Monday, October 6, 2008

Wuyi Shan Oct 2

On the third day in Wuyishan I got up early determined to drink good tea no matter what the cost.  I had made a date to drink tea at the Jinpao(金袍 - Golden Robe)Tea factory in the afternoon, as old customers had reservations with them for the morning.  My friend and I decided to go to Xingcun(星村) and ride the bamboo rafts down the river.

 We tried taking a cab, but the cab couldn't go down the road because traffic is restricted during the tourist season.  We decided to walk to Xingcun instead.  We made a detour through some villages with lots of tea gardens and also walked down a path to the Nine Bends Stream where I took a nice picture of an iridescent dragon fly perched on a rock.  Eventually we got on a public bus and rode all the way to the end of the line.  Conventional wisdom says not to buy tea from Xingcun.  The farmers there sell all of their tea leaf to large factories and then buy cheap chaqing (茶青, unprocessed tea leaves) from other areas to make their Yancha.  Therefore it is not real Zhengyan tea, and therefore not so good.  My friend and I wandered around Xingcun to get a sense of direction, and happened upon a little shop selling firecrackers, cigarettes, incense, paper money, and of course tea.  We went in and had some of the tea the wife was sorting, it wasn't so good, but the husband invited us back to his home and tea factory to have some better tea.

He led us through the winding alleys and backstreets of Xingcun to his house, up on a small rise.  In the first picture of the backstreets of Xingcun the reader will see Mr. Li's back in the foreground as he leads us along the backstreets of Xingcun.  The buildings in this area of town were traditional construction made from packed earth.  As the earth in Wuyi shan is red, it adds a pleasing natural color to the walls.  In addition to the beautiful red earth, crushed ceramic and gravel is added for texture. In the detail photo you can see where tea ware goes when it dies.

Bowl bottoms make an interesting detail in the earth walls.  The earth is pounded into place, and in the center of the walls are boards and grass to add structural support. The foundations are more substantial stone or brick construction, and most earth walls are no more than one story high. A second story is constructed with hollow brick walls.  Sometimes wooden garrets are made under the eaves perfect for imprisoning orphans, if you have been reading too much Dickens.

In the third photo the reader can see the various layers of construction materials.  The foundation is brick, then a layer of round, medium sized stones on the right.  Above the earth layer, one can see the hollow brick construction which makes up the stepped square facade.  Also of note is the beautiful old well surrounded with stones.  

Mr. Li, our host had a nice two story concrete house with his tea processing equipment taking up most of the substantial courtyard.  As we entered on the left there was a bank of about 40 pots of orchids, all of which he had dug up and taken home, unfortunately few were in bloom.  He also had a potted Baijiguan (白鸡冠 white cock's comb) which I snapped a picture of.

If you look closely you can see it is fertilized with spent tea leaves.

At Mr. Li's house we drank about 4 different teas.  He was a much more down to earth guy than a lot of the tea sellers.   Mr. Li strikes me as a farmer who is a good tea processor and businessman, but who is not involved with the tourist trade very much. Most tourists come to Xingcun just to get on the bamboo rafts and float back towards the resort area.  He also had very down to earth prices.  I didn't ask him if his tea was 'Zhengyan' or not, mostly because his prices were 120-180 RMB per jin(500 grams)  He told us that most of his tea was for blending and later sale as Dahongpao.  We drank some Laocong Shuixian, Rougui, Beidou #1, and some 105.  Mr. Li says his customers blend the 105 and Rougui to make Dahongpao, and also they sometimes use the Beidou #1.  Mr. Li's teas were all pretty high fire, and well oxidized which is how I like it.  When he made Gongfucha, he made it like a local.  To make Yancha like a local, you fill up the gaiwan with as much leaf as possible, even pushing the leaves down a little bit if necessary.  Instead of instant pours, you let it sit for as much as 30 or more seconds even on the first infusion.  This is how I like to drink Yancha. 

I bought some of the Laocong Shuixian and some of the Beidou #1, which he said still needed to rest (or tuihuo 退火) and then be roasted again.  He said Tea should rest at least 20 days between roastings.  I bought the Beidou anyway, because it was already pretty roasted, and I liked it.

After leaving Mr. Li's house we found a great little restaurant run by Chinese who had come back from living in Vietnam. They made wonderful Vietnamese noodles with no meat or vegetables, just sauce, and my friend and I ate lunch for 7RMB or one dollar US between the two of us.

At the Bamboo raft area the lines were long, and some people told us that we wouldn't be able to buy tickets.  We walked out of Xingcun to the main road to wait for the bus. On the way to the main road there were tea bushes on either side of the road, click on the picture below to see a larger version, three men and a tea bush trimming machine can almost be made out.

In the afternoon we went to the Jinpao tea factory to try some better teas.  The Jinpao tea factory is inside the scenic area, almost just over the bridge to the resort area.  The Jinpao factory is run by a large family, and is a fairly large affair.  There are three tasting rooms at the front of the compound.  Two cousins brewed teas and fetched more from the back.  We drank 3 rouguis, 3 Laocong Shuixian, Jin Suoshi, Qilan, Gold Medal Dahongpao, and maybe one or two more I can't recall.  Most of the teas were brewed two or three at a time, so they could be prepared together.  The people who run this place are pretty knowledgeable about tea, and have a professional setup.  The tea is brewed in Gaiwans, and then poured off into a bowl with a ceramic spoon to smell the tea.  Each person can serve their own tea with the spoon. Each infusion is poured into a separate bowl, or the previous infusion is dumped out.  It always annoyed me when tea sellers would mix different infusions together.

I asked the Jin Pao people for more traditional teas - more oxidized, higher fire, and handmade if possible.  It is my opinion that a lot of the Qingxiang or light and fragrant tea in Wuyi suffers a lot in the realm of mouth feel.  Most of the qingxiang teas I drank in Wuyi had thin and insipid liquor, and little taste.  Sometimes, a tea will suffer from being over oxidized or over roasted, but I had many well made teas in Wuyi that did not sacrifice fragrance for mouth feel.  I also like  a fragrant, flowery tea; but with Yancha I feel that qingxiang teas are often an excuse for poor processing.  Because of a lack of skill, the processor will end oxidization early because for fear of overdoing it.

Jin Pao had a lot of good middle range teas, which I enjoyed.  However they seem to have a lot of qingxiang teas which lack mouth feel.  I bought a 'hundred year old bush shuixian' a 'gold medal dahongpao' and a 'golden key.'

I remember liking the golden key varietal quite a lot when I first had it.  I got the Qilan and the Gold medal Dahongpao a little bit mixed up at the very end of our tea session.  I was trying to organize my thoughts on all the teas and decide on what to purchase when I should have been paying attention.  I may have bought the golden medal dahongpao because I thought it was the Qilan.

After dinner, still toting my previous purchase, my friend and I made a stop in a store where a friendly woman worked.  She had helped introduce us to a couple of places to buy carvings, and we wanted to say thanks and goodbye.  When she noticed all the tea we were carrying she wanted to know what everything was, where we got it and for how much.  I offered to let her taste it, and she took me up on the offer.  She said her brother was a great tea drinker and would be able to tell us if the tea was real Zhengyan tea or not.  It turned out her 'brother' also owned the shop.

We drank some of the Laocong I had just bought.  I really liked my Laocong because the qingtai (青苔 or moss) flavour was so strong, it almost tasted like puerh tea.  Older brother Xiong said my Laocong was alright, but it was only 'gaocong' (高丛 high bush, not yet true old bush) which means it came from bushes only 30-40 years old.  He brought out some of his own 'real' laocong shuixian, which did in all honesty have a much better mouth feel and a fuller flavour.  He also wanted 1,200 RMB/jin as opposed to 560 RMB/jin that I had bought mine for. However, after the 5th infusion both teas were still going strong and I was hard pressed to tell much difference between the two.

We also drank some of my Gold medal dahongpao, and he brought out some of his Huang guanyin (黄观音 or yellow guanyin as opposed to iron/tie guanyin.)  Again his huang guanyin was better than my tea, but about double the price.  He said my dahongpao hadn't won any sort of gold medal, and that it wasn't even real yancha, but was zhoucha (周茶 or tea from the area around Wuyishan.)  This guy certainly didn't do very much for my confidence, but he kept us company and cheerfully talked tea with me for an hour and a half, and I didn't even buy anything.

He did give me a very good idea, which is pretty obvious, really.  If you are having a lot of trouble getting tea sellers to take out their best teas, bring a bunch of samples of your best tea to the stores and drink it with the proprietor. Say you want something better, and make sure to tell them you bought it for a fraction of the actual price.

Older brother Xiong was a nice guy who has been drinking tea all his life (like everyone from Wuyi) but he has been in the tea business for only two years.  He doesn't produce tea himself, but might be a good contact for people who are going to Wuyi.  He also sells Tieguanyin and told a great story of his friend who buys TGY for a large company to the tune of one million RMB each season.  Older brother Xiong often goes to Anxi with this friend who is teaching him about the TGY business.  This friend buys TGY without drinking it.  He just grabs a handful and smells it, looks at the leaf and starts bargaining.  Perhaps my readers have seen this done, or heard of it, but I had not and thought it interesting.

Shop name 武夷山悦茗香
Contact (older brother) 熊殿标 13860015899
address 武夷山 三菇度假区 天游峰路 A-9-11
悦茗香茶业  圣远酒店对面
Woman in the shop 梁丹 13859322693

I told Mr. Xiong I would put his number and shop address up on the net.  He has not been in the business for very long(2 years), and so is more likely to want to meet new customers or tea friends.  He seems to be in the business because he loves tea.  He also has good tea.  I wouldn't go so far as to reccomend buying his products as I didn't buy anything from him, but all the tea I had in his shop was good if a little expensive.  He is friendly and knowledgeable and willing to talk, but can only speak Chinese. 

I hope others may profit from my experience at Wuyi, just as I profited from those who blogged before me.  Please feel free to email me with any questions. I may not be able to answer them, but can promise to live vicariously through you or anyone who is planning a tea trip.  I can also provide more phone numbers, addresses of places I went to, as well as names of factories with good reputations that I have yet to visit.


T.alain said...

very nice episode of your journey.i wish i was there.
I'll go there maybe in one or two years., and your posts will really help me.
Thanks a lot...I can't wait to read you again

toki said...

What an amazing journey! Just want to get permission to link up to my blog? Cheers - Toki

LaoChaGui said...

Thank you both for the wonderful comments!

Feel free to link to my blog, I would be flattered.

Bret said...

Another really good read. Did it kinda seem as though everybody was withholding the good stuff? When you show little interest in a sellers teas do they keep bringing out different teas trying to find one you,ll buy? But the teas they bring out are not really better just different? Looks like you had a really cool vacation though. Dont let the tea spoil it for ya.

Bret said...

Hi Toki, looks like our dogs have very similar personalities. Goofy!

LaoChaGui said...

Bret, one of the reasons I found it hard to get people to bring out their good tea is the friend I was with runs a tea shop. He wanted to find a cheap tea to buy in bulk, so he kept asking people if they had anything cheaper, while I was asking if they had anything better. Some shops may reserve good stuff to age or for old customers who they know will be back year after year.

I did have a great time, but I also want to emphasize the points that were frustrating, or not so great so others can avoid them. Hopefully I was able to do that without being overly negative.

TeaMasters said...

Excellent article. I haven't been to Wuyi yet, but this gives me a pretty good idea what to expect.
It's interesting to read your opinion about the light oxidized Oolongs there.

As for Mx. Xiong's advice, I can agree on the first part, sharing your best tea with the seller to put the bar very high. However, I'm not sure that lying about the price will help (unless it was overpriced in the first place). It's difficult to become friends with a tea person if you make a claim that insults his intelligence: top teas rarely sell cheaply. In Taiwan, tea prices are quite straightforward when you are experienced enough, so I don't play such tricks with tea farmers. In China, I also hear that prices are much more 'flexible'. An alternative strategy would be to say that you don't know the price of your tea, because it was a gift. (The best teas are given, not sold...)

LaoChaGui said...

Thanks for the comment.

You said:
It's difficult to become friends with a tea person if you make a claim that insults his intelligence: top teas rarely sell cheaply.

I couldn't agree with you more. I hope I don't sound immoral, or jaded with my description of Wuyi. I did feel as though many of the people selling tea there quoted ridiculous prices, and quoting another equally ridiculously low price in return was kind of how business was done (among some people.)

I do appreciate the feeling and respect with which you approach tea, Stephane. It is a much more fulfilling practice when the business transaction part is concluded respectfully, quietly and takes a subordinate role to the appreciation of sharing an exceptional tea with another human.