Guang has a PhD. in Chemical Engineering. He has been passionate about tea culture and Yixing since he studied in Taiwan. Now he lives in Houston, TX, USA and is the proprietor of Hou De Fine Tea.
Teas from Wuyi Mountain have been exported to Western countries for years, but what consumers find on the market does not necessarily reflect Wuyi's finest teas. In Europe and North America, much of the "yan cha" sold by vendors is a far cry from the teas available in Fujian and other parts of Asia. Just as many Westerners have had negative first impressions of Puerh tea, since musty, ripe (shou) tea was all that they had access to. Similarly, some tea drinkers in the West see yan cha as a characterless Oolong tea of dark roasting. Every time the subject of yan cha comes up they ask me, "Why do all rock teas taste the same?" And many times they also know the story of Da Hong Pao and/or have been sold on tales of yan cha given to emperors as tribute, so they sarcastically demand, "Did China's emperors really drink this tea?" The simple answer is that the teas given in tribute to the palace were not the common variety drunk by the people, and even the Puerh teas carried by horse to the Forbidden City in the Qing Dynasty were nothing like the ones traveling the same roads to market in Beijing. Yet the differences between the royal cup and the ordinary one in some ways mirror the differences between what is sold in the West as rock tea and what is available in Asia. Though the name "Da Hong Pao" ornaments both the poor and high quality tea boxes, no name, description, explanation or fancy story can better the quality of a tea. Only through tasting rock teas and learning to appreciate the inherent virtues in an eminent yan cha will one ever be able to distinguish them. But what exactly are those virtues and how do we begin to recognize them?
Wuyi tea is deeply influenced by its natural environment. Wuyi is famous for its breathtakingly serene landscape of mist-enshrouded peaks, jagged cliffs, crevices, mountains and valleys with meandering creeks. The average elevation in Wuyi is about 650 meters above sea level. This is just "mid-elevation" by way of Taiwan's high-mountain plantations, which are often over 1500m, but the yan cha produced in this region has always been one of the most famous Chinese teas nonetheless. Lu Yu discussed the relationship between soil and the growth of tea trees in the first chapter of his classic work Cha Ching. He said that "the best tea trees grow in limestone, the next grade grows in gravelly soil, and the lowest grade tea trees are grown in yellow clay." Within the boundaries of the Scenic District of Wuyi the soil is all volcanic limestone or gravelly soil. Moreover, the highest grade Wuyi teas are grown on the rock cliffs, twisting and climbing right out of the stone crags. This is, in fact why the teas of Wuyi are called "rock teas" (yan cha). Mist and fog also play a vital role just as they do in the high-mountain farms of Taiwan. The exceptional features that distinguish Wuyi yan cha are significantly affected by soil, environment and other growing conditions. Red wines are also often evaluated in terms of the concept of "terroir", which refers to this unique combination of local climate, topography and soil type - all of which shape the character of the vines and the grapes they produce: the wine reflects its growing environment, which yields its own distinctive charisma. Similarly, the sublime spirit of yan cha can be elegantly expressed by its "terroir".
Wuyi yan cha is a profound type of tea and deserves to be distinguished and appreciated by Westerners and Asians alike. Although genuine, high-grade yan cha is difficult to find, I believe that more thoughtful consideration from producers, vendors and consumers can change the market. Much of this will begin with wiser purchasing on the part of the consumer. If they are educated about the quality standard and develop acumen for tasting yan cha, then the producers will be forced to respond with improved quality. More conscientious merchants, for their part, could begin to authoritatively ensure the classification/grading of the producers and provide genuine and transparent product information to consumers.
I've been trying hard to find guiding principles for the tasting of yan cha for some time. I finally found what I was looking for in the wisdom of the ancients. The Qing Dynasty scholar Liang Zhang Ju spoke about Wuyi yan cha in chapter seven of his Diary of Retirement, entitled, "Tea Tasting". He remarked that "a tea's evaluation can be categorized into four levels. The first level is the aroma. A floral aroma can be found in most yan cha, and nowadays people think this is its most wonderful aspect. They don't know that above and beyond aroma, the next level of assessment is the clarity. Aroma without a good clarity is just ordinary. After clarity, the next valuation is the tea's aftertaste (gan). Clarity without a sweet aftertaste is just a cup of bitter liquor. The highest level of estimation in a tea is the spirit or vigor. A tea with a good aftertaste but not enough spirit is nothing more than a good tea. The spirit of a tea is very subtle, but can be felt on the tongue. However, you must use the spring water from Wuyi Mountain in order to truly let the spirit of the yan cha express itself." I've been talking to people about the four levels of yen cha, and they have never heard of all of them. I guess even Lu Yu did not think of them in his Cha Ching. I then set about studying these criteria and what they suggest about the appreciation of yan cha. I came up with some valuable insights about each of them. I think they honestly do capture the method of reviewing a yan cha.
A fragrant aroma is the most basic factor for whether a yan cha may be accepted by consumers. However, determining the quality of the tea from aroma alone is a difficult task. The aroma could be from the cultivar, from the partial oxidation process, or even the roasting. Most importantly, the aroma should cooperate in harmony and balance with the other aspects of the tea. These aromas should be lively and evolve over the course of the session. Most low grade rock teas use stronger roasting to compensate for lack of strength or character in the leaf itself. This usually results in an off-balance aroma, with the roasting too dominant. Yan cha is also a partially oxidized tea: it combines the refreshing scent of green teas with the ripe fruity fragrance of black teas. The more robust the aroma is, the better the tea. However, if a tea lacks clarity, no matter what the aroma, it is still an unexciting yan cha.
The aroma, tea liquor and the taste of the tea must have clarity. Because the fermentation of yan cha is as high as fifty per cent, the color of its brew is usually darker. Yan cha tastes strong, and therefore it is not easy for it to achieve the "clarity" that Liang Zhang Ju mentioned. Generally white teas, green teas or other less-fermented teas display such clarity. It should be noted that clarity does not mean it is light in flavor. The clarity of flavor in a good Yan cha is thick but not superfluous, robust but not exaggerated. Even the slightest mistake during processing can alter the clarity of the liquor, especially during the process of withering, killing green and/or drying. The clarity of a tea is like a mirrored surface that honestly reflects its growing conditions - its terroir. Only the high-grade teas from Wuyi's Scenic Mountain District area can fully satisfy all three aspects of clarity: aroma, liquor and taste.
The third level of evaluation when looking for higher quality Wuyi Yan cha is the aftertaste (gan). "Gan", as it is called in Chinese, does not refer to sweetness. It is instead a natural feeling when we take a sip of good tea, a sensation as the liquor flows over our tongue and throat. It's a very soothing feeling that exists in the aftertaste. Gan is not something that the tea liquor brings to our body, but a reaction produced by our body when impacted by the tea. Usually only very fine Oolongs and Puerh teas can cause such a gan aftertaste. Sometimes when people discuss the quality of tea, they like to mention "Cha Qi", which often manifests itself as a warm feeling in the stomach that gradually spreads all over the body. That warmth, however, shouldn't be confused with the Qi itself; otherwise a bowl of ginger syrup would have more Qi since it can warm up our body rapidly. The impressions of our bodies are a result of the Qi in the tea, not the Qi itself. In my opinion, the gan is also an effect of Cha Qi, and since gan does not exist in the tea liquor, but rather as a reaction in our body, only teas with more intense and vivid Qi can trigger such changes in our bodies. And that is why a Yan cha with gan is desirable.
Finally, the spirit of a tea represents the ultimate level of Yan cha appreciation. However, Liang Zhang Ju warned us that we had to use the mountain spring water from Wuyi itself to truly distinguish its spirit. Although it would be ideal to brew all our teas with water taken from the areas in which they were grown, it's hardly possible, even in those ancient times. I feel that the impressions of spirit or liveliness do become more and more apparent as we go through the first three levels of judgment no matter what water we use. They might be more pronounced with Wuyi water, but they are still discernable even otherwise. Clarity, for example, creates a space for different aspects and layers of aroma to play and express themselves. The aroma seems to become alive, "lively", in the presence of clarity. Also clarity with a gan aftertaste emphasizes the joyfulness of the clarity in our bodies by allowing the clarity to linger longer and with greater presence. As we pass through the first three levels, feeling the spirit or liveliness depends largely on how sensitive we were. It's almost Zen-like in that it's purely experiential, beyond description. It's far-fetched to say that you absolutely must have Wuyi's spring water in order to have a nice appreciation of Yan cha, anymore than you need an expensive cushion to have a nice meditation session. In my opinion, finding a Yan cha that fully complies with the first three criteria is already a blessing. The spirit/liveliness experience will come naturally to us once we know how to perfect every detail, from selecting a tea, preparing the water, brewing the tea in Yixing clay teapot, and on to even personal lifestyle. If we insist on pursuing Nirvana, we trap ourselves and Nirvana will never come. And we should view the quest for the perfect Yan cha in this manner.
Aroma, clarity, aftertaste and spirit are four virtues that wisely encompass and consolidate the essence of appreciating Wuyi Yan cha. Though they were used by me to discuss Yan cha, they are equally applicable to all Oolongs and Puerh teas with only the slightest variations in emphasis. For example, while Wuyi Yan cha focuses on the depth of spirit or liveliness, Taiwanese high-mountain Oolongs tend to stress the dynamic spirit of a refreshing aroma. Tie guan yin teas, on the other hand, show their liveliness in charming bouquet of flavors and smells. Aged Puerh teas champion the spirit with a wise and powerful presence. We can therefore still use the wisdom of ancient authors to help explain and further our tea appreciation, and through that we can cultivate a better understanding of the marvelous variety of teas from Wuyi Mountain.