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Gong-fu Black Teas from Fujian

by Lydia Kung

From China there are signature teas such as Yunnan Black, Keemuns, Golden Monkey and various gold-tip black teas. A lesser known sub-group are the gong-fu black teas from Fujian, all of which have long histories and, alas, rather unwieldy names:

  • ZhengShan Xiaozhong
  • BaiLin
  • Tanyang (aka Panyang)
  • Zhenghe

(The last 3 are all place names too.)

I have written about ZhengShan Xiaozhong elsewhere, so here I will just say that this “original” Lapsang Souchong from Wuyi might seem weak to those accustomed to the standard smoky tea. Limited production from a small area makes this softly sweet tea an expensive one.

I’ve only sampled BaiLin Black and do not recall that it stood out in any distinctive way. BaiLin is a town about 30 minutes from Fuding (major white tea area). My notes show that the Black to be a pleasant, “self drinking” tea but perhaps not worth the price.

The first time I had Tanyang Black in Fu’an (in northeastern Fujian), this seemed very much a backwater town. Once an important tea growing region, the factories and equipment I saw in 2002 appeared dated, faded and worn, a stark contrast to the historical bustling image we can only imagine. I remember sympathizing with those recent university graduates who had been assigned to posts here instead of other prime tea locales.

Tanyang had seen better years as a thriving tea trade center whose main street was lined with tea businesses.

At the start of the 21st century, however, jasmine and oolong teas were the favored categories, not black teas. With the dramatic popularity of black teas in recent years, with Jin Jun Mei (our Gold Tribute) being the prime example, the region of Fu’an has experienced a revival. Cultivars traditionally made into Oolongs were now being developed into Black teas, along with new techniques. (One example is Single Trunk Black, although this is from Guangdong.)

No tea expertise is needed to recognize this lush, gold tipped tea as something special. The Panyang Congou cup is deep and round, and full of the natural sweetness of dates and longan.

Gongfu pots are usually associated with Oolongs, and when applied to Black teas (congou), the term is a reference to the labor intensive processing these teas undergo (as in Keemun Congou). Gong-fu in this Black tea context therefore conveys two meanings: it refers not only to the substantial work behind these teas, but is a reminder to savor the tea, to take time appreciating the crafting techniques and history of this small select group, from a province far better known for Oolongs and Jasmine teas. And in a more literal sense, this black tea warrants dusting off a gongfu pot, to take advantage of a brewing method designed to show the development of flavor and aroma over several infusions.

As for the last of these gongfu blacks, Zhenghe, the name is usually shorthand for white teas, not black. The Zhenghe “Big White” varietal sprouts late and has a short period for harvesting. As noted elsewhere, Zhenghe usually takes second place to Fuding where White teas are concerned. The much smaller production of this gongfu Black, however, shifts the balance a bit more favorably for this locale.

As you can see from the photo at left, this Zhenghe Black itself is not remarkable in appearance, and in fact, the leaves are not exceptionally uniform nor do they display any ostentatious gold tips. But once the leaves come in contact with hot water, they tell a different story. Lift the lid and inhale deeply to find a deep, powerful aroma. This is pungency of the best kind. The cup yields the flavor of dried fruit (prunes and dates come to mind). This is a winey Black, soft and supple without astringency. The gongfu term is apt since this Zhenghe Black gives a remarkable number of flavorful infusions.

One promising new Black from Fujian that I am still sourcing comes from a cultivar traditionally made into Oolong. This is the Meizhan Gold. I see several price level standards and am awaiting more samples; the highest priced grade has more gold buds. The “mei” stands for plum, and it is indeed a very plummy tea.