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Discovery & Guesswork of Liu an Tea by Yang Kai

In August 2007, Mr. Liang, the Chief Editor of Puerh Teapot Chinese Magazine, phoned and told me that he discovered some very aged Liu-an tea baskets in Hong Kong. He sent me the photographs and persuaded me to write something on this tea.

I did not know much about Liu-an tea. In order to accomplish the task, I had to find more information of this tea. I then pur-chased some Liu-an tea which was around ten years of age. I tried my best to find the feelings and sensa-tions from the tea broth and its history in the old papers.

Liu-an tea, a.k.a."An-tea(安茶)" or "Liu-an Basket Tea (六安藍茶/六安笠仔)" was one of the tea products of Anhui province in the late Qing Dynasty (清末) to the beginning of the Republic of China (Le. from the late 19th to early 20th century). It was mainly distributed to Guangdong, Hong Kong and South-east Asia. The reason why it was so named as"Liu-an Tea" was that the Chinese characters "Liu-an Tea" and "Good Value were always printed on the description tickets. It was heard that Liu-an tea could be used as a medicine trigger with its cooling nature, especially the aged Liu-an tea vintages, because aged Liu-an tea would not have its "hot" and "fire" nature. Without such natures, it became more tasty and mellower after aging so that it could help to remove "heat" and "wetness" inside the human body. The more it aged, the more it was expensive and mellower. In the old days, in Guangdong, Guangxi and South-east Asia, almost all the rich would prepare and get the Liu-an tea ready in their home. They loved to appreciate aged Liu-an vintages very much.

However, according to my research, An-tea was not produced from the Liu-an area of Anhui (安徽)province. In fact, it was produced in the area next to Chang River (阊江) Qimen (祁門) County in Southern Anhui (安徽)pfovince. Somebody believed that the "soft stems tea (軟枝茶)" meiitioned by Chinese ancestors was, in fact, the Liu-an tea. In the middle to late 19th century, before the invention of Qimen (祁門) black tea, there were lots of production areas of Liu-an tea in the province because Liu-an tea was welcomed by people and always had an excellent sale so that many people devoted themselves to the production work of Liu-an tea. Besides, Liu-an tea was also a tea for export so that many areas of Anhui (安徽) province produced Liu-an tea in the past. The market believed that the quality of Liu-an tea from the south-west villages was the best. Unfortunately, when the market focused on the Qimen (祁門) black tea, the production areas of Liu-an tea reduced and declined. At last, Liu-an tea was only produced from places called Luxi (蘆溪) and Rongkou (溶口) in the south-west villages. Apart from these two major places, a few Liu-an baskets were also produced from Dian Butan (店埠灘), Pingli (平裹) and Zhukou(渚口). During the Second World War, since the South-east Asia and Hoag Kong were occupied by Japanese army and there were battles in the southern part of Anhui (安徽) province,the delivery of Liu-an tea was blocked so that the sale of this tea further declined and disappeared from the market eventually. Around 1983, the tea production unit of Anhui (安徽)province re-produced Liu-an tea in accordance with the samplc, aged Liu-an baskets, provided by Hong Kong tea vendors. How-ewr, the teas manufactured were experimental and the quantity were low also. Nowadays, there was not much left so that many Anhui (安微) people do not know about this tea.

As it was a. re-production of traditional tea without the knowhow, it would be a doubtable question whether the newly made Liu-an tea baskets would age into old vintages as those we had got in hands produced in the 1940's.

Anyway, let us study the prpcess of how to make a basket of Liu-an first. There are two existing techniques of making Liu-an tea. The first one is to stir-fry the raw tea leaves in a big Chinese wok for preparatory fixation (殺青) and then dry the raw tea leaves by an appropriate temperature. After drying, the tea farmer will select the best tea leaves for the next step. They place the dry tea leaves on the bamboo mats outdoors overnight for absorbing the appropriate degree of moisture. These tea leaves must be processed in the next morning by putting them into a wooden bucket to stem and soften. When the tea leaves arc still hot and soft, they must be wrapped by the bamboo leaves and pressed into the little bamboo baskets. Charcoal fire is then used for baking the tea leaves inside the baskets on the shelf in order to make them dry. This production technique is the most common one used by tea factories right now.

According to Mr.Li ronglin (李榮林) from "[translated] the Food Research Center of Agriculture, Jiangsu Province", the second technique of producing Liu-an tea is to put the fresh tea leaves under sunlight for loosing their water contents, and then performing preparatory fixation (殺青), twisting and rolling and drying processes before these dry tea leaves will be stored for months. The storing period is from spring to autumn or from summer to winter or from autumn to spring of the following year. After the short storage, these tea leaves will be undergone the soften and fermented processes in which these "aged" Liu-an tea leaves are soften by adding appropriate level of water. Then, they will be wrapped by the bamboo leaves and compressed into the lit-cle baskets. As the tea leaves inside the bamboo leaves are still wet so chat fermentation is performing within each of the little Liu-an basket, which releases heat during the fermentation. After this process, the baskets will be dried. We can note from the second technique that the fermentation process is more obvious than the first one. This will result a reddish and mellow tea broth of the tea. The differences in quality from these two manufacture processes are evident. However, one may ask, "which is the authentic and traditional way of manufacture?" Time will tell when the tea will have been aged into vintages.

Liu-an tea - Interview and Guesswork

In September 2007, in order to reveal the mystery of Liu-an tea, I interviewed with relevant tea vendors and local people in Anhui (安徽) and people in [translated] Technical Division of Tea and Food of Agriculture University of Anhui (安徽). I also interviewed with Mr. Zheng Jianxin (鄭建新), the former head of Qimen (祈門) County, who knew a lot about the history of Qimen (祈門) tea leaves. Besides,I also read some books and papers in relation to Liu-an. Although the evidence I obtained could not resolve all the mysteries, they were the collateral corroboration to my guesswork, which may be useful to the later researcher. Unfortunately, owing to my time constraint, I was unable to visit the manufacture origin of Liu-an tea, Qimen (祈門).Personally speaking, I felt regret on this.

First of all, my doubt was that "why did the Liu-an tea leaves manufacturing from Qimen (祈門), in the south of Anhui (安微),adopt the name from another place,Liu-an (六安), in the west of Anhui (安徽), as its ultimate popular name?" Somebody suggested that Liu-an tea was very famous in Ming (明)and Qing (清)Dynasties. However, the Songluo tea (松羅茶) from near-by Xiuning (休寧) was also very renowned in the history of Chinese tea. Some of the ancient Chinese poems also mentioned songluo tea (松蘿茶). This indicated that adopting the name of ,Liu-an was not due to the fact that Liu-an tea was a famous tea.

If the reason naming the tea form Qimen (祈門) as Liu -an was ot due to the celebrity, was it due to the manufacturing process-s? That was to say whether the manufacturing process and pack-ging style of a tea from Qimen (祁門)were similar to another tea manufactured in the place called iu-an or not? Mr. Wu Haochuan (胡浩川), the senior tea man of the research workshop of Qimen (听門) tea leaves, said that An-tea was the tea imitating the tea pro-duced from the place of Liu-an. However, he did not mentioned exactdy what kind of tea it imitat-l. From the contemporary peo-ple's point of views, the most famous tea produced in Liu-an is Liu-an Grapian (六安瓜片), a green tea which was created in the 1950's. Definitely, the manufacture of An-tea was long before the invention of Liu-an Guapian (六安瓜片) According to the texts from the description ticket of Sun Yishun (孫義順), it stated, "there has been more than 150 years selling our tea to Zhen Guangfeng (鎭廣豐) in Foshan (佛山)." If the words from Sun Yishun (孫義 the is true, the time of their establishment must be in the era of Qianlong Emperor during Qing Dynasty(清乾隆).However, according to papers and records, the actual establishment time of Sun Yishun (孫義順) was in fact later. In addition, the major tea manufactured by Sun Yishun (孙義順) at the early stage were "Large Leaf Green Tea" and "Large Leaf Yellow Tea" instead of Liu-an tea. However, the Large Leaf Yellow Tea" had a similar manufacturing process as the Liu-an tea.

According to records in Ming Dynasty (明朝), the famous tea at that time in the north of Yangtze River was Liu-an tea. Unfortunately, owing to the immature manufacture techniques, the tea leaves were easily scorched so that these tea leaves were put into a big basket. These ancient records reflected the manufacturing processes of "Large Leaf Yellow Tea" which had the characteristics of being easily scorched would be contained in a large bamboo basket. In 1954, the yield of "Large Leaf Yellow Tea" was high in the place called Liu-an. The total quantity was 2,415 tonnes, which were mainly sold to Jinan (濟南).

I guessed that, perhaps, An-tea was the improved tea of "Large Leaf Yellow Tea". In the interview, Mr. Zheng Jianxin (鄭建新) told me that the manufacturers of An-tea mainly acquired their raw materials from tea farmers. After selection and fine picking, the selected An-tea leaves would be steamed and compressed with their high water contents. The An-tea would be sold after 2 to 3 years of storage. Therefore, no matter whether the raw materials were green tea or yellow tea, the final product after being compressed into the little baskets with their high water contents would be fermented into dark tea.

There was another name for An-tea, the "soft stems tea (軟枝茶)". Obviously, this name indicated that this tea had its soft stems. In Ming Dynasty (明朝), Mr. Xu cishu (許次纾) said that Liu-an tea had green stems and purple tea buds. This implied that both teas were made by very fine tea buds.

When I was staying in the Agriculture University of Anhui (安徽), I was very eager to check out if there was any sample of "Large Leaf Yellow Tea" being kept in their rooms of product samples. Unfortunately, the day I visited was the first day of the new academic year so that both professors and students of the tea department were busy. Latcr, I was informed by one the professors that Acre was no " Large Leaf Yellow Tea" sample in the Agriculture University of Anhui (安徽).

Apart from Sun Yishun (孫義顧). were there any other tea shops or tea firms also manufacturing Liu-an baskets? If yes, how did their trademark tickets and description tickets look like? I found some information in [translated] the Culture of Anhui (Third Edition). There was a table in the article showing how many tea firms in 1933.

The table showed some of the An-tea tea firms of Qimen (祈門) County in 1933. We noted that these An-tea firm preferred to use "X X Chun"(某某春) or "X X Shun"(某某順) as their names to represent their tea firms. What were the rationales behind these names? We had no idea. There were about 40 tea firms in total at that time. They were all small factories producing Liu-an baskets. They started their businesses and later on closed their businesses as well. The business environment was not stable. Some of the famous tea firms wc had heard were not included in this table such as Wu tianchun (胡天春), Wu Juchun (胡巨春), Xin Huashun (新華顺), Zheng Yishun (鄭義順) Yuan Chun long (兀春隆),Wu Guangzhen (胡廣眞) and Liao Yuchuri (摩雨春), etc.

Regarding those little basket tea discovered in Hong Kong shown to me in photos, they were wrapped by an outer bamboo mat, on which the Chinese characters [tranvslated] Anhui Green Tea of China Tea Export Company (中國茶葉出口公司徽脊)" were printed" By this evidence, we might conclude that this tea might be produced in between January 1956 to December I960 because that was the live period of China Tea Export Company. Therefore, we might further infer that the large batch of such tea was from that era.Since I was unable to open the bamboo mat by myself, I was not certain whether if there was any trademark tickets or description tickets inside. If those baskets were manufactured by private tea firms, it must be made before 1956. In 1954, the government prohibited private tea vendors to pluck tea leaves or acquire raw tea leaf materials on their own. In 1956, the prelimifiary reformation into socialism almost finished so that no more private tea firms were allowed to exist at that time. To the fact that whether the tea inside the bamboo mat was Liu-an tea, I doubted. Although An-tea was also called "green tea" in the history, the last batch of An-tea was exported by a private tea vendor to Hong Kong in 1942. After that, there was no more An-tea produced. In addition, the wrapping basket of An-tea was different from the wrapping of the tea present in the photo, I guess, the tea inside the bamboo mat could be the roasted green tea of Anhui (安徽). Certainly, if would be very interesting if it had been the An-tea manufactured in the 1950's.

Comparisons between An-tea and Puerh tea

* The aged tea of both are expensive.
* The names of both teas are not the place of origins of the tea.

Puerh tea comes from Simao City, not from the Puerh County (from the point of view of geographic sub-division, however, Simao City was still under the Puerh Province in the history. Secondly, I am talking about the cmrent situation because the Six Famous Tea Mountains were governed by the state government of Xishuangbanna in the past). For Puerh tea, in the past, although the tea cakes were not produced in Yiwu (易武), they were still embedded with trademark tickets with Yiwu (易武) labeling. By the same token, the Liu-an tea we had today was not produced in the place called Liu-an, but from Qimen (祈門) County. In the China tea history, it was a norm for tea vendors to manufacture tea imitating famous tea from famous places. In the records from Ming Dynasty (明朝), [translated] Tea Legend (《茶說》) it stated, "the tea produced in Hangzhou (杭州)and Zhejiang (浙江) will imitate the names of the teas from Huqiu (虎丘) and Tianchi (天池), The teas produced from Xuanchi (宣池) will also imitate the name of genuine Songluo tea (松蘿茶).

* Both teas are fermented.

There are different degrees of fermentation and techniques of Puerh tea depending various compressed shapes. There is no definite principle for these techniques when comparing with the techniques of the 6 major kinds of teas. For example, the fermenta-tion technique of compressed tea from Menghai areas in the old days were as follows:

1.Placed and spread around 50kg fine selected raw tea leaf materials on the ground;
2.If there was any tea balls sticking toother, separated them;
3. Sprayed water on tea leaves in order to make them wet;
4. After they were dampened completely, tools were used to stir them in order to make the tea leaves even and flat;
5. Sprayed the water again and repeated the above procedures for 3 times;
6. The water and tea leaves ratio was around 30:100.
7. After the whole pile of Puerh tea leaves were dampened thoroughly, placed them aside for further fermentation;
8. Since the outer part of the pile exposed to air would dry up easily,water had to be added from time to time. If that was the fine tea, less water was required.
9.It was not easy to control the fermentation process and this required lots of experiences.
10.If there was too much water, the fermented tea leaves would not be tough enough. Besides, these tea leaves would shrink and not be good as to their appearances.
11 .If there was not enough water, it would hurt the hand of the worke.rs during the twisting and rolling process. Besides, the size of the tea leaves would still be large. This was not convenient for transportation.
12.The inside of a tea cake should not contain high water contents. Otherwise, there would be molds growing inside and caused deterioration. These teas would not be drinkable. If there was any dispute between the employers and employees, the workers would leave high water contents in the tea cakes to take their revenge.

To An-tea, the fermentation process was a very important technique. The manufacture procedures were as follows:
1.In order to age the An-tea, appropriate amount of water was added into the tea leaves until they were soften:
2. After that, the tea leaves were compressed slightly into a large bamboo basket and to be ripened (fermented) for a period of time;
3. The period af fermentation depended on tea leaves and fermented until the tea leaves heated up themselves;
4. Some Liu-an tea manufacturers would place the roasted raw Liu-an tea leaves outdoors overnight to absorb enough moisture and then put them into a wooden steamer for steaming in the next morning;
5.When the tea leaves were soften by the steam, workers would compress the tea leaves into a little basket with the bamboo leaves. These techniques indicated that An-tea was also a fermented tea.

* Both packaging of Puerh and Liu-an tea adopts different parts of bamboo as their wrapping materials. The bamboo bark outer wrapping materials can help to protect Puerh tea from air moisture while the little bamboo basket with bamboo leaves allows appropriate ventilation to the Liu-an tea.

* In the old days, Puerh tea Was called "old-man tea" in Hong Kong. In addition, people who drank Liu-an tea in the old day's in Hong Kong were almost senior citizens.

* Both aged Liu-an tea and Antique Puerh Vintages have many counterfeit and imitat-ing products.

* The aged Liu-an tea I have ever drunk (only ten years of age because I was unable to locate one more than 30 years of age) has similar aged tea tastes as Puerh vintages despite the thinner tea broth of Liu-an. Puerh tea has a comparatively thicker liquor.

* It is difficult to classify both Liu-an tea and Puerh tea into right categories because they do not have concrete degrees of fermentation.

Liu-an tea is an aged tea. The more it ages, the more it becomes precious. Liu-an tea has its own history and personality. Discovery of Liu-an tea can enhance the knowledge to the researchers of tea culture regarding the tea leaves evolution and understanding. The discovery of Liu-an tea can also be a piece of good news to experienced connoisseurs because there are more already aged vintages they can appreciate as long as they are willing to pay for that. At least, they do not have to wait for another 50 years. To tea lovers, discovery of Liu-an tea allows them to have more discussion topics to discuss on. Perhaps, such discovery may reveal more unidentified areas for Liu-an tea.