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What Tea Has Done for Guizhou

by Lydia Kung

While memories are still fresh, here is an overview of one tea producing region that potentially accounts for 20% of China’s tea growing area but one that remains relatively unknown.

Shown above is the ” World’s #1 Teapot” in Meitan, Guizhou.​

Open a travel guide to read about Guizhou, China and you’re likely to find an introduction along the lines of Lonely Planet’s opening description:

“Poor old Guizhou, always the short-end-of-the-stick southwest province. A much quoted proverb describes it as a place ‘without 3 li of flat land, three days of fine weather, or three cents to rub together.’ ”

“The upside…stunning countryside…a sublime mix of undulating hills and carpets of forest.” (13th edition)

Far from the emperor’s court, there were no tribute teas from Guizhou to gain favor, unlike Anhui, whose teas still carry fame from their long history as gifts to the court. With mountainous terrain, Guizhou was hospitable for tea growing, but it was also a place of exile, and its mountains made for good hiding places for those wanting to distance themselves from the capital.

Recent investments initiated by the central government have altered the picture dramatically. Somewhat ethnocentrically, there is a saying:

When it comes to tea, all eyes are on China.

The latest version adds:

In China, all eyes are on Guizhou.

Taking note of the fact that this once impoverished province contains about 20% of tea growing areas in the country, the government has poured capital into infrastructure and into building tea as an industry and building tea tourism. Here is another reminder in Meitan about what helped build the city as it is today:

You may have read about the recent completion of a high speed train to the region. What I might have once thought of as the middle of nowhere now becomes the key to the southwest: Guiyang, the largest city, is now a hub: west to Yunnan, south to Guangxi, and southeast to Guangdong, and east to Shanghai, all connected now by high speed trains. Guiyang has a new economic trade zone, and its downtown made me think of Times Square. A once backwater city has been transformed in a mere few years into a 2nd-tier city.

Guizhou’s party officials have been promoted to posts in the Beijing central government, which helps and of which locals are very proud. There are instances of over-reaching, such as the billion dollar suspension bridge that connects two small villages. Compared with a trip in 2014 to the same area, my images from this recent trip are at another end of the spectrum.

Domestic tea drinkers have come to recognize and appreciate the high quality of green and black teas from Guizhou, resulting in commensurately high prices. Familiar and well recognized cultivars (such as Big White from Fujian or Dragonwell #43) transplanted in the zinc and selenium rich soil of Guizhou yield a thicker leaf, amenable to higher water temperature and capable of richer flavor.

Six or seven years ago, however, producing too much tea without a market ready to absorb the output meant a lot of wasted tea. Poorly trained pickers tended to grab handful of leaves rather than picking more precisely with their thumb and index finger, with the notion that they could achieve heftier weights faster. Not only was tea wasted, but this meant an extra sorting step before the leaves could be processed. Now the problem is one of retaining trained workers and rising wages.

The raw material is good, but management and some skills lag behind. One factory in neighboring Hubei, for instance, was about to send a team of 10 to Guizhou in April to help improve the processing at a local factory that had contracted to use Guizhou tea material. A fair amount goes to another neighbor Hunan for its Dark Tea, a specialty not generally well regarded in Guizhou itself where most people stick to green teas.

Improvement on the management front is especially important for the export market to which Guizhou aspires. For the domestic market, there are fewer hoops to jump through, but to export teas, there must be certified factory management in place. With a relatively fresh start 8-10 years ago, the tea gardens had a good base of clean teas, more ready for EU compliance, for instance, but management and facilities are still far behind the powerhouses of Zhejiang, Anhui, and Hunan.

Here are two examples of how the government hopes to attract tea tourists:

Entering Meitan city from the highway, the self-anointed largest teapot in the world may be kitschy but it serves as an immediate, unmistakable symbol of what drives growth in the province. Here’s a night view:

A few minutes’ drive away from the city takes one to Cha Hai (Tea Sea). This scenic spot purely for show: no tea is actually produced there. As far as the eye can see from a vantage point, the acreage is green with plants that are trimmed not for production but for visual appeal.

Meitan also boasts a large exposition hall for tea trade shows and a “tea city” mall. My hotel lobby had a cozy corner set up for tea tasting, with all the accessories at hand, for guests to sample their latest purchases.

Housing has improved as government subsidies make possible dwellings like these, with fairly uniform paint and trim that are now widespread.

As for the teas:

Maofeng (“downy summit”) and Hairpoint (maojian) green teas are dominant. One with the somewhat unwieldy name of Du Yun Hairpoint is Guizhou’s contribution to China’s Big 10 Teas.

Maofeng teas undergo less vigor during the rolling step, making for a slightly loose style leaf, whereas Hairpoint/Maojian teas tend to be more tightly rolled and more compact.

Perhaps the most open style of Maofeng might be the Huang Shan /Yellow Mtn. tea from Anhui. (Here, real estate is a big factor in the cost.) The dry leaves look as if the tea had simply been dried, with little manipulation. (Yellow Mtn. Maofeng shown here:)

By contrast, consider this typical Maofeng from Guizhou (export price is USD400/kg):

This early spring (pre Qing Ming) type is comprised of 1 bud & 1 leaf. Although the dry leaf appearance is not dramatic or unusual, this standard is an expensive and delicious tea, with flavor emboldened by the thicker leaf that Guizhou plants produce.

I mentioned earlier that it takes 5 parts of the fresh leaves to produce one part of the end product. This means 5 x RMB200 per jin or about USD160 for that one pound before any processing work and additional costs are included.

At one maofeng factory, a pre-Qing Ming, small-leaf varietal was brewed according to an informal Guizhou guideline: high water temperature, a quick steep – less than a minute, uncovered, and a quick pour. The 2nd (best of the 3) and 3rd infusions were also steeped for under a minute.

The grading of these teas varies by the dates the leaves were picked. Batches two days apart will end up as different grades. By the 3rd week of April, processing for 1 bud & 1 leaf budsets was finished. In May, middle grades will be processed, and teas such as Gunpowder and Chunmee are made in June. Autumn sees processing of other “ordinary” teas, with the factory in operation through November.

As noted above, the difference between Maofeng and Hairpoint (Maojian) teas lies mostly in the pressure used during rolling. Adjusting the pressure upwards for Hairpoint teas results in a denser, closed leaf style.

Much as one Hunan company established the name “Monkey King” for jasmine, the name “Precious Stone” Green and Black teas are now associated with Guizhou. (Lu Bao Shi; Hong Bao Shi)

The green version is a semi-balled tea, and a smaller model of gunpowder rolling/shaping equipment has been adapted to make this Guizhuo specialty.

What sets this tea apart from Gunpowder green teas is that higher quality raw material is used. Late spring and summer (older) leaves go into Gunpowder teas. These Precious Stone teas are generally made from budsets. I’ve been receiving samples from this group for about three years now.

There is a range of prices for this type of balled tea, but the best representative I’ve found is organic Emerald Pearls green, a pre-Qing Ming tea.

The pluck for this organic rolled green is quite precise, about 4 cm in length.

The pluck has to be uniform for consistency in the finished product. The inclusion of a bud and 2 or 3 leaves and tight rolling do not result in a bitter or harsh taste because the sprouting is a tender, new growth, unlike the older leaves that would appear in summer. Again, timing was limited this year from March 20 to April 5th. Leaves are chosen from small-leafed bushes that have just matured, at 4-5 years, at gardens situated at about 1000m.

The fairly tight roll means a rich full tasting green, vegetal and aromatic, and allows for three infusions.

Teas like this one have become Guizhou’s recent claim to fame. Much of the province’s output ends up in other provinces for making teas not bearing a Guizhou label. As we witness, say, Zhejiang investment in Guizhou, we begin to see why these investors are on to something.

One of my hosts was so inspired by the new growth in his garden that he collected some budsets and added them to scrambled eggs for our lunch. (The addition made for an interesting looking dish, but the tea’s contribution taste-wise was minimal.)

May 7, 2018