Previous in series: Huangshan Mao Feng and Guapian

The Chinese love lists, and their list of Ten Most Famous Teas starts off with Longjing, Biluochun, Huangshan Mao Feng, and Liuan Guapian. This list also contains two other green teas which, outside China at any rate, are hardly famous at all. Both are Maojian type teas: Xinyang Maojian, from Henan Province on the edge of the arid northern plain, and Dujan Maojian from Ghizhou Province in the south. Xinyang I have never seen or tasted but Dujun Maojian, I can attest, is singular in appearance, taste and other respects as well. It should be infused in a glass using very low temperature water, Biluochun. This allows you to watch this silvery leaf rise and fall, rhythmically, with interludes, in the water. These performing leaves finally come to rest standing upright on the bottom of the glass like a miniature forest of dujun, or “flagged spears.” The tea is just as amazing as the show – deliciously spiritual.

Maojian is not much different from Mao Feng in meaning; both might be rendered Hair Point or Hair Tip in reference to the down-covered, unopened leaf bud used. It appears to me the principal distinction between these terms is that Mao Feng leaf looks pointed while the Maojian leaf looks curly. Either name, you may be sure, signifies an exceptional spring tea, the result of the most painstaking plucking and processing possible. This means it is well worth keeping an eye out for less “famous” Maojian teas with names like Jiukeng Maojian, Guzhang Maojian, and Weishan Maojian. By definition, any tea bearing the name of this style of leaf can only be produced in small quantities and is almost positively handmade.

Maojian, for all its limited production, is still not the rarest category of green tea China produces. This distinction surely belongs to Yunwu, or “cloud-and-mist” tea. A Yunwu story of John Blofeld’s tells how a Taoist recluse once came to town to offer some Cloud-Mist [sic] tea to an Anhui tea firm, asserting that it was of the finest quality. Before he could effect a sale, in came a Buddhist monk proffering “the very best” Cloud-Mist [sic] tea which he had gathered on another peak of the same mountain. The manager . . . invited them to prepare brews for comparison. When the water on the tea stove boiled, the monk poured some in a bowl, threw in a handful of leaves covered with whitish fur and put the lid on. After the time it takes to burn a stick of incense, he removed the lid, releasing a white mist that, before dispersing, rose to a height of some three feet from the rim of the bowl and left behind a subtle aroma. Filling several small bowls with the contents of the large one, he invited the manager and others present to taste his tea, which met with their highest approbation. Then the Taoist prepared a bowl with some of his special tea leaves. When the lid of the bowl was lifted, out came a cloud of steam which assumed the form of a lovely girl. Her figure first expanded and then contracted before finally dispersing. Realizing he had lost the contest, the monk said petulantly, “This strange phenomenon by no means signifies that his tea is of higher quality than mine. It is just a trick accomplished by Taoist magic.” The Taoist laughed and strode away, brushing his sleeves with his hands to express contempt, whereupon the monk picked up his bag of tea and left in a huff. The dazed manager was speechless, and by the time he thought of making an offer for either tea, the holy men were out of sight.

In total volume the Yunwu category is as tiny as Chunmee is huge, but it is vastly older, as ancient as the hermit tradition from which it springs. Cloud-mist teas take their name from the cloud seas surrounding certain peaks at certain times of year. Not only a source of water which keeps the tea leaves moist as they grow, this cloud cover excludes direct sunlight, forcing the leaf to develop more slowly and to compensate chemically for the absence of sunshine. Less caffeine is developed while the amount of chlorophyll in the leaf increases, and this altered chemistry produces quite unusual tea flavors, especially since the plants are often wild to begin with. Such teas remain popular in China – the legendary Lushan Yunwu is the most famous example, but others are known also – and occasionally some are even sampled outside China. This is the Original, Alpha and Omega, Amen.

Next week — White Tea: Bai-cha