan and Zhengshan are both quite limited, the prices of Zhengyan Yancha and the authentic Lapsang Souchong become very high. The teas produced in the areas between Zhengyan and Zhengshan can only be called Danyan Yancha or Waishan Souchong black tea.

The environment of Zhengyan and Zhengshan is different. The scenic spot (Zhengyan area of Yancha) has characteristics of Danxia landform at an altitude of about 350 meters. These places feature steep cliffs, bare rocks, low temperature difference between summer and winter. The soil of Zhengyan is highly permeable, rich in potassium and manganese, and proper in PH value. However, Zhengshan (of Lapsang Souchong for example Tongmuguan) doesn't has the characteristics of Danxia Landform, with high mountains covered by primitive forests, Tongmuguan has great amount of rainfall, lower temperature of 18C on average each year, high humidity and up to 100 foggy days each year. At an altitude of 1200 to 1500 meters, there is a huge temperature difference between day and night. The soil in Tongmuguan is soft, rich in minerals and abundant in water with high level of organic substances. 

The photos of the Wuyi Zhengyan:

The photos of the Miaowan, Tong Mu Guan:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Five Common Misconceptions about Chinese Tea Purchasing

The first flush tea of 2012 will come to the market soon in early April. More and more people will begin to source the teas to replenish the stock. Here, we listed five common misconceptions we concluded when people buying Chinese teas in recent years. Read them, you may become more experienced and better prepared in tea purchasing in 2012.

Misconception #1 Expensive teas are definitely better than the cheaper ones.

Here, we don't just mean it for the teas sold by different vendors because it is obvious that it is not so under the circumstances. Even it is not right when we study the relations of the prices and the quality of the teas dealt with by the same vendor. As a commodity, tea price is mainly decided by the supply-demand relations. That is to say, in fact, people's preference which is sometimes irrational has great influence to tea prices.

For example, Dragon Well and Biluochun are almost the most expensive green teas in China. Do you know why they are so expensive?  Of course, they are wonderful indeed, but is it the only reason for the high price? No, another main reason is that they are produced in Suzhou and Hangzhou, the two wealthiest places in China dubbed as paradise by Chinese intellectuals and poets. That is why Dragon Well and Biluochun are easily known and become so popular. Some others kinds of teas such as Huoshan Huangya, Dinggu Da Fang, Huangshan Mao Feng are also wonderful in quality, however, they are not so fortunate as Dragon Well and Biluochun because they are produced in the remote areas and are difficult to be transported to towns and cities especially in ancient times. Therefore, if you want to buy Chinese teas, don't just focus on Dragon Well and Biluochun, some other teas good in quality but low in price are also good options. As a matter of fact, China is so big and there are so many famous teas.

Another example, nowadays, Chinese crave for the Mingqian tea (tea harvested before Qingming around 5th April), driving the price of the Mingqian tea such as Mingqian Dragon Well Tea to the sky high. Is the Mingqian Dragon Well Tea really so good? Is it worthwhile? Not necessarily. Tea quality is determined by many factors such as the tea cultivar, growing area, and harvest time and production method. Harvest time is only one of the factors. Now a great deal of Mingqian Dragon Well Tea we found in the market was made of tealeaves from one tea cultivar named as Wuniuzao. The Dragon Well Tea made from Wuniuzao cultivar is much worse in taste and flavor compared with the ones from the traditional cultivar Longjing Qunti while Cultivar Wuniuzao is more than 10 days earlier than the Qunti cultivar in tea buds sprouting, and more and more tea farmers join in growing Wuniuzao so that they can produce more Mingqian tea and earn more money. During recent years, the Wuniuzao Dragon Well Tea is growing fast in quantity year by year.

Misconception #2 Teas harvested earlier such as Mingqian tea is definitely better than those harvested later

Not necessarily, you can see it from what weve talked above in Misconception #1. In fact tea cultivar plays a bigger role in tea quality than the harvest time. And here is another example. You know the temperature becomes lower when the altitude increases in the same area and we all know teas growing at high mountains are much better than those at the lower altitude of the same area, however, they are much later in sprouting, sometimes later more than 15 to 20 days. And we find teas made of leaves harvested from high mountains of 1000 meters above the sea level around Mid April are always better than Mingqian tea at the foot of the mountain.

Misconception #3 I can buy the authentic famous teas so long as I go to the producing areas of its origin.

Every year, when tea farmers start harvesting and producing teas, huge crowds pour into the producing area, especially in Mejiawu, Hangzhou, the core producing area of Dragon Well and Dongshan, Xishan, the two core producing area of Biluochun. Can they really get the authentic Dragon Well or Biluochun by doing so? Not necessarily.

Thanks to the celebrity status of Dragon Well and Biluochun, the local Chaqing (plucked fresh tealeaves but not processed) is several times higher in price than those in other areas, and the local Chaqing which is quite limited can't meet the high demand. The huge profit drives people to find lucrative ways. More than 20 years ago, Chaqing from the Huangshan, Anhui province and Wuyuan, Jiangxi province were brought to Hangzhou for production. Both areas are close to Hangzhou and have a great deal of quality Chaqing. However, in recent years, to meet the high demand of Mingqian Dragon Well and Biluochun, Chaqing from Sichuan and Guizhou are brought by air to Hangzhou. By dong so, it can not only solve the shortage of the local Chaqing but also produce much more Mingqian tea because the tea trees sprout almost one month earlier than the ones in Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

Misconception #4 Pay too much attention to the grade of the tea.

The grading of tea is much sophisticated and confusing. For example, there are commonly six grades of Dragon Well tea but some tea manufactures have their own unique grading system and there are always the grade emerging that you may have never heard of in the market such as Supreme, Special AAA, and Jipin. You will be confused by the grades even as a professional. We suggest you care about it but don't pay too much attention to it. The best way is to make a sample comparison between teas of similar prices without caring too much about the grades.

Misconception #5 Green tea should be green in color and the greener the better

Totally false, nowadays, more and more people even young Chinese assume dried green tea should be green in color and the tea in yellowish color is not the tea of the current year. To take people's fancy, more and more tea makers make the tea light roasted, resulting in greener tea with bad taste. In fact, authentic Dragon Well tea made in the traditional ways is yellowish in color instead of green, the same as Huangshan Maofeng.