As readers of this blog are aware, or soon will be, the world of tea is ancient, diverse, and deep. The same can be said of tea’s homeland, China, and as a result there is no one in China or elsewhere who knows everything there is to know about Chinese tea. The customs observed by every member of one village may be completely unknown in the next. Often, when asked how things are “done” in China, I respond that the only true thing that can be said of all Chinese people is that they are Chinese. Every time I go back to China I discover teas I’ve never heard of, and sometimes teas that nobody I know has ever heard of. This is an article about one of the latter, but first, an introduction and an analogy.
Pu er tea is a type of tea from Yunnan that is sometimes, but not always, drunk in a dark fermented state. Among the general population, pu er tea remains virtually unknown. Among the rapidly growing ranks of young, non-Chinese aficionados of Chinese tea, pu er may be the most highly regarded of all teas, especially aged or ripened pu er, especially on the West Coast. It improves with age, making it a natural analog to the wine culture of California, where it is consumed almost exclusively in its dark state. As a result, many people (in America) consider the term “pu er” to represent a broad category of teas, namely any tea that is fermented by living microbes. In fact, pu er is just one member of a larger group of teas called hei cha. Hei cha literally means “black tea” in Chinese, but is branded “dark tea” in the West to avoid confusion with oxidized “black tea”, which is the familiar “teabag” tea consumed in most Western countries. To allay this confusion, hei cha is sometimes translated as “dark tea”.
There are many forms of hei cha produced throughout China, though all improve with age and most tend to have a dark color and earthy taste. An excellent summary of some of these varieties organized by region can be found here courtesy of Mr. Tony Gebely.
Having not been introduced to forms of hei cha other than pu er, many American tea lovers mistakenly use the word “pu er” in place of hei cha to describe teas that have been post-fermented, meaning broken down due to microbial activity. In fact, pu er refers specifically to tea from Yunnan, and not all pu er is hei cha. The traditional form of pu er, sheng pu er, ages very slowly and doesn’t acquire its dark character until 10-15 years of age. In its fresh form, this type of tea would be considered pu er but wouldn’t be considered hei cha.
On my last trip to China, in the spring of 2015, I made a point of seeking out the non-Pu Er hei cha. I was already familiar with the Tibetan brick of Mt. Mengding from my time in Chengdu, and had tried Hunan hei cha from Anhua several times, though never in Hunan. All in all, during the last trip I sourced 7 forms of hei cha besides pu er: zang cha, liu bao, fuzhuan, heizhuan, qingzhuan, tian jian cha, and guyu cha. Of all of these the last, guyu cha, was the most unique and surprising to me.
It comes from Guangxi, in southwestern China, home of the more famous hei cha known as Liu Bao, meaning “Six Castles”. Unlike Liu Bao and most other wet-aged hei cha, Guyu Cha is not produced for export but is consumed by the people who grow it. It is picked in late Spring during the Guyu 谷雨 or “Grain Rain,” the 6th Solar Term of the Chinese calendar between the Pure Brightness and the beginning of summer. I am told it is picked while it is actually raining, and, having not picked this tea myself and having no source of knowledge besides my anecdotal experiences, I must proceed as though this is the case, no matter how absurd it sounds. Like sheng pu er, it is processed immediately after picking by cooking (sha qing). Once dried, it is essentially a green tea and can be consumed as such. However, Guangxi is very humid and any organic matter – including green tea – that is left exposed is likely to mold. To prevent this, the farmers store their tea in grain sacks in the rafters of the kitchen. There, the tea gets continually smoked by the open wood-burning stoves used in rural kitchens. In this fashion the tea ages and is allowed to ferment without molding, due to the presence of the smoke. Tea can age like this for decades.
My company, West China Tea Company, imports aged Guyu cha from a private collector who has been buying individual batches from local farmers for more than 10 years. The current batch of Guyu cha we sell at the Tea Spot in Austin is more than 20 years old. When it’s gone, we’ll get more, but it won’t be the same batch or even the same year. This particular batch has a very woody, slightly smoky taste, brews a dark amber liquor, and is reminiscent of a very old sheng pu er that is not astringent, perhaps with more oak notes.
Guyu cha is used to make you cha, or “oil tea”, a traditional Zhuang ethnic preparation unique to Guangxi, where the tea is fried in vegetable oil in a wok with ginger, garlic, green onions, peanuts, and salt, pounded (still in the wok) with a special wooden mallet, whereupon they add water to it, boil the whole mash, strain it, and serve it in a bowl with puffed rice, peanuts, salt, and fresh green onions. It is eaten like a soup for breakfast accompanied by a variety of chewy, snack-like things. Using fresh Guyu cha produces a gorgeous emerald liquor, but aged Guyu cha makes a richer and more complex you cha.
Guyu cha (and you cha) are produced and consumed in the area around Guilin, in the north of Guangxi. There, Guyu cha is drunk every day, either as you cha or just by itself. It is an everyday part of the fabric of peoples’ lives. Two days ago I met a girl from Nanning, the capital of Guangxi, in the south. I showed her my giant grain sack full of Guyu cha, expecting her to recognize it. While she conceded that it smelled good, she had no idea what it was. She had never heard of Guyu cha and had only a passing familiarity with you cha. It is this denseness of culture, the dizzying array of obscure customs and arts, and the perpetual inscrutability of China and Chinese tea that make my job so fascinating. There is no “Tea Pope” – nobody can say what is and isn’t out there. Every trip to China is a chance to discover something new; new to me, and maybe new to everyone I know. Unraveling the confusing, half-legend origins of these very real teas is like solving a mystery. A successful sourcing venture isn’t just a business trip, it’s an exploratory mission searching for mysterious treasure on a dark continent.