Tea Origins: Wu Yi Mountain, Fujian Province, China

by Jason on March 21, 2012

in Chinese, wulong/oolong

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Does the success of a tea inevitably lead to its degradation?

Such a case could be made of some teas of Wu Yi Mountain (武夷山) in Fujian Province. The region is home to several classic and popular wulong teas. Da Hong Pao (大红袍), Shui Xian (水仙), and Tie Luo Han (铁罗汉) are just a few of the famous ones. In addition, new varieties are being developed. Golden Buddha (金佛) and Golden Key (金钥匙) are but some of the newer Wuyi teas that have been developed in recent decades.

The legendary nature of the 36 peaks and 99 cliffs of the protected Wuyi Mountain Scenic Area help feed a growing business. So much growth that there was talk of a Da Hong Pao bubble just a few years ago. The Wall Street Journal and tea businesses reported on it.

Separating fact from fiction in Wuyi teas can be challenging. If you want an ultimately authentic Wuyi wulong tea experience, there are a few keys that will help.

First is the classification of teas by area. Teas grown in the authentic scenic area are called zheng yan (正岩). Unless you fully trust the provider of a zheng yan, and paid very dearly for it, most of us will never taste a handmade, traditionally processed, authentic zheng yan tea. Another category is ban yan (半岩). Ban yan teas are grown on or just across the border separating the scenic area from other lands. While zheng yan can be grown at elevations of 400 meters above sea level in mountainous pockets with their unique micro-climates, ban yan teas may be in more open, lower areas. Below and beyond ban yan lies wai shan (外山), which literally means “outside the mountain.” These broader areas produce most of the commercial grade product on the market.

Secondly, varietals come into play. Beidou, a village approximately 20 miles away from the town of Wuyi Mtn, grew some of the early clones of the original Da Hong Pao bushes. The tea from these plants is descended from the mother plants, so does that make it authentic “Da Hong Pao”? If cuttings from these daughter plants are then grown in other zheng yan, ban yan, or wai shan regions, does this placement increase or decrease their authenticity? Many will say extended periods of time will cause these plants growing in these distinct locations to develop different characteristics. In other words, they are already on the path to becoming new varietals.

Thirdly, processing determines character. It is said that some farmers/processors may take portions of different teas: shui xian, tie luo han, or other wuyi wulongs and combine them. Then they deeply roast this concoction to even out differences in taste among the components. The resulting heavy roasted tea is deemed “da hong pao.”

With the rising popularity of these teas, increased tourism to the area, and appeal of da hong pao speculation, the answers to these questions may get cloudier before they get clearer.
Walker Tea Review- a tea blog with tea reviews and tea tastings.

Want to see a tea reviewed? Contact me: jason@walkerteareview.com

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Derek April 24, 2012 at 03:32

Nice article- unfortunately this great tea has its name diluted- most of the Dahongpao available in the market is not authentic Dahongpao, at least not the type that we understood it to be- 正岩
Technically, Dahongpao can refer to all Wuyi Yancha (岩茶)so operators can label a Shuixian, Rougui, or any of the hundred of variants within the Wuyishan area and label them as Dahongpao- misleading but not misrepresentation.
正岩 is further divided into 名岩区 & 正岩区 (famous cliffs i.e. the 3 pits & 2 gullies vs the others) The former would then command a premium.
To ensure you are getting what you paid for, you need to find out specifically where it is grown- which pit/cliff etc & not just Wuyishan if you are paying a justifiable price.
Like you pointed out, the reliability of the seller is also of paramount importance- the moment I see ‘Organic Dahongpao’ or Dahongpao less than $20 per 50g on the retail market, I know its not worth my time.
But after all these, is it worth the trouble? I think it is- most definitely. Wuyishan has volanic elements and all those magnificent cliffs that gives its tea a rich flavor. Coupled with the fact that this area is most likely the originator of Oolong & black tea- it is hard not to fall in love with Wuyi Cliff teas.
I do hope that the tea industry take a stronger view at regulating labeling and classification so when I see a Huiyuankeng Dahongpao, I know what to pay as opposed to one from say Xingcun Town.
It’s a crying shame that most tea drinkers don’t get to enjoy the authentic Dahongpao and are misled by the cheaper variants, wouldn’t you think so?

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