Yunnan Province is the wild west of China. It often feels remote, travel is seldom easy, and anything can happen. It is also, arguably, the birthplace of tea. Situated right on the boarder with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, the jungles of southern Yunnan are home to some of the oldest known tea plants in the world.
The tea producing regions of Yunnan are also some of the few that still cultivate, pick, and process leaves from these old growth, or “wild” tea trees.
Yunnan is most famous for its Pu-er tea - an ancient style of production in which the leaves are often pressed into cakes or bricks for ease of transport. In recent years, Pu-er tea has become quite fashionable in China and around
the world. Pu-er connoisseurs have driven up demand, and price, for this once rare style of tea. However, with all the excitement over Pu-er in the last decade, many tea drinkers often overlook some of the other great teas from this prolific tea producing region. So today we will try to restore a modicum of balance to the tea world by shining the spotlight on three different black teas from Yunnan.
Nowadays, Yunnan produces all types of tea (green, white, oolong, black, and pu-er). One of my personal favorites, though, is Yunnan Black tea. The Chinese refer to black tea as “red tea” (hong cha) and Yunnan is often referred to by its old name, Dian, so this style of tea is frequently called Dian Hong (literally Yunnan Red).
Tea from Yunnan is powerful. Although there are subtleties to be explored, the character of the flavor is always wild, strong, unapologetic, and sometimes arrogant. This is original tea flavor, and the plants seem to know it. No matter how far the leaves travel, they retain a uniquely Yunnan flavor that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
Feng Qing – Yunnan Gold – Spring 2010
This tea is all about balance. The Feng Qing Yunnan Gold, produced, as the name implies, in the Feng Qing region of Yunnan, has a ratio of one leaf to one bud. This means that when this tea was harvested, in early march, only the young bud and tender first leaf were plucked. This one-to-one ratio can easily be seen in the dry tea leaves. The soft golden tips are in perfect balance with the darker, chocolate brown leaves. This balanced ratio means that the Feng Qing is a great everyday drinking black tea. Not to strong, but also not too delicate.
Because of its everyday drink-ability, I decided to brew the Feng Qing in a decidedly everyday manner – my trusty tea jar. Fine porcelain makes for great tea, but sometimes an old travel worn tea jar fits the bill perfectly. My tea jar is double walled glass with a metal strainer. The leaves can be left in the jar with water for easy traveling and tea drinking, but today I am using my jar as I would a tea pot. I placed about a teaspoon of loose tea in the jar, filled it with water just off the boil, and waited about 2 minutes. The glass allowed me to see the color of the liquor and strain the tea before it got too strong.
The fist sip of Fend Qing, Like Yunnan itself, is powerful. The liquor is a dark brown with touches of deep ruby red. The aroma is earthy with notes of black pepper and semi-sweet chocolate. The flavor is full and lacks the dryness of a Darjeeling or Assam black tea. After a few sips, the subtleties begin to unfold. Rich caramel flavors intermingle with ripe cherry and faint memories of distant wood smoke (or maybe it was just my neighbors wood stove).
The sweetness and delicate subtleties of the Feng Qing Yunnan Gold come from those fine young buds, and the full flavor, richness, and backbone of the tea come from the leaf. Again it is the golden ratio of one bud to one leaf that creates the perfect balance of strength and grace in the cup.
Jing Gu Golden Strand – Spring 2010
If the Feng Qing Yunnan Gold is about balance, then Jing Gu Golden Strand is about lush decadence. This tea is made exclusively with large furry buds. In order to make this tea, the plucking and processing must be painstakingly overseen as to ensure that the final product contains only the finest tips possible. Not only does this make the Jing Gu Golden Strands a bit more expensive, but it also makes for a sinfully delicious cup of tea. Produced in the Jing Gu region of Yunnan, the Golden Strands also makes an excellent everyday drinking tea, but the fine quality and sheer beauty of this tea beg for a special occasion.
Tea like this calls for extra special preparation. So, instead of my trusty tea jar, I used one of my favorite Yixing pots, a glass pitcher, and a small bamboo painted cup. After warming the pot, I scooped in a large, heaping tablespoon of tea buds. The aroma of dry tips wafting out of the warmed pot was almost unbearable. Sweet fruit, earthy almond, rich chocolate, and a touch of wild flower honey filled my head.
Because of the delicate nature of this tea, I cooled the water slightly before brewing the tea. Drinking this tea is one of the smoothest black tea experiences you will ever have. The golden buds produce a soft and sweet brew and the lack of leaf makes for very little tannin. The color was bright golden orange, and the flavor reminiscent of ripe grapes covered in dark chocolate with a hint of nutty olive oil and drop of aged tamari. The richness, however, does not come at the cost of delicacy. The overall mouth feel was light and sweet. The flavors danced around my mouth with ethereal grace, and the lingering velvet aftertaste made me long for just one more cup. Thankfully the leaves, or lack there of (after all this tea is just tips), kept giving, brew after brew.
The Jing Gu Golden Strand has a beautiful appearance, a rich flavor, and an intoxicating aroma. Made with the finest tea buds and produced under the highest standards, this tea is close to a work of art. Although, it has only been in the last few years that this kind of tea has even been available. The combination of new technology, demand for high quality Yunnan tea, and the popularity of all-bud-teas like Silver Needle (a traditionally eastern Chinese specialty) has made the production of Jing Gu Golden Strand possible.In fact, both the Feng Qing Yunnan Gold and the Jing Gu Golden Strand are fairly new inventions. They are the result of years of plant varietal cultivation and production experimentation. A combination of modern Chinese style and skill with the raw materials of the ageless jungles of Yunnan. However, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the people of Yunnan have been making black tea a different way…Hand-made Wild Yunnan Hong Cha
Wild Yunnan Hong Cha – Fall 2010
This tea is all about purity and authenticity. Produced in the rural mountains of the Bu Lang region of Yunnan, harvested only from wild, old growth tea trees, and manufactured completely by hand, this brand new addition to Stone Leaf is a gorgeous example of traditional tea making skills at work.
The dry leaf has a bold appearance compared to the previously discussed black teas. The leaves of the Wild Yunnan Hong Cha are much longer, wirier, and less tightly rolled. This more open leaf is a result of leaf selection and the hand-rolling process. It allows for slightly different oxidation and flavor development compared to machine rolled teas.
To brew this tea, I decided to use every hard working tea farmer’s best friend, a gai wan. This lidded bowl (literal translation) is one of the most common tea brewing vessels in China and is used at many homes, tea shops, and farms in Yunnan. As they often do in Yunnan, I stuffed the gai wan overflowingly full with the unruly,
tangled tea leaves. I gave the leaves a quick wash with hot water, filled the gai wan again and let the first infusion steep about 20 seconds before pouring off the tea into a glass pitcher.
The first brew was a sparkling reddish brown. The aroma was subtle but captivating. The suggestion of sandalwood smoke was followed by a rich raisin and fig fruitiness with a hint of exotic spices. The flavor was malty with a bit of woody tannins and a refreshing herbal aftertaste reminiscent of some loose leaf pu-er teas. The chocolate flavors, characteristic of many Yunnan black teas, came through with a slightly bitter, dark chocolate note. There is something distinctly raw and wild about this tea that makes it unmistakably from Yunnan.
The jam packed gai wan really allowed for multiple infusions. The second and third brews were deeper and darker than the first. The sweetness had come to the front and was complimented by a foundation of full bodied earthiness. The leaves kept giving, and the tea stood up well to several hours of extended teadrinking. The flavors mellowed and blended, but the tea remained full and smooth, and it actually started to remind me of a slightly spicy and delightfully fruity, ripe pu-er.
The beauty of the Hand-rolled Yunnan Black is in its simplicity and authenticity. A true labor of love by skilled craftspeople who care about making pure and honest tea. It has been hand plucked from old growth trees that have been cultivated for generations, hand processed in small workshops using traditional techniques, and packaged in hand made baskets made from sustainable materials. It doesn’t get any more genuine than this – some leaves, a few delicate hands, a little hot water, and your cup.
In a world where producers like this seem few and far between, it is also increasingly more possible to make informed decisions about where the tea you drink comes from, how it is made, and who makes it. The Wild Yunnan Hong Cha is a tea with old world charm that you can feel good about in a modern world. Simple and elegant, it exudes a true tea aesthetic and reminds me of how many people have drank great tea in simple villages on far away mountain sides.
All three of these great teas really showcase the power, grace, and magic of this special corner of China. There are countless amazing teas coming out of Yunnan these days, but the Yunnan Gold, Golden Strand, and Wild Yunnan Hong Cha make for a great starting point to a limitless adventure!
If you are interested in learning more about these or other great teas, stop by our shop in Middlebury, VT!