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Keemun, a Belated Lesson (Part 2)

by Lydia Kung

Part 2: Now for an overview of Keemun Processing and the different types:

A long overdue visit to Anhui’s Keemun district last month helped me sort through the many teas in this distinctive group.

Regarding Keemun’s processing method, perhaps the most valuable lesson I took away was the importance of secondary finishing or the refining steps. This applies to many teas, not just Keemuns. I refer here not to post-manufacturing such as the baking done for some Oolongs. Rather, these are the steps that are less picturesque but vital to the quality of the finished tea. More on this below.

In reviewing the basics, here we see precursors to the mechanized modern versions of processing equipment. Wooden withering trays are now replaced by large metal platforms, usually with fans underneath. Rolling equipment looks much the same, save the material. Baskets once used to hand-dry leaves have given way to mechanized tumblers and chambers.

Steps taking leaves to the finished primary stage of Keemuns are not very different from those applied to other black teas: withering – – rolling – – separating the leaves – – oxidation – – drying. At the end of this stage, the character of Keemun is fixed.

For Keemuns, the secondary or refining steps are paramount in creating the signature Black we’ve come to know well. This finishing process has not been as well understood, with much of the attention going to the primary processing stage. But the work of refining the tea takes up about 2/3 of the entire manufacture.

Here is an example of a high grade congou Keemun, a Hao Ya A (from 2018):

And a middle grade Keemun, #1112:

The refining process, after the primary tea is prepared:

  1. “Reciprocating” sifting: a back and forth motion using a sieve the separate thick leaves from thin leaves.
  2. Rotary sifting: circular motions of the sieve to separate long leaves from short.
  1. “Breaking” the longer leaves, which is why sometimes we hear the term “brokens” even while we consider Keemun congou a whole leaf tea. (see photo of #1112 above).
  1. Winnowing.
  2. Drift-sifting by hand, to remove more of the smaller size leaf particles.
  3. Hand sorting or grading. For high grade Keemuns, the sorting begins with the plucking (more below), whereas for middle and lower grades, the sorting takes places during this refining stage.
  4. Blending (of batches from various days’ production to achieve the optimum flavor and leaf appearance). “Blending” sometimes carries negative connotations; here, however, one day’s batch may have excellent fragrance, and it will be added to another batch that holds high aroma/flavor, and to yet another batch that displays good leaf style.
  5. Drying (again).

For high grades such as a 1st grade Keemun and up through the Hao Ya grades, the steps are still done by hand, and the aroma could be sensed some 15-20 feet away.

For these high grade teas, plucking and processing began the last week of March this year; full mechanical operations in the factory would start in mid April, For middle and lower grades, machines take over all the tasks, with full production running starting in May.

To give some idea of the scale, when equipment is started up after the handmade teas are finished, the withering machine can take 35 kg of plucked leaves at a time, and in one factory we visited, there are 8 such machines. When 3 full shifts are operating, the factory has the capacity to produce over a ton of finished tea a day, from processing about 4 tons of raw material.

The uniform, short, wiry leaves we know as Keemun congou teas are often called “brokens” in local usage, a surprising term when first heard. The term “congou” is often appended to Keemun, signifying laborious steps in its manufacture, resulting in teas that we think of as whole leaf teas, not BOPs.

These congou Keemuns (some 8 grades) are the teas so important in the export sector: the flavor is concentrated; the cup colors faster, and the small even sized leaves allow for more tea to be packed in a carton. There is even a Keemun cake, made from a middle grade tea. The cake is not aged but goes to areas in the far western part of China, where the tea in consumed with milk.

Up until the late 1990s these congou teas comprised the Keemuns we saw and most of what we still see today. When factories were government owned, the state collected Black teas primarily for export. After 1997, as privatization continued, domestic consumption of Black teas increased. By around the year 2000, as the domestic market developed, local consumers sought a tea that was not “broken,” a tea whose leaves or budsets were intact, a tea with a more attractive appearance.

(Below: Keemun Maofeng standards)

Some progress had already been made. For a long time, the highest grade of Keemun was the Special Grade, a step up from the first grade. Very specific plucking an hand processing, along with “bashing” the leaves meant that these were still in the traditional, congou style. Then Hao Ya standards were made. Hao Ya B grade consists mainly of 1 bud & 1 leaf budsets, with some portion of one bud & two leaves. Hao Ya A has very little of the latter. A 1st grade Keemun is made from a bud with two leaves, and about 10% of a bud with 3 leaves. These teas are still considered brokens, but are hand-graded.

Now the preference was for a Keemun Maofeng tea (at left), finished without the “breaking” step, and the slightly curled, larger leafed style represents this later trend in this tea’s development. The cup tends to be a little softer than the congou group, and when brewed with a gaiwan, the cups are sweet with a lingering finish.

After a proper tasting, I realized I had not been using the best way to brew Keemun Maofeng.

Instead of the usual 5 minutes in a mug, I saw that a short steep in a gaiwan made for a livelier, brighter cup. Our host allowed barely 15 seconds to “awaken” the tea, and the second steep was a mere half a minute. The tiny cups had tantalizing sweetness and more importantly, a sense of Keemun freshness.

The key difference between Keemun Maofeng and congou (brokens) teas is that in the former group, processing pretty much stops after the primary stage. There is inspection and drying, at but therer is no sieving or bashing of the leaves. The objective is to leave the leaves intact.

An even more recent style, from about 2006, being produced is the Keemun “Fragrant Spiral,” or Xiang Luo. As the name suggests, this Keemun is formed into a loop, and as in the case of Maofeng, this tea is made from budsets, without any breaking.

Xiang Luo Keemun is expensive not only because of the better pluck, but there is an extra step in the manufacture. To create the spiral effect, there is a hand-firing step to shape the leaves.

This direct, albeit brief, contact with a heated surface also lends a slightly different note — pan firing — from that of traditional Keemuns. I have found earlier samples of this Fragrant Spiral noteworthy mostly for the look, but less the flavor. So this high grade tea in a small gift tin from the factory came as a nice surprise: fresh and sweet tasting, it did not carry the edge of having been pan-fired.

Newer versions are still being developed. One is a Royal Keemun, that is, alas, as its name suggests, not inexpensive, attributable to better pluck quality.

Then at a dinner when we did not expect a stellar tea, we all enjoyed what we later learned was a High Aroma Keemun. This is an exciting prospect, not just because of its more affordable price. It was outstanding for its dried lichee sweetness, making it a very friendly tea. A sample is due in soon.

Mercifully, during one blind tasting of 5 high grade Keemuns, we managed not to embarrass ourselves too much. We all concurred on the least favorite, a lesser Maofeng. It was easy to identify a classic high grade Hao Ya, which turned out to be a Hao Ya A from 2018. This had all the attributes of a classic congou Keemun. We were also able to pick out the Spiral tea, with its pan-fired note separating it from the others. The choice for a favorite was then divided between the Royal Keemun and a standard just a bit lower than the tribute Keemun (“country gift”) mentioned in Part 1.

In summary, the Keemuns with which we are all so familiar have had a solid place in Anhui’s tea history for over 100 years. The manufacture and finished form were inspired by other export teas, but their distinctive flavor is very much rooted in Keemun county. Today, high grades are still partially hand processed and hand sorted. In medium and lower grades, large batches are combined and then subsequently graded. That said, all factory workers told us that experience was crucial in managing the process from start to finish. The results over the years have been remarkably consistent and uniform. In recent years, higher grades of congou Keemuns have been produced, eventually accompanied by the production of Keemun in Maofeng form, where budsets are left intact rather than broken.

One very satisfying lesson was gaining some insight about intent: to learn that an early maker of Keemun sought to match black teas from South Asia going to Europe, and thereby developing that “broken” style that has become a classic; to learn that Keemun Maofengs were developed in response to consumers wanting a certain look in the leaf, to have a tea made from budsets instead of broken leaves; and that Xiang Luo Keemun was inspired by a similar preference in the domestic customer base, relying on that ever-popular spiral or snail shape when it comes to teas.

The flavor of Keemun is not easy to describe. It does not have the round, chocolate-y notes of Yunnan Black teas nor the roasted sweet potato-like caramel notes of Golden Monkey black teas. The aroma and flavor are distinctive, and once in the palate memory, Keemun definitely leaves an imprint — not of toasted grains but of raisins and dried plums. The sweet finish evokes a red dessert wine or, as one tasting partner put it, a very ripe apple.

Samples from spring 2019 will arrive this month (May). I am glad to have had the chance to re-visit this signature tea category, one that appears on virtually all “Tea 101” course offerings. Learning more about the intent and methods behind the various finished products has conferred fresh and overdue appreciation.

May 8, 2019