The now legendary scholar Zhuxi said of his home on Wuyi Mountain that it stood like the pillars of Heaven, and left you in awe of this infinite universe. The seventy-kilometer world heritage site has always attracted visitors from China and beyond. The river with is glorious nine bends, the endless peaks, mists and clouds all offer a lifetime worth of scenery. These same waters, rich in minerals, crumble the rich soil loose and fill it with nutrients. The cliff walls absorb the sunlight and release it again at night, maintaining a constant temperature. They also draw in the mists, which moisten the trees and provide just the right humidity. And so, like the scenery, the tea here also seems to leave one wondering about those same infinities the poet warned us of.
The beauty and grandeur of Wuiy Mountain itself seems to infuse in the tea from there, drawing me back each year to the place itself. When I am there I feel connected to Nature, complete and at peace. And sometimes, just drinking the tea opens up the door-way to the place where my own stillness meets the world. If you've ever been to seen the cliffs and rivers, mists and streams then you know what I am talking about: there is no doubt that the energy of such a place would surge through all life that inhabits it. Indeed, the vegetables there are some of the most delicious I've had and the people also often seem connected to the earth, as simple and pure as the surrounding peaks.
Wuyi is one of the only places where the modern tea market, burgeoning like never before as China has developed swelling middle and upper classes intent on rediscovering their cultural heritage, which continues a strong conservational energy in opposition to the development, greed and "progress" - destroying the environment and tea culture in so many other growing regions. Of course, there are individuals devoted to environmental and cultural preservation in every region, but not as widespread as Wuyi - though some wonder how long this can last. As an example of this, it is doubtful that you could find another tea-growing region in the world that still only harvests once a year, in spring. Traditionally, almost all tea was harvested once a year, with occasional exceptions in the Fall. Leaving the trees alone, allowed them to recuperate and insured that the next harvest would be as rich as the previous one. In the long term, this stress impacts the surrounding environment as well. Over-harvesting in order to meet growing demands, as well as growing greed, has caused environmental problems in many other areas, and most buyers don't care - as long as they get there tea to enjoy it doesn't matter how it was grown.
In Wuyi, you can meet teenagers learning tea processings the mastery of which takes decades, as oolong tea is the most involved of all teas, and when you ask them find out that they are truly interested - that their parents offered them the chance to go to school in the city and study other things, but that they genuinely take pride in their culture and wish to learn and pass it on. It is very promising, indeed, to meet families who have saved up all the increasing profits over the last ten years, and rather than spending them on cars and sofas are reinvesting them in better tea-processing facilities and equipment. When the government moved the aboriginal farmers outside the park in the 1980's they built a small village for them, but the concrete buildings were not designed according to traditional tea-processing criteria, I've met more than one family who are now investing in other property, tearing down walls and rebuilding window-less rooms out of the clay bricks used long ago to insulate the roasting rooms and better control the humidity.
Like some other regions, Wuyi people also take great pride in their tea processing, developed over centuries. Some of the problems that you can encounter with other genres of tea that have become popular, like Puerh, is that the booming tea economy attracts farmers who were previously working other crops. They then learn the "standard" method of processing for their region and stick to that, day in and day out. Much of the "flaws" in Puerh production come as a result of this formula, which fails to account for all the subtle changes that need to be made for each batch - based on temperature, humidity and many other factors. Watching the ancient wisdom unfold in hand-processed yan cha is amazing, as slight adjustments are made all day and night to balance factors that are often felt, rather than analyzed. It is an art, in other words. And if you've ever tried even the simplest aspect of the process, like shaking the leaves for example, you 11 see that it is no wonder it takes decades to master - like any art.
But not all Wuyi tea is high-quality; not all of it is environmentally protected or processed by hand (or even with any skill). As I've spoken before in previous issues about the processing methods for Wuyi tea, the different kinds and even some of the legends that surround their names, I thought, in this article, we could talk a bit about the four grades of Wuyi yan cha and some guidelines for identifying them.
The highest grade of yancha all comes from within the protected park itself. Trees here tend to be older, and grown with the proper distance between each tree so their roots have room to breath, growing deep and wide to absorb all the wonderful nutrients of this amazing place. They aren't tended to much and some of the small, terraced gardens arc so surrounded by vegetation that the tea is not easily discernable to the untrained eye. Of course, these trees arc almost entirely organic and harvest by hand once a year.
There are, however, several qualities of zhen yan starting of course with the trees themselves. It is a big park and different locations are more ideal for tea growth than others, places where the trees are older, the water and minerals better, or perhaps the mist and sunshine's is perfect. As mentioned above, the cliff walls absorb the days sunshine and release it at night, so many locations in the park stay at a constant temperature and humidity during the growing seasons.
Another important factor relates to the fact that the park is such a famous tourist destination.Thousands of people walk through there every day, following the clear and defined paths constructed by the government. Consequently, the tea gardens near these paths are all inferior. The noise, cameras and even the breathing of thousands of people all affect the quality of these gardens. The best gardens, on the other hand, are several kilometers deep into the park-down dirt paths that take you well away from all the crowds to silent places. Like all plants, tea also responds to human interaction, emotion and even the human voice itself-
Before the strict ban, in around 2002, some friends picked some of the famous Da Hong Pao from the original bushes, processed it and drank it a few days later. While the tea was amazing, coming from such old and powerful bushes, their guide, Mr. Wang,said that compared to earlier years when he had drank it, the quality had slightly diminished. When I asked him why, he responded that it was definitely because of the thousands of people who come and take photos and make a lot of noise around them each day.
Of course, much of the mastery of oolong tea is in the complicated processing, so this will be a huge factor in the end-product as well. The best zhen yan is completely hand-processed, though there is also semihand-processed and machine-processed tea. It is easy to differentiate hand-processed or semi-hand-processed from the machine-processed variety by appearance alone, as the latter produces more uniform leaves, all about the same shape with the same kind of twist, whereas the hand-processed and semi-hand-processed teas display a variety of sizes, shapes and twists unique for each leaf. Discriminating between completely hand-processed and semi-hand-processed yancha is a bit more difficult and takes a bit of practice under the guidance of the trained eye.
Even zhen yan from a single garden will be sorted several times, and a variety of grades will eventually be packaged. A lot can go into the distinction. The tea processed by the hand of the master, for example, may be the smallest quantity each year, as his job is mostly to teach and supervise his younger relatives and employees.
Genuine zhen yan from within the park is almost never, ever roasted heavily. A lot of people have only ever tried heavily-roasted yancha and therefore have probably not tasted much zhen yan, which is produced in much lower quantities and more expensive as a result. Each of the thousands of varieties of yan-cha, like "Shui Jing Gui" or "Lao Jing Mei" all have very distinct flavors. "Tie Liou Han", for example, is known to taste of burnt bamboo, while "Bai Ji Guan" tastes of lychee. If the roast was too heavy, these flavors are lost. In fact, almost all zhen yan is stored for six months to a year before drinking so that whatever roast there will mellow out, leaving behind the flavors of the leaf. Like all oolong, mastery in roasting is when the roast affects the flavor in a positive way without leaving behind any traces of itself. The exception to this rule is the "mistaken" Then yan tea, which is heavily-roasted. As each variety of tea is handprocessed some of it is lost due to all kinds of mistakes, natural and human. This tea is set aside with all the "lost" tea. At the end of the processing period, there is then a bulk of this tea all mixed up - with "Shui Jing Gui", "Tie Liou Han" and all the other varieties processed that year all mixed together. This pile of mixed tea is then heavily roasted, to cover up the differences in the leaves, and sold under the generic, all-encompassing "Da Hong Pao" that denominates all low-quality tea from Wuyi, A lot of the best heavily-roasted teas are of this variety, as they at least come from zhen yan, A look at the wet leaves can often show if the tea was blended.
This is what you could call "Halfway Cliff Tea", It grows on the hills and cliffsides immediately outside the park itself. A lot of these gardens are planted in the traditional way, though-on terraces with a meter or so between each tree, which is left to grow strong and old. Some of these gardens are actually quite old as well and many are organic, though much less than in the park.
Ban yan can be a shady area because some of the gardens that are just outside what the government has demarcated as the park produce better tea than some of the worst locations within the park, Also, a lot of ban yan Is right on the border, and there are trees just on the other side of a cliff that could be called zhen yan. For the most part, though, these trees lack what the best quality yancha has: cliffs on both sides, which not only absorb and release temperature, as we discussed earlier, but also drain minerals down from both sides into streams of nutrient-rich waters for the trees. This water also keeps the soil aerated, loose and gravely.
As with zhen yan, processing will play a huge part in determining the quality of a ban yan as well. Much less of this tea is hand-processed, however, as it does not warrant the attention and cost in energy, Hand processing oolong tea is very labor intensive, and during the harvest season many of the masters get very little sleep indeed.
Down in the flatlands between the park and the river that separates the village, several plantations of tea have been created. The soil there is rich and the humidity is adequate. Some of these trees are also very old, though less than the previous kinds of tea.
In this category, much of what makes different varieties of yancha special is lost. The distinct flavors of certain varieties of yancha have as much to do with their special location in the park as they do with the genetics of the trees themselves, which is why tea masters in Wuyi only really refer to the six original trees as "Da Hong Pao", since even grafting clones and planting them elsewhere will eventually result in a new variety of tea as the trees adapt and interact with their new surroundings - like the first generation "Da Hong Pao" planted in the now-famous Bei. Also, the farming by the river ceases to be about quality and starts to march to the economic drum. For that reason, very little of it is organic and it is often harvested year round, like other tea growing regions around the world. All this tea is heavily roasted, which as we discussed is almost always a means of covering up inferior quality leaf, and sold as the generic, "Da Hong Pao". Most of this tea is sold raw to large factories that machine process it. In fact, some farmers have even begun to sell their zhen yan to the factories rather than process it themselves.
Literally "Grown Outside", this tea is grown in the flatlands surrounding the park and shares in none of the richness that makes Wuyi tea special. This tea is all lower altitude, inorganic hedged and pruned little trees that are harvested into the ground, like most tea growing areas in the world. This tea is all about mimicking Wuyi tea, and heavy roasts to cover up any trace of flavor that could possibly infuse from the tea itself. Basically these are farms that have, over the years, jumped on the "Da Hong Pao" bandwagon and converted their land to tea production to cash in on the growing interest. I have some of this tea from a trip in 2001 that to this day still has not lost its roast, so that when you open the jar or brew the tea with Yixing Purple Clay Tea Set, the roast-flavor and aroma is as strong as it was the day it was roasted.
While some of the master are worried by the trends in plantation farming and large factories, I still make the trip to Wuyi every spring—encouraged by the young people's desire to continue their cultural heritage and promote organic farming of old-growth trees as well as traditional processing by hand. When you add in the breadth of the scenery, the invigorating hikes and the delicious vegetables, it is always a vacation like no other. Wuyi and its tea will always have a very special place in my heart, and I plan to continue to go there each year.
I especially like the later steepings of a good yan-cha, when the flavors are all gone and all that remains is the "rock flavor (yan wei)" which tastes like minerals. In my mind, I can lean back and breathe in that mountain air, reminiscing all the wonderful sessions I've had in the park itself, by favored cliffs and trees using the very same stream water. This kind of connection to Nature, is for me what tea is all about; for in my center, as the world quiets and I become still, I find the same energy staring out of my eyes - Zhuxi's "infinity".