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Keemun, a Belated Lesson (Part 1)

by Lydia Kung

A recent visit to Anhui (April) filled in some gaps in my understanding of the manufacture of this classic famed Black tea. Historically, the 3 “high aroma” Black teas were Darjeeling, Uva, and Keemun. A short overview will be followed by a post about different styles of Keemun. By the end of these posts, I hope more of the pieces will fall into place, completing what had been to me an incomplete puzzle.

By the late 19th century Black teas were an important export to western Europe. Clearly endowed with great vision, Hu Yuanlong, a minor official in in the Qing court, is credited as the founder of Keemun (aka Qimen) Black, dating from 1875. Learning from black teas produced in neighboring Jiangxi province and having seen black teas from South Asia, Hu, a native of Keemun county, purportedly took this leaf style as his model to emulate. So the intent was clear from the outset, with exports of a certain style of black tea as a way to redeem the tea economy in his home area.

Once we know a little about how Keemun began, it really does help in understanding why the (traditional) tea looks the way it does.

One refrain emphasized to us during our visit is the remarkable consistency of the category over the last 100 years. I recognize the same item numbers representing various grades for as long as I can remember. Factory managers and exporters alike claim that there was been little change in the character of Keemun. I would only add that in the EU compliant standards, a more recent development, the teas tend to be a bit lighter and the body is not as full as some of the conventional teas.

This consistency is attributed to 3 key factors in appreciating Keemun:

  1. the place, Keemun county;
  2. the cultivar; and
  3. the processing method.

The tea’s connection with its place of origin is easy to grasp. And it is worth noting that unlike other famous teas such as Dragonwell, virtually no other regions try to produce Keemun. Dragonwell’s authentic origin is Zhejiang, and yet we find it made in places as distant as Sichuan or even in nearby Anhui, where we happened on this very tea in a wholesale market. I do remember one reference to a Keemun from Guangdong, but I have not come across any other attributions outside Keemun county in Anhui.

Keemun is not a high grown tea. The gardens are situated mostly between 200 to 300 m elevation. There are gardens at higher altitudes of approximately 800m, but these teas tend to be thinner in body.

The organic Keemun garden (above & below) was easy to spot:

As is true of many other organic gardens, grass and other vegetation surround the tea bushes.

At the apex of the Keemun pyramid of grades now appears a new standard, named Guo Li for “country gift.” For some years, Keemun was the gift presented by China’s leaders when they visited other countries. Keemun producers sought to refine the premium plucking material used for such occasions, giving rise to this truly rare tea. The profusion of gold tips is rarely seen in other teas.

We were allowed entry into the room on a day workers were hand-sorting this tea.

Even with good light from the windows above, it was not always easy to tease out the leaves that did not belong. Only about 20 kgs of this top grade are produced each year, all destined to Beijing as a modern day tribute tea.

“National Gift” as an expression of esteem is easy to understand. I think there is also an alternate way to consider this tea: as an acknowledgement of what nature has bestowed on the land, given form by a tea immutably tied to a specific region.

Part 2: different types of Keemun Black

  • Congou style;
  • Maofeng; and
  • Recently developed teas.

May 8, 2019