Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Making rock oolong (Wuyi Yancha): an interview with Cindy Chen

The following relates to asking an online tea friend questions about tea, Cindy Chen.  She lives in Wuyishan, the village area beside the mountains where amazing Wuyi Yancha / rock oolongs are grown and produced.  She makes this tea; it’s her family’s business.  And what a business it is: Cindy Chen’s family just won two different awards for best Wuyi Yancha teas produced in one of the main Wuyishan competitions recently. Their Rou Gui was judged 1st place, and Shui Xian 2nd place, among over 100 local producers.

Actually Wuyishan is the city, and she live in the Tian Xin Yancha village, but there are complications related to tea growing areas versus where people live and how cities and villages are designated, perhaps varying with how terms for districts and counties are used in other countries.  I've written about a few of her teas in my blog earlier this year, a Rou Gui, a Da Hong Pao, and a Shui Xian.

I've been drinking Wuyi Yancha teas for awhile but to be honest these teas are probably better than I can fully appreciate with my current sensitivity to the other aspects, so I have to make due with enjoying them to my current potential.  A follow-up review of a Da Hong Pao will say more about the more subtle and interesting aspects of these teas beyond taste components, some of which Cindy goes into here.

Cindy is very kind but of course there is a limit to how many questions she could answer, so this is just intended as discussion of some interesting points, which really leads to a lot of other questions.

Cindy, making tea

Interview with a tea grower about making Wuyi Yancha:

The content is edited slightly for verb tenses and such but it's amazing that she really can write like this in English.  She starts with a little about the area and teas in general:

The reason why the rock tea from Wuyi Zheng Yan Circle Mountain cost so high a price is that they have the best appropriate environment for growing the tea, with moderate sunshine and humidity.

Another important factor is the land, the soil type.  The soil in the Zheng Yan Circle is very rocky, and the land is not so hard, so the plants can have good air and water circulation.

The soil also has plenty of  mineral composition, so the high quality rock teas have a mineral feeling.  I do not know how to use the words to express about this mineral feeling, but if you drink Wuyi Rock teas for a few years your mouth can appreciate the feeling.

How old are the oldest tea trees?

It is a pity I really do not  know the exact age, but in Wuyishan the early documents about Wuyi trees are from the Song dynasty,  about 400 years ago.  My family Laocong Shui Xian plants we normally understand to be about 100 years old.  Yunnan is where the older tea trees might be; those used for making pu'er [versus the Fujian Province, where she lives].

In some follow up discussion Cindy talked more about prior history with tea in the area, so this isn’t really intended as a full historical account, just her immediate simple response to a question.  She also later noted separately the Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica plant type is grown in Yunnan versus the var. Sinensis type in her area, also not really a detailed part of this discussion.

It's interesting that no teas in Thailand are processed the same way [relating to me currently living in Thailand].  All are typically produced as lighter oolong, almost always rolled, like Tie Kuan Yin [I actually wrote about exceptions recently, other Thai tea types, but this is true in general].  I'd assume that relates to plant type.

Could the teas there be made into green tea instead?

No.  Any kind of tea in my family normally has three different baking styles:   lightly--roasted, middle--roasted, and highly--roasted, according to the tea characteristics.

Technically it would be possible to make different teas out of them, as she goes on to explain:

I think it is possible to use other types of tea leaves to process into darker Oolong tea.  A few years ago the rock tea market tea prices went up sharply so some tea business people in Anxi started using the Tie Guan Yin leaves to process into Wuyi Oolong.  It looks ok, very similar to Wuyi rock tea, but the taste is quite different.

There are only two styles of this tea, one very light, almost like water as a brewed tea, and another style very high roasted, with nothing in the brewed tea except a charcoal fire feeling.

So the idea is that technically other plant types or tea from a different area can be used to create a similar processed tea but it’s not the same, not nearly as suitable, with a much different final product.

Do the tea plants need direct sunlight?

I can use Rou Gui as an example.

People think the Rou Gui grows in a tea land like a valley, which doesn't have abundant sunshine through the whole day, and the land where the tea grows is high in humidity.  The Rou Gui style of tea produced from land like this is like this:  the tea soup is soft and sticky, and the Chaqi comes out gradually [also referred to as Qi or Cha Qi].  The tea can stand a least eight infusions, and the tea soup can keep a good balance, without sharply changing in taste and aroma.  We always bake this kind of Rou Gui in middle--roasted style, which can help keep the aroma, like a flowery aroma, or fruit aroma.

Some Rou Gui grows in a tea land like flat ground, which has abundant sunshine the whole day.  The Rou Gui styles from this type of area are like this:  the tea soup is very strong; some people cannot stand this style.  Chaqi come up very very quickly, in the first few cups, and you will turn hungry and it will increase body circulation.  Most of the time, this kind of tea changes sharply after 6 infusions.  Most of the time, we bake this kind of Rou Gui in highly-roasted way, and most Chinese people like this style very much.

In Wuyishan we bake the tea according to characteristics, like Qilan, Huang Guanyin, Baijiguan, and Huanmeiguan, these all are high aroma teas, so it is better to bake them in the middle fire, not too high, to retain the fragrance.

But some other varieties like Da Hong Pao and Rougui the teas have a very very strong body, so we need to highly-roast them, and keep them to sell in the second year [as she already mentioned, with variation for growing area difference that changes leaf character].

We discussed a number of other issues, some of which will be included as a separate post about tea cultivars, plant types used to make different teas.

The issue of aging of Wuyi Yancha is particularly interesting to me but it’s only introduced here, as saying for more roasted versions it’s best to store the tea for a year for the “fire” to subside and other elements to become more pronounced.  Of course the issue of aging is more complicated than that, as she covered in further discussion, but this is a good place to stop for now.

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