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Hunan Discoveries

by Lydia Kung

Afew more notes from a recent trip.

Hunan province in central China is usually associated with “blender” teas or fannings for teabags. The output is impressive, but other than a few famous teas, higher end teas from the province are little known. GuZhang Maojian (Hairpoint) and the almost mythical Jun Shan YIn Zhen yellow tea (from an island set in a lake) are probably the two best known teas. (I learned that a small lot of the latter recently went to Harrod’s @ USD700/kg. In my opinion, this is an instance where the name takes on more significance than the flavor.) Our excursion in April meandered through the northwestern, mountainous part of Hunan.

In this country, Hunan is perhaps better known for its spicy cuisine, which is quite accurate:

In spite of the region’s productivity during the 1980s, the tea economy was not very profitable, especially for tea farmers. Provincial initiatives from about 2000 led to more land devoted to tea growing, eventually bringing about a recovery. Now, Hunan boasts seven of the eleven Fair Trade gardens in China, and a good number of certified organic gardens. The consensus among tea makers is that their challenge is to continually upgrade food safety.

In addition to the vast quantities of everyday teas and fannings, Hunan is strong in Maojian (Hairpoint) teas (green and black). This category is always named when asked which tea the province is known for. Being close to Guangxi, where most jasmine flowers are grown, Hunan sends its neighboring province vast amounts of teas for scenting. Dark teas are a third category, and as we hear more about tea as a functional beverage, this warrants a closer look (later). Hunan companies also partner with producers in Fujian and are able to export Oolong teas as well, even if these are not from Hunan itself.

But turning to Hunan, the northwestern part of the province is where we find high quality teas that fetch high retail prices but which are little known outside the country. There are modern day tribute teas that rarely show up in the domestic marketplace. The tea areas I visited included Cili County, Shimen, and Anhua, at the fringes of the WuLing Mountain range.

(Scenes like this one at right as we climb upward make one wonder about the lives of those in such isolated dwellings.)

There are low lying gardens not too far from Changsha, a booming city with a special economic development zone where one can spot factory signs for Coca Cola and Apple. (At right, a garden on the outskirts of Changsha.)

Getting to “yun wu” clouds & mist tea gardens means rides of several hours. Our first stop was to Cili County, five hours on the road with the last two on narrow bumpy, barely paved roads.

Bu April 14, pre Qing Ming teas had been finished, but the teas being processed were still early harvest ones.

Two highlights from just finished from gardens situated at about 600 m up:

handmade pre Qing MIng teas were both Hairpoints, one a Green, the other a Black. The Green Ya Maojian (Sprouting Hairpoint) had narrow, fairly straight leaves, not giving away much about its potential.

Here is a small batch from a morning’s picking, budsets ( mostly a bud & one leaf):

Shown here are fresh leaves that would become a Green Hairpoint:

And brewed up in glasses, a Spring Bud Hairpoint:

The Black Hairpoint was an all bud tea, quite unusual not only for a Black tea but a Ming Qian Black. This early batch was destined for major cities in China, with our hosts politely suggesting that the cost might not be workable for export. At >USD280/kg, I had to concur. I am waiting for a later/lower standard. One look at the tea with its fine leaf and gold tips sets high expectations that were well met. Apricot, maple sugar, and creme brulee were terms we used to describe the Black Hairpoint. (Shown at right.)

We would come to see many Green Hairpoint teas during our Hunan stay, none exhibiting downy curls, fancy spiral shapes, or fat spears. But the somewhat prosaic appearance of these teas is deceptive. In the cup, these high quality Hairpoint offer a full classic China green taste. (Very briefly as a refresher: Maojian or Hairpoint teas are compactly made, which more pressure applied to the leaves during rolling. Maofeng leaves tend to be more open in finished form, somewhat looser in their overall look, although Maofeng teas can display a range of styles. Hairpoint green teas tend to look very much alike, usually dark grey and wiry.)

More clouds had settled over the peaks of nearby mountains during our ride back, which underscored the hard work behind tea. Much of tea’s appeal lies in its simplicity: leaves are withered, rolled, and dried. And yet anyone who has witnessed plucking, especially on steep slopes, done for hours, followed by the walk back to the factory collection point, or witnessed shifts extending into the night, or considered the transport of partially finished and finished tea – – can attest to how hard the work is. Over a few days, we covered more than 800 km.

Viewing the map on the right, the top red circle represents where Shimen is, the other red circle shows GuZhang, a better known tea area with the WuLing Mountain range indicated by dark green shading.

Another sunny day finds us in Shimen county, known for oranges and teas. I write about one tea from White Cloud Mountain in another post, this being an early spring organic Green tea destined for Beijing. Lunch was at another factory about 2 hours away, with just finished Silver Summit (Yin Feng) green. Bountiful as our lunch was, the dishes represented country cooking with just picked veggies and home-cured meats.

Above: our lunch at one tea factory that processes teas from a Fair Trade collective. Note the bubbling hot-pots, very popular in this region.

It was hard to believe that all those dishes were prepared in a simple kitchen:

Later, as I considered the export price of the green tea alongside our bowls, I had to smile at the disconnect between the value of the two parts of our meal.

In product notes introducing a new Black tea, Golden Peony, I’ve mentioned a tea from Anhua, an area best known for its Dark tea. I’ll summarize the processing and manufacture of this aged tea later on. Other flavorful Black teas included a Hao Ya, a tea from wild trees, gold tipped tea, and other “high Mountain” offerings, all of which shared a pretty concentrated sweet note akin to roasted yams. A particular favorite that I have dubbed Honeysuckle Black is due to arrive around May 20th, made before Qing Ming, exhibiting deep, almost startling honey notes (unscented).

About three hours farther west from Shimen is GuZhang, at the fringe of the WuLing Mtn range. No mention of Hunan’s teas can omit GuZhang Maojian, a green on all lists that purport to make up China’s “Big/Top 10.” I had not ever seen six GuZhang standards together.

I could have settled for tea at the 3rd or 4th tiers but chose a bud with one leaf standard, just below the all-bud grade. The top grade showed more silver and so was a prettier looking tea, but with only buds, the flavor was not as full or forthcoming as the next grade. I think this organic tea is a worthy example of this deservedly well known Green (shown above).

The history of GuZhang green tea is remarkably long and well documented. One Eastern Han dynasty record cites the “south of Yongshun” area — now GuZhang county — as a national tea producing area, and Tang records mention GuZhang as a tribute tea. By the 1950 this green was an export tea, and in 1964, an agronomist and tea expert, Wu Jue-nong, claimed that GuZhang was one of the earliest tea origin areas.

These are only some highlights from our tastings. Many were tempting: Spring Bud (Chun Ya), Pine Needles (Song Zhen), Fragrant Spiral (Xiang Luo) but cost considerations and realistic limits rein in such temptations.

I have traveled before in areas where even tea was too costly to serve with meals. This time, however, fine teas were brought to the table, and spring Green were paired with humble and more impressive fare, such as the pork ribs dish shown here:

As we descended from high elevation gardens tucked amidst green slopes with occasional dwellings cropping up, where poster worthy pictures can be snapped at almost any stop, we returned to the less picturesque factories. As I have remarked elsewhere, photos of huge hulking machines make a less attractive composition than green gardens. I expect most consumers are more enamored of the image of a lone tea farmer or tea maker, hands at the ready facing a pile of fresh leaves. Yet it is the work in well run factories that finish the teas, that bring out all that is inherent in the excellent raw material that was laboriously worked on to bring them to the primary stage.

In addition to ensuring a clean safe product, the key part of the factory’s work is establishing traceability. Maintaining a quality management system, maintaining records from fresh leaves to exported product, and controlling potential hazard points comprehensively mean that it is the factory’s responsibility to train staff who work on primary teas as well. Factory management takes the lead in training at the garden and local processing facility. There are scheduled meetings and trainers make regular visits to their local partner-suppliers. At factories certified by recognized third parties, there are in-house research and testing departments, where batches from incoming primary teas can be tested (for pesticides and microbes) as they arrive, against approved samples, and again before they are shipped out.

At left is a monitoring center at one factory, where some staff have an app on their phones to view what the cameras capture throughout the factory.

Patents earned by a tea processing enterprise also speak well of a commitment towards better techniques in refining primary teas, resulting in a safer, cleaner product.

Such safeguards adopted by factories do not always make for a captivating story. Far more enchanting a story can be told via images such as these from a wholesale tea market (this one happens to be one in Anhui in early April).

If you were to buy from a retailer who obtained a tea from one of these wholesaler-growers, you could claim that your tea was indeed “farm to teapot.” However, this is a limited perspective that bypasses some important considerations.

We are reading more often these days about the desirability of transparency in tea, to know who the producers are.

I hope that from the brief description I have given above about all the steps in tea manufacturing, it will have become clear that the notion of a single producer is simplistic and misleading. With respect to teas that are exported through recognized channels, there may have been several farmers who picked the leaves; there were several primary processing facilities rendering these into stable, primary teas. Then there are the certified factories that refine and finish the teas under monitored conditions with traceability.

The tea grower proudly displaying his yield at the wholesale market fits an ideal notion of “the producer,” but we ought to recognize that such a product has very likely not undergone essential safeguards — practices that are not as charming as the tea farmer — but which go a long way in assuring us of a worthy tea.

May 9, 2019