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.
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