When we last left off, we were speaking of the Sage of Tea, Lu Yu, who wrote one of the most comprehensive treatises on tea, Cha Jing, or The Classic of Tea. We know that tea during Lu Yu’s time (Eighth Century) referred to green tea, and more specifically, steamed green tea, similar to the sencha of today.
From the Eighth Century to the 14th Century, an important shift in the production of tea took place with the advent of “chao qing,” or roasting, as opposed to steaming. This important development transformed the landscape of tea production. Roasting involves using a wok (or equivalent) to dry the leaves as opposed to steaming them, which was the norm during Lu Yu’s time. This shift eventually paved the way for the production of other teas.
Two types of yellow teas have been referenced throughout history:
- Shou zhou huang cha – the cultivar with naturally yellow buds produced in Liu An during the Tang Dynasty
- Junshan Yinzhen, Huoshan Huangya, and Mengding Huangya – the yellow tea that we know today
Yellow tea is believed to have first commenced production around 1570, when “chao qing” green tea was accidentally subjected to humidity and, as in the case of many great inventions, culminated in a new discovery. Yellow tea then came to refer to teas that are subjected to an additional step known as “men huang,” or “stewing until it yellows,” which results in the leaves and the liquor being “yellowed” and most of the grassiness removed.
Dark tea (heicha) is more accurately translated as black tea, but that has come to denote the category of tea that refers to nearly fully oxidized teas, such as Keemun, Lapsang Souchong, and most of the teas historically produced by the former British colonies. As such, heicha is translated as “dark tea” and is also known as post-fermented tea.
If yellow tea was invented due to a mistake in the production of green tea, then dark tea was invented due to a mistake that occurred in the transportation and storage of green tea. During the 11th Century, Sichuan green teas were often transported to the border for the minority tribes on horseback. As those areas were dry and arid, vegetables were scarce and cooked tea became a staple of their diet, providing essential vitamins and minerals.
For easy transportation, tea was compressed into bricks and cakes and carried on horseback. Unfortunately, that was before the time of vacuum sealing, oxygen absorbers, and desiccants. During the two to three months that the teas traveled via horseback, they were subjected to natural elements, including sunlight and rain. If you took out your green tea today and exposed it to sunlight and moisture, within two weeks it would look more like black tea.
That was the case with teas then; the natural microbes led to teas being fermented by the time the mares had completed their trek. However, there was an altogether different complexion being imparted by these natural elements and that became a trademark of the minority tribes. Eventually, producers replicated the moisture and heat by a process known as “wodui,” or “heaping,” which is used in the production of Shu Puer, Hunan Dark Tea, Liu Bao Dark Tea, and other types of heicha.
So, how did green tea evolve further into white tea, black tea, and, of course, my personal favorite, oolong tea? That is a tale for next month’s post!
The photo is courtesy of Peony Tea Solutions.