The title itself seems like an oxymoron – how can a Top 10 Famous Tea be lesser known? But that’s the fate that befalls all quality green teas in China not named Dragon Well or Green Spires Spring (Bi Luo Chun). Incidentally, Gunpowder and Chun Mei are not officially classified as quality green teas. Other perennial favorites on China’s Top 10 Famous Teas list include Huangshan Maofeng, Xinyang Maojian, and Taiping Houkui, but these do not quite have the same repute outside of China.
I have singled out Liuan Guapian, or Liuan Melon Seed, in this post because of its unique production methods. First of all, Liuan Guapian is produced from leaves that are known in Chinese nomenclature as “kaimian” leaves or literally “opening of the face” leaves, characterized as a shoot with a bud-to-two-to-three-leaves ratio. This is in stark contrast to most other green teas that are typically made from tender shoots or, in the case of Green Spires Spring, from buds only.
Secondly, in the production of Liuan Guapian, the stems and buds are removed, while the young and matured leaves are separated. Only the matured leaves are used in the production of Liuan Guapian. The shape of these matured leaves have been said to resemble melon seeds – hence its name.
Liuan Guapian, as we know today, was produced in 1905 in the county of Liuan located in Anhui Province. Initially, it was named Fengchi (literally “the wings of the peak”), but later it was christened Guapian for its shape, and the name stuck. The date of Liuan Guapian’s first production also has significance to Chinese scholars. One of the Four Classics of Chinese Literature – Dream of a Red Chamber, which was written in the 18th Century – features the richest references to tea in Chinese, and probably in any other literary work.
The author, Cao Xueqin, was a noted tea addict and it was evident through his writings that he knew his stuff. One of the characters – Granny Liu – was noted to favor Liuan tea. Over the years, some writings suggest that Liuan tea referred to Liuan Guapian, but the publication of Cao Xueqin’s seminal work predated Liuan Guapian’s initial production date by two centuries! Another point to refute the likelihood of Liuan Guapian or an early incarnation thereof being the Liuan tea of Dream of a Red Chamber was that the characters in the Liu household were quite knowledgeable about tea. Green tea is classified in traditional Chinese medicine conventions as “cooling” and is generally not recommended for elderly folks because it would damage their stomach. The most likely conclusion is that Liuan tea is a form of Liuan Dark Tea (Heicha). Dark teas are generally “warming” and are therefore recommended for those with digestive problems and weaker constitutions.
The cultural note aside, Liuan Guapian is a delightful green tea with a chestnut-like taste and a more distinct fragrance compared with most other green teas. I hope I managed to pique your interest in the world of the lesser-known members of China’s Top 10 Famous Teas, starting with Liuan Guapian.
Disclaimer: Although Derek Chew owns a business from which you can buy green tea online, Liuan Guapian is not among the products he offers at this time.