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Dark Teas

by Lydia Kung

Any report about Hunan’s teas would be incomplete without a mention of Dark Tea. If one were to ask a Hunan person which tea their province is best known for, s/he is likely to say Dark Tea with little hesitation.

Oversize Dark Tea plaques like this one are apt to be found in tea offices.

Pillars of Dark Tea in a Changsha hotel lobby:

“Hei Cha” literally means “black tea,” but the specialty tea usage is Dark Tea. It has gained some interest here though perhaps has not joined other mainstream tea categories.

The Dark Tea factory I visited in April was established in 1958. Hunan’s appetite for Dark Tea is growing, and even gets tea leaves from its neighbor Guizhou to meet demand. The leaves are processed into primary tea that is partially oxidized and already sorted into grades, as shown at right.

Batches are then pulled as needed, going through color sorting and further oxidation. Steam is applied briefly and then the leaves are pressed into brick-shaped molds. (Empty molds shown at right.)

Some Dark Tea is sold in loose leaf form, but the preferred style is bricks. The molded teas are placed in a chamber for 3 to 4 weeks, where microbial action begins. The ensuing yellow dots (in the photo below) that appear in the tea bricks are known as “golden blossoms,” — actually a fungus — Eurotium cristatum.

After the bricks are removed from the special chamber (see photo at right), they may be stored for longer aging, allowing more “golden flowers” to develop inside the bricks, giving them higher value. It is hard to miss huge plaques of Dark Tea framed as show pieces in hotel lobbies, or the tall pillars marked as comprising up to 50 kg each. For consumers, the bricks come in 400 gram, 2 kg and 3 kg sizes.

The aging step, of course, brings to mind Puerh and how Dark Tea differs from this better known aged tea from Yunnan. A different microbial action takes place in Puerh leaves and one does not find the yellow specks that are sought after in Dark Tea. In brief:

Dark Tea Processing:
withering
de-enzyming
rolling
piling
drying
adding steam and pressing into molds
drying

Puerh Processing:
withering
de-enzyming
rolling
kneading and then separating the leaves
sun drying (primary tea)
Finishing:
sprinkling water
oxidation
drying
sorting
adding steam and pressing into molds
drying, storing

Brewing Dark Tea involves a bit more work than preparing other tea types. We saw percolators with a basket at the top to hold pieces of the brick. As the water heats, it drips over the tea. Taking note of this and that fact that many people in Hunan make this their daily tea, one company has patented a soluble Dark Tea. The powder form is more concentrated, and so if one gives credence to the tea’s beneficial properties, the soluble version is more efficacious.

Health claims aside, a properly prepared Dark Tea is amber, clear and bright in the cup. The first sip may remind one of rooibos, and with each sip, a high quality standard is smooth and slightly honeyed.

June 18, 2019