When my mother and I stepped off the musty, bare-bones bus that had lumbered neon-lit for six hours from the capital city of Guangzhou to Raoping, we could do nothing but nod passively to the suggestion of a late-night tea tasting at the home of our host Liu Jingjun. In this most northeasterly “town” of more than 1 million in China’s Guangdong province, it is customary for all social interactions, personal or professional, to be held while simultaneously taking in some tea, regardless of the time of day or night.
As Liu told us soon after arriving at his home, half the town is devoted to the sea and half is devoted to the mountains; in other words, either fishing or tea-growing. In the case of Liu’s family, there is a generational dedication to growing, producing and distributing oolong tea through their Oolong Tea Company, whose name, like that of the tea, may be translated into English as “black dragon.” The tea’s name is fitting: The dark, long, twisting profile of the fired leaves they proudly produce resembles the mythical beast.
The complexity of the production processes is legendary, which the “Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook” puts at 40 hours and is widely recognized among tea makers as one of the most labor-intensive and challenging teas to produce in the world. As the authors Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss explain, the result is a nuanced tea not unlike whiskey in its tasting notes: a tea that is rich and flavorful with aromas “redolent of melons, apricots, leather, wood, spice, and orchids.”
The ins and outs of oolong
A Westerner who knows his or her way around the “black dragon” will impress native Chinese tea-drinkers, especially those who consider themselves aficionados. There’s a lot to know about oolong. For one, oxidation levels range between 12 percent and 80 percent (green tea is at zero, and black tea is 100 percent oxidized at the other extreme), and the tea trees grow in a variety of tea-producing regions, namely in southern China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces, in Taiwan and in Japan. Altitudes also vary greatly, some reaching several thousands of meters; the higher up the better.
Based on these qualities, tea is classified into categories that range from the commercial, which is relatively inexpensive, to higher quality, which can cost several hundred dollars a kilogram. Among the six tea varietals, oolong is worth special attention.
That night was my mom’s first brush with the traditional manner of brewing, serving and tasting tea known as Gongfu. Some say this tea ceremony originated in Fujian, the province bordering the eastern edge of Raoping, though others, especially locals, will note Chaozhou prefecture, where Raoping is based, as the true hotbed of tea innovation in the 1700s (there is some competition with Fujianese oolongs so take this with a grain of salt). That night was also my first contact with the famed oolong tea in southern China, though I had previously tasted it in Taiwan.
Ancient tea ceremony
We watched our host deftly arrange his tools on the carved wooden table purpose-made for the Gongfu cha or literally “exert-effort tea.” The primary implements include a small pot called a gaiwan, whose 6-ounce size is ⅙ to ⅛ smaller than teapots we’re accustomed to in the West and can be either unglazed clay or ceramic. In Liu’s experienced hands, however, the process looked as natural as holding a pair of chopsticks or flicking the occasional cigarette from which he would drag slowly either before or after, but rarely during, tea drinking.
Liu would pour hot water into matching cups smaller in circumference than even a golf ball to rinse and heat them, then use tongs to empty them before refilling once or twice with tea “liquor” and allowing us to drink. We tried three kinds of oolong teas that his family produces from the regional label Shantou Dancong, including my new favorite the Phoenix (Mountain) Orchid Fragrance varietal. Tasting this, I experienced a strong vegetal “nose” that demonstrated a long, fruity finish, to borrow from wine parlance.
The modern world intrudes
There were small signs of modernity’s rise and influence on this historic tradition: a hot-water kettle or small burner was used to heat the teapot, and plastic tubing connecting the tea table to a receptacle below handily funneled waste water away. Canisters of water lining the dining and living room walls were filled with water brought from the plantation’s mountain spring, as city water is no longer potable. This is something that changed in the last decade, according to Liu and his wife, Zhang Lihua. “We only use the best water to steep our teas, otherwise the original leaf flavor will be ruined,” Liu said.
Everything happened quickly and haphazardly. The liquid flowed over the tops of the cups, which were often turned over with the tongs even when nearly full. Here we were, surrounded by bags and bags of tea, with more in the back storage room and even more awaiting us tomorrow, when we would begin our journey into five peaks of the Phoenix Mountain tea range.
Liu was excited and proud to introduce his family’s historic craft to us foreigners — only the second set to ever visit his home and plantation. This was more than a formal exchange between host and guest, or tea expert and curious journalist, I believe. Over and over, gems of truly shared experience bubbled to the top, most especially when we three would taste a new kind of tea. Momentarily pausing in silent thought and appreciation, one person would start describing the taste, and then another and the other, until we reached a communal agreement on tea tea we were drinking.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photos, from top:
Liu Jingjun pours tea.
Bags of tea.
Credits: Manueal Zoninsein